- Calls on America to welcome illegal immigrants fleeing persecution in their homelands
- Characterizes capitalism as an economic system “where the powerful feed upon the powerless,” and which leads inevitably to “the greedy exploitation of environmental resources”
- Asserts that the “inequality” inherent in capitalist economies constitutes “the root of social ills” and “eventually engenders … violence”
- Believes that “the bulk of global warming” is due to “the great concentration of greenhouse gases” generated by “human action”
- Opposes the death penalty and life-in-prison
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 17, 1936, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1969. He later served as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998-2013, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church of Argentina from 2001-13, and President of the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina from 2005-11. On March 13, 2013, Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff. From that platform, he has been outspoken on a number of social and political issues.
Immigration and Refugee Migration
- In July 2013, Francis urged compassion for the many thousands of Muslim migrants from Tunisia and Libya who, fleeing the violence in their respective homelands, were boarding unstable, overcrowded boats and attempting to reach the island of Lampedusa—Italy’s southernmost territory—across the Mediterranean Sea. In light of the many deaths and drownings that occurred whenever these vessels capsized, Francis impugned Europeans for having “lost a sense of brotherly responsibility” to these “brothers and sisters of ours.”
- In July 2014, when scores of thousands of Central American minors were migrating illegally into the southern United States, Francis decried the situation as a “humanitarian emergency” which required, “as a first urgent measure,” that “these children be welcomed and protected”—at American taxpayer expense. Moreover, he characterized America’s treatment of illegal immigrants generally as “racist and xenophobic.”
- In January 2015, Francis told reporters that, as “a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants,” he hoped to someday ceremoniously “enter the United States from the border with Mexico.”
- During his September 2015 visit to the United States, Francis referred to illegal immigrants as “pilgrims,” saying: “I ask you to excuse me if in some way I am pleading my own case. The Church in the United States knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these ‘pilgrims.’ … Offer them the warmth of the love of Christ and you will unlock the mystery of their heart. I am certain that, as so often in the past, these people will enrich America and its Church.”
- In September 2015, Pope Francis issued a broad appeal to Europe’s Catholics, calling on “every” parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family—of whom the vast majority were Muslims from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world. By contrast, never during his papacy had Francis issued a similar call to protect the vast numbers of Christians who were being persecuted in Muslim lands.
- In a September 2015 interview, Pope Francis identified economic inequality as the root cause of the refugee crisis that was engulfing Europe with hundreds of thousands of Muslims from oppressive, war-torn regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Said Francis: “These poor people are fleeing war, hunger, but that is the tip of the iceberg. Because underneath that is the cause; and the cause is a bad and unjust socioeconomic system, in everything, in the world—speaking of the environmental problem—in the socioeconomic society, in politics, the person always has to be in the center. That is the dominant economic system nowadays, it has removed the person from the center, placing the god money in its place, the idol of fashion. There are statistics, I don’t remember precisely, (I might have this wrong), but that 17% of the world’s population has 80% of the wealth.”
- On January 17, 2016, Pope Francis delivered a message for The World Day of Migrants and Refugees. He emphasized how important it was for Western nations to shed their own prejudicial and xenophobic impulses, and to welcome migrants and refugees from Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa. He suggested that the cultural exchanges brought about by such migrations had the potential to “transfor[m] the whole of humanity” in a positive way. And he said that a more “equitable distribution of the earth’s goods” could go a long way toward alleviating the need for any future mass migrations. Among the pope’s remarks:
- “Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources which are meant to be equitably shared by all….Those who migrate are forced to change some of their most distinctive characteristics and, whether they like or not, even those who welcome them are also forced to change…. The presence of migrants and refugees seriously challenges the various societies which accept them. Those societies are faced with new situations which could create serious hardship unless they are suitably motivated, managed and regulated. How can we ensure that integration will become mutual enrichment, open up positive perspectives to communities, and prevent the danger of discrimination, racism, extreme nationalism or xenophobia?Biblical revelation urges us to welcome the stranger; it tells us that in so doing, we open our doors to God, and that in the faces of others we see the face of Christ himself…. Yet there continue to be debates about the conditions and limits to be set for the reception of migrants, not only on the level of national policies, but also in some parish communities whose traditional tranquility seems to be threatened…. Each of us is responsible for his or her neighbor: we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. Concern for fostering good relationships with others and the ability to overcome prejudice and fear are essential ingredients for promoting the culture of encounter … Solidarity, cooperation, international interdependence and the equitable distribution of the earth’s goods are essential for more decisive efforts, especially in areas where migration movements begin, to eliminate those imbalances which lead people, individually or collectively, to abandon their own natural and cultural environment… Public opinion also needs to be correctly formed, not least to prevent unwarranted fears and speculations detrimental to migrants….”
