2013 has been, in many ways, the year of Pope Francis. The Vatican head of state and spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, Francis has time and again made clear that his papacy will be marked by openness, transformation, healing and by a renewed and explicit commitment to the foundational ethical principles of the Christian tradition: openness, compassion and selfless service.
At the outset, we asked in these pages whether Pope Francis would be a reformer, a democratizing leader, a revolutionary, or an enforcer of the old guard. There were indications that he would do things differently, and seek to emulate the philosophy and the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name he chose—the first pope ever to do so.
We wrote that:
The papacy of Pope Francis I is certain to be at once a more global papacy, and one which will require serious self criticism. It was even before it began, as the eyes of the world turned to St. Peter’s Square and the intrigue of the Conclave; people from around the world told the press and pushed the idea on social media that the Pope has an obligation to be a moral leader and a defender of all people everywhere.
And indeed, the world has been watching and that demand has been sustained. And Pope Francis has recognized the force and flavor of the historic moment, and has answered the call admirably. He has become a moral leader of global consequence, mainly by so boldly and naturally embodying that idea: that his position requires him to be a moral voice for and defender of all people everywhere.
Pope Francis has rejected the opulence and the trappings of power and prestige that come with his office, and has sought to align himself with the most vulnerable and defenseless people of the world. He has washed the feet of women (an act of generosity unfortunately until now barred by convention), of muslims, even of prisoners convicted of crimes. He embraced a man cruelly disfigured by a degenerative condition, and has offered his friendship and support to people in need across the world, making personal phone calls to some, meeting with others in person.
He has admonished world governments to reject the “sacralized” fiction of the prevailing system of “trickle-down” economics, saying the poor of the world are still waiting for the day when they will be lifted up. He has called on people everywhere to recognize, as he has, that one of the central lessons of the Book of Genesis is that human beings should use their intellect and their collaborative ability to cultivate and care for Creation.
He has called for deliberate and regular consulting of the “feminine genius” on matters of major consequence to the Church, and to the expression of its central teachings. He has suggested there is an element of hypocrisy in the obsession of many Catholics with matters of sexuality and contraception, where such issues may cause some to put aside their tolerance of difference or misfortune in others.
When asked about his views of homosexuality, Pope Francis shocked the world by saying, famously, that if a person believes, and is committed to the Church and to doing good works in the world, it would not be his place to pass judgment on their private sexuality. This extended to gay priests, and to the obligation to be tolerant of those who are different from us and whose personal preferences are different from ours.
On that note, Francis also has exhibited an amazing and historic ecumenism, calling on leaders from different faiths to pray together and to help build understanding and a shared experience of faith. He has even said he would welcome atheists into the Church. Specifically, he urged Catholic clergy to share the message that if one’s conscience brings them to atheism, then as a person of conscience and good will, this should be respected, and they should be welcomed as partners in the work of doing good in the world.
2013 saw the world community fail in many ways: The war in Syria could not be stopped, though intense diplomacy does appear to have averted a chemical genocide. Egypt and other nations have seen political oppression escalate, when it could have been left in the dustbin of history. The killing in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has still not ceased. South Sudan appears headed toward a civil war driven by mass killings in the name of ethnic cleansing.
There is still no global solution to the rapidly escalating climate crisis, and China has set new global all-time records for the worst air pollution ever witnessed by science. On some days, visibility has sunk to less than one meter and the air itself posed a genuine risk of suffocation to millions, shutting down whole cities. Sectarian killing in Iraq appears to be going on, unabated, while efforts to shore up some kind of transparent democratic system of government are losing steam.
Across Europe, youth unemployment continues to rise to catastrophic levels, putting the political and economic stability of some of the world’s most influential states at risk, and threatening the long-term potential for thriving of an entire generation, whose decisions and leadership will likely decide future history in serious ways. And with all of this on the radar, patience is being stressed in historic ways; citizens around the world are facing the choice between nonviolent rebellion, violent rebellion and despair.
Pope Francis seems to see all of this with a transcendent clarity of mind, and to have a specific message for any who might listen: all of these ills can be treated, and even reversed, and our wounds healed, if we begin to work together as a global community, with genuine hope and faith in one another’s decency. We need to make room for that possibility, or we will not succeed in achieving the best of our shared goals and moral visions.
As we move into 2014, just 9 months into the papacy of this principled, humane reformer of global vision, we need to understand why his message has been so resonant, why it is so much more than something going on within Catholicism, and then make the direct connection between the principles at work in his philosophy and the challenges we face as members of a global community.
Our species spans the globe; only a few others have so wide a range, and none know all that we know. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an independent body of world-leading scientists whose work is accepted by the Pontiff, reports that we now live in “the Anthropocene”, the geological epoch characterized by human activity determining the state of natural systems around the world.
If we align that finding with the Pope’s message of principled Creation Care, tolerance of difference and open collaboration even with those who reject our most cherished beliefs, then we can see a clear path ahead for our politics, our economics, our engineering and our efforts to resolve the world’s most intractable conflicts. Healing the planet, in all of these ways, requires starting inside the space of our own deep ethical sense, inside ourselves.
For his willingness to open new terrain outside the institutional comfort zone and to envision a more humane future, Pope Francis clearly deserves to be named TIME Magazine person of the year. By his words and by his example, he has already made himself one of the most consequential figures in the modern life of the Catholic Church.
We should be thankful that even as we have lost Nelson Mandela’s moral leadership to the passage of time, we have witnessed the emergence of a voice so resolute, so open to the demands of our contemporary condition, so willing to embrace what is true and honest and urgent in our human story. We at Independents of Principle wish