- In February 2016, Francis visited Mexico and lamented the “humanitarian crisis” on America’s southern border. Just prior to celebrating a Mass before a crowd of some 200,000 people along the banks of the Rio Grande, the pontiff faced a number of makeshift crosses that had been erected in memory of migrants who had died attempting to cross into the United States, and he prayed for those people. He then turned toward a group of several hundred illegal immigrants standing across the river in El Paso, Texas, and issued his blessing to them. Later, when the pope was returning to Rome, reporters asked him to comment on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who had spoken forcefully about the need to deport illegal immigrants and build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Francis replied: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.” Soon thereafter, a spokesman for Francis clarified the pope’s remarks: “The Pope said what we already know, if we followed his teaching and positions: we shouldn’t build walls, but bridges. It’s his generic view, coherent with the nature of solidarity from the gospel. This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for…”
- In a March 2016 speech to an audience of French Christians, Pope Francis predicted that as a result of the migrant influx into Europe, the continent would eventually “go forward and find itself enhanced by the exchange among cultures.”
- During his Urbi et Orbi address from St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter Sunday 2016, Francis urged Christians to reach out to refugees from Syria, Libya, and Yemen. “The Easter message of the risen Christ,” he said, is “a message of life for all humanity, echoes down the ages and invites us not to forget those men and women seeking a better future, an ever more numerous throng of migrants and refugees — including many children — fleeing from war, hunger, poverty and social injustice. All too often, these brothers and sisters of ours meet along the way with death or, in any event, rejection by those who could offer them welcome and assistance…. All of us together, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelical [Protestants] brothers and sisters — children of the same God — we want to live in peace, integrated.” The “blind and brutal violence” of terrorism, he added, should be fought with “weapons of love.”
- On July 27, 2016 in Poland, Francis urged that nation’s political leaders to “overcome fear” and to demonstrate “great wisdom and compassion” by welcoming the many Muslims who were fleeing conflict and hardship in places like Syria and North Africa. Noting that many Poles themselves had once been immigrants, the pope emphasized the need to understand the reasons that were now causing the new wave of migrants to leave their homelands. “We must not be afraid to say the truth,” he declared, “the world is at war because it has lost peace. When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it’s the others who want war…. Needed is a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”
- In September 2016, Pope Francis said that authentic European hospitality to Middle Eastern and North African refugees could be “our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.” He added: “I encourage you to welcome refugees into your homes and communities, so that their first experience of Europe is not the traumatic experience of sleeping cold on the streets, but one of warm welcome…. [Each refugee] has a name, a face and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future” for their children.
- When President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 his plan to take a far weaker stance than he had previously pledged to take vis-à-vis former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, Francis complained that even Trump’s mild proposal was excessively harsh. DACA had granted hundreds of thousands of young illegal aliens in the United States temporary legal status, work permits, access to certain publicly funded social services, and protection from deportation. Trump’s plan was to wind down the program over the ensuing six months, and to thereby give Congress time “to legalize DACA” in the form of legislation that he could sign. “I am not going to just cut DACA off,” said Trump, “but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act.” Trump’s proposal also allowed any DACA recipients whose permits were slated to expire before March 5, 2018, an opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal. But Francis objected to Trump’s plan on grounds that it would “remov[e] young people from their family.” Noting that Trump “presents himself as a pro-life man,” Francis added: “If he is a good pro-lifer, he should understand that the family is the cradle of life and you must defend its unity.”
- In November 2017, Francis lamented that many countries around the world had recently seen “the spread of rhetoric decrying the risks posed to national security or the high cost of welcoming new [migrant] arrivals.” “Those who – for what may be political reasons – foment fear of migrants instead of building peace,” he added, “are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia, which are matters of great concern for all those concerned for the safety of every human being.”
- In an April 2019 Vatican address to students and faculty of the San Carlo school of Milan, Francis said: (a) “We must not be afraid of the water of life, of this multiethnicity, of this multiculturalism, and here I touch on a sore topic: don’t be afraid of migrants.” (b) “Migrants are those who always bring us riches. Europe itself was made by migrants! The barbarians, the Celts … All these came from the north and brought their cultures with them. Europe grew in this way, with the contrast of cultures.” (c) “[B]uilders of walls, whether they are of razor-wire or brick, will become prisoners of the walls they build. That’s history.” (d) “Today there is the temptation to make a culture of walls, to erect walls, walls in the heart, walls in the earth to prevent an encounter with other cultures, with other people. And whoever erects a wall, whoever builds a wall will end up as a slave inside the walls he built, without horizons. Because he lacks this otherness.” (e) “If I have a racist heart, I have to examine why and convert. Migrants must be received, accompanied, integrated. Let them receive our values and let us receive theirs, an exchange of values…. [B]uilding walls is useless.”
- When Mexican reporter Valentina Alazraki asked Pope Francis what he thought of President Trump’s proposed border wall, and of children being separated from their illegal-alien parents at the border, the pope replied:
- “I do not know what is going on with this new culture that defends territories by building a wall. We already dealt with one, the one in Berlin, which brought us enough headaches and enough suffering.” But it seems that man does what animals do not do, right? Man is the only animal that falls into the same hole twice. We are repeating the same thing, right? Building walls as if that were a defense.”
- “And separating kids from their parents goes against the natural law, and those are Christians. But they cannot really be. It’s cruel. It falls into the greatest cruelty. To defend what? The territory or the economy of the country or who knows what, right?… Whoever builds walls ends up as a prisoner of the walls he has built.”
Capitalism & Economic Inequality
In November 2013, Francis released the first major document of his papacy—a 67-page Apostilic Exhortation titled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which characterized capitalism as an economic system where “exclusion and inequality” are ubiquitous; “where the powerful feed upon the powerless”; and where the “idolotry of money” has degraded the human heart. Some additional noteworthy excerpts:
- “Such an economy kills…. This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
- “[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase.”
- “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
- “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility…. [T]he socioeconomic system is unjust at its root…. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve.”
“The problems of the poor,” says Francis, must be “radically resolved” by: (a) “rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation,” (b) “attacking the structural causes of inequality” which “is the root of social ills,” and (c) rejecting “the conservative ideal of individualism,” which “is undermining the common good.” What is needed, he explains, is a “radical new financial and economic system” designed to “avoid human inequality and ecological devastation.” Because “we can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market,” genuine “growth in justice” requires not merely economic growth, but also “a better distribution of income” and a “legitimate redistribution” of wealth.
In a June 2014 interview, Francis said: “We are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up any more, a system that to survive, must make war, as all great empires have done. But as a third world war can’t be waged, they make regional wars … they produce and sell weapons, and with this, the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money, are resolved …”
Francis took up these themes again in a July 2015 speech in Bolivia, saying: “Colonialism, old and new, which reduces the poor to mere suppliers of raw materials and cheap labor, generates violence, poverty, forced migration, and all the evils that we can see. This led to inequity and violence that no police, military or intelligence services can stop. Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money. We say ‘no’ to an economy of exclusion and inequity where money dominates instead of serving. This economy kills. This economy is exclusionary. This plan destroys Mother Earth.”
In the same speech, Francis quoted a fourth-century bishop in describing the unfettered pursuit of money as “the dung of the devil.” He said he supported activist efforts to obtain “so elementary and undeniably necessary a right as that of the three ‘Ls’: land, lodging and labour.” Denouncing a system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” Francis added: “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.” He also decried “the new colonialism” which “takes on different faces” such as “the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
The pope’s speech in Bolivia was preceded by lengthy remarks from the country’s Marxist quasi-dictator, Evo Morales, who wore a jacket adorned with the face of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. At one point, Morales presented the pope with a gift: a carved wooden hammer-and-sickle cross bearing the figure of a crucified Christ. When Francis was later asked whether he felt troubled in any way by the gift, he replied that he intended to keep it, saying: “I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense.”
In a May 17, 2016 interview with the French Catholic daily La Croix, Francis issued a criticism of free-market economies: “The initial problems are the wars in the Middle East and in Africa as well as the underdevelopment of the African continent, which causes hunger…. If there is so much unemployment, it is because of a lack of investment capable of providing employment, of which Africa has such a great need. More generally, this raises the question of a world economic system that has descended into the idolatry of money. The great majority of humanity’s wealth has fallen into the hands of a minority of the population. A completely free market does not work. Markets in themselves are good but they also require a fulcrum, a third party, or a state to monitor and balance them. In other words, [what is needed is] a social market economy.”
In a November 1, 2018 appearance on the NBC television program Late-Night, filmmaker Michael Moore told host Seth Meyers that he had recently had the following exchange with Pope Francis: “I went to the weekly audience, and then he asked to speak to me privately. It was an amazing moment, and I asked him if I could ask him a question. And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Do you believe that an economic system that benefits the few, the wealthy at the expense of the many is a sin?’ And he said to me, ‘Si’ in Italian. And I said, ‘So you believe capitalism, the kinda — the capitalism we have now is a sin?’ He goes, ‘Yes, it is.’ He said, ‘The poor must always come first.’ And then he grabbed my hand and he said, ‘Please, pray for me.’ And I said, ‘I will, and please pray for me.’ And he said, ‘No, you have to make more movies.’ And I’m like, ‘I just wanted a prayer.’ He’s like, ‘No, you go back to — you go back work.’ He has a sense of humor.”
In June 2015, Francis released the first-ever papal encyclical devoted entirely to environmental issues. Lamenting that industrial pollution was causing great damage to “our oppressed and devastated earth,” he claimed that “plenty of scientific studies” had already attributed “the bulk of global warming” to “the great concentration of greenhouse gases” generated by “human action.” “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us,” wrote Francis. As a remedy, the pope proposed an increased reliance on “renewable energy sources” such as wind and solar: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.” Moreover, he exhorted the wealthy to take “urgent action” to “change [their] lifestyles” and their reckless “consumption” patterns.
The pope’s encyclical also framed environmental concerns as legitimate justifications for a massive, compensatory redistribution of wealth from prosperous, industrialized countries to poorer ones: “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.”
In a February 17, 2017 speech, Francis warned that “the ecological crisis” caused by anthropogenic climate change “is real,” and that “a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.” Claiming that catastrophe could result if “we deny science and disregard the voice of Nature,” he said: “Let us not fall into denial. Time is running out. Let us act. I ask you again—all of you, people of all backgrounds including native people, pastors, political leaders—to defend Creation.” The root of the problem, the pope added, was “a social and political process that flourishes in many parts of the world and poses a grave danger for humanity”—an apparent reference to capitalism and industrialization.
At a March 2017 workshop on biodiversity and biological extinction, environmentalist Peter Raven stated that “Pope Francis has urged us to have fewer children to make the world more sustainable.” At the same workshop, Dr. Paul Ehrlich presented a paper arguing that Catholic teachings about birth control and abortion had resulted in a “collective failure” to reduce the world’s population.
In September 2017, in the immediate aftermath of four hurricanes that had formed in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico regions, reporters asked Pope Francis about climate change and the role it may have played in the development of those storms. He replied, “Those who deny this must go to the scientists and ask them. They speak very clearly.” Asserting that politicians as well as ordinary citizens had a “moral responsibility” to do whatever they could to reduce the impacts of climate change, the pope added: “These aren’t opinions pulled out of thin air. They are very clear. Then they [political leaders] decide, and history will judge those decisions.” When asked also to comment on those who denied the alleged ramifications of climate change, Francis responded by citing an Old Testament passage: “Man is stupid.” “When you don’t want to see, you don’t see,” he said.
In anticipation of the upcoming U.N. Climate Action Summit which was scheduled to be held in New York on September 23, 2019, Pope Francis on September 1 released a written message exhorting people to “reflect on our lifestyles,” to not “act like tyrants with regards to creation,” and to take “prophetic actions” aimed at saving the planet. “Now is the time to abandon our dependence on fossil fuels and move, quickly and decisively, towards forms of clean energy and a sustainable and circular economy,” wrote the pope. “Let us also learn to listen to indigenous peoples, whose age-old wisdom can teach us how to live in a better relationship with the environment…. We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.”
In a November 2019 address to the International Association of Penal Law in Rome, Pope Francis announced that in order to combat climate change, “we have to introduce, we are thinking about it, in the catechism of the Catholic Church, the sin against ecology, the sin against our common home, because it’s a duty.”
In an interview in April 2020, while most nations around the world were battling a deadly coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis characterized the crisis as one of “nature’s responses” to mankind’s failure to adequately respond to recent “partial catastrophes” caused by “climate change.” Said Francis: “There is an expression in Spanish: ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives.’ […] Who now speaks of the fires in Australia, or remembers that 18 months ago a boat could cross the North Pole because the glaciers had all melted? Who speaks now of the floods? I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.” He then proceeded to say he believed that the pandemic might inspire people to change their priorities, lifestyles, and economic systems:
“Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.
“Yes, I see early signs of an economy that is less liquid, more human. But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time.
“And speaking of contemplation, I’d like to dwell on one point. This is the moment to see the poor. […] We disempower the poor. We don’t give them the right to dream of their mothers. They don’t know what affection is; many live on drugs. And to see them can help us to discover the piety, the pietas, which points towards God and towards our neighbour. […] What we are living now is a place of metanoia [conversion], and we have the chance to begin.”
Strongly opposed to the death penalty, Francis says “it is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor.” “The commandment ‘You shall not kill,’” he maintains, “has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” Francis also urges “all Christians and people of good will” to “struggle … to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.” “And this,” the pope adds, “I connect with life imprisonment. Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.” By Francis’s calculus, maximum-security prisons represent a form of torture, since their “principal characteristic is none other than external isolation” which can trigger “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide.”
In 2015, Francis wrote that “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.” The death penalty, he added, “entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”
In August 2018, Francis approved a revision to the Catholic Church Catechism’s position on capital punishment. The new text read: “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
In May 2015, Francis and the Vatican invited Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of the pro-Marxist liberation theology movement which previous popes had rejected, to speak to the press about ministering to the poor. In addition, Gutierrez was asked to write an article in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. In light of these developments, Gutierrez happily speculated that Pope Francis seemed to be opening the Vatican’s door to supporters of liberation theology. According to philosophy professor Jack Kerwick: “The closest Francis has come to criticizing communism is when he articulated a heavily qualified criticism” of what he called liberation theology’s “Marxist interpretation of reality,” which the pope described as a “limitation” on a system of thought that otherwise had numerous “positive aspects.”
In the fall of 2014, Francis played a role in facilitating the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. According to a statement issued by the Vatican, the pope at that time wrote a personal letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and a separate letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro, inviting both leaders to try to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.”
When Pope Francis visited Cuba in September 2015, he met with that nation’s president (Raul Castro) as well as many priests, churchgoers, seminarians, children, and sick people. But he did not meet with Cuba’s dissidents, who, as the Washington Post reports, “have fought tirelessly for democracy and human rights, and who continue to suffer regular beatings and arrests.”
Islam & Terrorism
During the course of his papacy, Francis has taken pains to issue positive portrayals of Islam. For instance, in late 2014—at a time when Islamic State and other Muslim militants were torturing and killing massive numbers of Christians in Nigeria, Indonesia, Somalia, Libya, Central African Republic, Uganda, Lebanon, Kenya, Pakistan, Sudan, and Iraq—he spoke positively of the Islamic faith:
- “Islam is a religion of peace, one which is compatible with respect for human rights and peaceful coexistence.”
- “[O]ur respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”
On July 31, 2016, a few days after a jihadist had beheaded an elderly Catholic priest in France, Pope Francis said the following about the correlation between Islam and terrorism:
- “It’s not true and it’s not correct [to say] Islam is terrorism. I don’t think it is right to equate Islam with violence…. In almost every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. We have them too. If I have to talk about Islamic violence, I have to talk about Christian violence. Every day in the newspapers I see violence in Italy, someone kills his girlfriend, another kills his mother-in-law, and these are baptised Catholics.”
- “I think it is not right to identity Islam with violence. This is not right and this is not true.”
- “I think that in nearly all religions there is a always a small fundamentalist group. We [Catholics] have them [too].”
- “I don’t like to talk about Islamic violence because every day when I look at the papers I see violence here in Italy — someone killing his girlfriend, someone killing his mother-in-law. These are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent.”
- “I know it dangerous to say this, but terrorism grows when there is no other option and when money is made a god and it, instead of the person, is put at the centre of the world economy. That is the first form of terrorism. That is a basic terrorism against all humanity. Let’s talk about that.”
- “I ask myself how many young people that we Europeans have left devoid of ideals, who do not have work. Then they turn to drugs and alcohol or enlist in ISIS.”
In a May 17, 2016 interview with the French Catholic daily La Croix, Pope Francis acknowledged that the “idea of conquest is inherent to the soul of Islam,” and then immediately added that “one could also interpret the end of Saint Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus sends out his disciples to all nations, as the same idea of conquest. “In the face of Islamic terrorism,” he added, “it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way in an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed. Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account. As a Libyan said recently, ‘We used to have one Gaddafi, now we have fifty.’”
On May 23, 2016 at the Vatican, Pope Francis embraced his honored guest Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning in Cairo. According to the Associated Press, this meeting “reopen[ed] an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.” Islam scholar Robert Spencer provides the background information regarding the chain of events that had led to the meeting:
“Why has there been this ‘five-year lull’? Because [according to the AP,] ‘the Cairo-based Al-Azhar froze talks with the Vatican to protest comments by then-Pope Benedict XVI.’ What did Benedict say? Andrea Gagliarducci of the Catholic News Agency explains that after a jihad terrorist murdered 23 Christians in a church in Alexandria 2011, Benedict decried ‘terrorism’ and the ‘strategy of violence’ against Christians, and called for the Christians of the Middle East to be protected…. Ahmed al-Tayeb … was furious. He railed at Benedict for his ‘interference’ in Egypt’s affairs and warned of a ‘negative political reaction’ to the Pope’s remarks. In a statement, Al-Azhar denounced the Pope’s ‘repeated negative references to Islam and his claims that Muslims persecute those living among them in the Middle East.’ Benedict stood his ground, and that was that.
“But in September 2013, Al-Azhar announced that Pope Francis had sent a personal message to al-Tayeb. In it, according to Al-Azhar, Francis declared his respect for Islam and his desire to achieve ‘mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.’ At the same time, al-Tayeb met with the Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, Mgr. Jean-Paul Gobel, and told him in no uncertain terms that speaking about Islam in a negative manner was a ‘red line’ that must not be crossed… That strongly suggests that the ‘dialogue’ that Pope Francis has now reestablished will not be allowed to discuss the Muslim persecution of Christians that will escalate worldwide, especially since an incidence of that persecution led to the suspension of dialogue in the first place. What’s more, his dialogue partner, al-Tayeb, has shown himself over the years to be anything but a preacher of peace, cooperation and mercy: he has justified anti-Semitism on Qur’anic grounds … Al-Azhar was also revealed to be offering free copies of a book that called for the slaughter of Christians and other Infidels.”
In a February 17, 2017 speech to a world meeting of populist movements, Pope Francis—on the premise that all religions promote peace and are equally susceptible to being perverted by radicals—denied that terrorism is in any way connected to Islam or any other faith: “Christian terrorism does not exist, Jewish terrorism does not exist, and Muslim terrorism does not exist. They do not exist.” “No people is criminal or drug-trafficking or violent,” he said, adding: “There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions—and with intolerant generalizations they become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia.” By the pope’s calculus, terrorism results principally from economic inequalities rather than religious beliefs: “The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence yet, without equal opportunities, the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and will eventually explode.”
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Pope Francis favors the establishment of an independent Palestinian state adjacent to Israel. In May 2014, for instance, the Associated Press reported that Francis had “delivered a powerful boost of support to the Palestinians during a Holy Land pilgrimage …, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel’s controversial separation barrier, and calling the stalemate in peace efforts ‘unacceptable.’” Moreover, the pope had pointedly called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “man of peace.” And the Vatican, in its official program, referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine.”
On June 26, 2015, the Vatican signed a treaty with the “State of Palestine,” in hopes that its legal recognition of the state “may in some way be a stimulus to bringing a definitive end to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to cause suffering for both parties.” The signatories were Vatican Foreign Minister Paul Gallagher, who issued the foregoing statement, and his Palestinian counterpart, Riad al-Malki. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon lamented that the treaty ignored “the historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and to the places holy to Judaism in Jerusalem.”
Iran Nuclear Deal
In September 2015, the Vatican reiterated its support for the nuclear deal that the U.S. and several negotiating partners had recently struck with the government of Iran. The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with the States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said that the Vatican “values positively” the nuclear accord because “it considers that the way to resolve disputes and difficulties should always be that of dialogue and negotiation.” In a September 2015 speech to the United Nations, Pope Francis himself praised the deal as “proof of political goodwill” and voiced his hope that the agreement would be “lasting and efficacious.”
The Catholic Church’s Sex-Abuse Scandals
In late February 2017, Francis, in accordance with his effort to create a more “merciful church,” reduced the punishments of a number of priests who had been convicted of sexual crimes like pedophilia. Overruling advice that he had been given by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he reduced the punishment for some offenders to a lifetime of prayer. As The Daily Mail reported: “One of the priests was the Reverend Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of abusing young boys by the Vatican in 2012 and was ordered to be defrocked. However, he appealed, and in 2014 Francis reduced the penalty to a lifetime of prayer, prohibiting him from celebrating Mass in public or being near children, barring him from his diocese and ordering five years of psychotherapy. Rev. Inzoli was then convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against five children as young as 12.”
In August 2018, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano claimed that Pope Francis had known about—and covered up—the wrongdoings of U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who stood accused of sexually harassing adult seminarians and abusing a child over a number of years. Vigano demanded that the pope resign. Hours after Vigano went public with his claim, Francis told journalists seeking his response that he “will not say a word” about the charges. In his homily during morning Mass on September 3, 2018, the Pope said: “With people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family – silence, prayer” was the correct response. “May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we should speak and when we should stay silent,” he added. “This applies to every part of life: to work, at home, in society.”
American Military / Nuclear Weapons
During a November 2019 visit to Nagasaki — one of two Japanese cities destroyed by American atomic bombs towards the end of World War II — Pope Francis condemned the “unspeakable horror” of nuclear weapons. Among his remarks were the following:
- “This place makes us deeply aware of the pain and horror that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.”
- “One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire; indeed they seem always to thwart it. Our world is marked by a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.”
- “Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation. They can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family of today and tomorrow.”
- “Here in this city which witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear attack, our attempts to speak out against the arms race will never be enough. The arms race wastes precious resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and to protect the natural environment. In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons, are an affront crying out to heaven.”
- “Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security. We need to ponder the catastrophic impact of their deployment, especially from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, and reject heightening a climate of fear, mistrust and hostility fomented by nuclear doctrines. The current state of our planet requires a serious reflection on how its resources can be employed in light of the complex and difficult implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in order to achieve the goal of an integrated human development. Saint Paul VI suggested as much in 1964, when he proposed the establishment of a Global Fund to assist those most impoverished peoples, drawn partially from military expenditures.”
On February 5, 2018, Pope Francis had a 50-minute, closed-door meeting at the Vatican with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan. During that sit-down, the pair discussed a number of matters including the ongoing Syrian civil war, the issue of refugees fleeing the Middle East, and the Trump administration’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a decision opposed by both Francis and Erdogan. At the time of Francis’s meeting with Erdogan, the latter’s forces were engaged in a protracted military offensive against Kurds in Syria — and stood accused of grave human rights abuses. After the meeting, the pope gifted Erdogan a bronze medallion bearing the image of an angel embracing the world while battling a dragon. “This is the angel of peace who strangles the demon of war,” Francis told Erdogan.
In a March 2018 interview with his longtime friend, the 93-year-old atheist philosopher Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis allegedly denied the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year-old doctrines affirming the reality of Hell and the eternal existence of the soul. In the course of the discussion, Scalfari said: “You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity…. Where are they punished?” Francis replied: “They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.” Further, the Pope allegedly stated that the word “revolutionary” is one which “honors me in the sense in which it is said.”
In response to the public uproar that was sparked by these quotes, the Vatican issued a statement saying that Scalfari, whose practice was to neither record nor transcribe what was said in his interviews, had not been “faithful” in his article to the Pope’s words. The National Catholic Register, meanwhile, reported that in previous interviews with Scalfari, the Pope had been quoted as saying that “it is the communists who think like Christians,” and that “there is no Catholic God.”
Condemning Christian Violence Against Muslims
In a November 2019 address to an Argentinian interreligious dialogue group, Pope Francis cited a scene from the 11th-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) to suggest that Christians at times had been guilty of religiously motivated violence against Muslims. “A scene from The Song of Roland comes to me as a symbol, when the Christians defeat the Muslims and line them up in front of the baptismal font, with one holding a sword,” he said. “And the Muslims had to choose between baptism or the sword. That is what we Christians did.”
But as an article in the French Catholic news site Riposte Catholique subsequently pointed out: “La Chanson de Roland is obviously not a historical chronicle of events, but an epic poem, a chanson de geste, the oldest and most complete manuscript, written in Anglo-Norman, and dates back to the early twelfth century, four centuries after the facts it is supposed to recount.” And while the Song of Roland was partly inspired by Charlemagne’s expedition to Spain in 778, that expedition was actually undertaken at the request of several Muslim governors of Spain; moreover, it was unsuccessful. “The memory of Pope Francis evoking the victory of the Franks over Muslims is therefore confused, because the expedition was not a victory,” said the piece in Riposte Catholique. “The fictitious case of the forced baptism of Muslims supposedly defeated after the capture of Zaragoza — which did not take place — is not historical, but is a pure imagination of the poet.” Moreover, contrary to the pope’s account, the original work does not even include a Christian holding a sword.
Likening President Trump to King Herod
In a December 2019 address to Jesuits in Thailand, Pope Francis compared U.S. President Donald Trump, who strongly favored the construction of a physical barrier to prevent illegal migration from Mexico into the southern United States, to the biblical King Herod who massacred innocent children in an effort to kill the baby Jesus. “In other parts there are walls that even separate children from parents. Herod comes to mind,” Francis said. “Yet for drugs, there’s no wall to keep them out. The phenomenon of migration is compounded by war, hunger and a ‘defensive mindset,’ which makes us in a state of fear believe that you can defend yourself only by strengthening borders…. The Christian tradition has a rich evangelical experience in dealing with the problem of refugees. We also remember the importance of welcoming the foreigner as the Old Testament teaches us.”
Silence Regarding Pro-Democracy Protesters in Hong Kong
In his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” message on Christmas Day 2019, Pope Francis cited a long list of trouble spots across the globe including “the Middle East,” the “beloved Syrian people,” “the Lebanese people,” “Iraq,” “Yemen,” “the whole American continent,” “the beloved Venezuelan people,” “beloved Ukraine,” “the people of Africa,” “the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” “Burkina Faso,” “Mali,” “Niger,” and “Nigeria.” He also made three separate, specific references to migrants worldwide. Yet Hong Kong, which for the preceding six months had been embroiled in an increasingly violent conflict between pro-democracy protesters and Communist China-backed government forces, received no acknowledgment whatsoever from the pope.
According to Vatican analyst Alban Mikozy, the pope’s silence on Hong Kong reflected his willingness to make compromises in order to avoid offending Chinese President Xi Jinping. This analysis was consistent with the fact that during an in-flight press conference about one month earlier, the pope had reiterated his desire to visit China while dodging questions about the Hong Kong protests. “I would like to go to Beijing,” Francis said. “I love China.” When the interviewer asked Francis specifically what he thought about the growing unrest in Hong Kong, the pope replied that the situation there was not unique and needed to be “relativized.” “It’s not just Hong Kong,” he said. “Think of Chile, think of France — the democratic France with a year of yellow vests — think of Nicaragua, think of the other Latin American countries, Brazil, which is struggling, and also any European country. It’s a generalized thing.”
- “Pope Francis’s ‘Holy War’ on Capitalism and Toxic Inequality” (MarketWatch.com, 11-18-2014); “Pope Francis’s Climate-Change Encyclical Will Launch a Revolution” (MarketWatch.com, 6-18-2015); “Dear Pope Francis, Catholicism Owes A Debt To Capitalism” (Forbes.com, 4-22-2015).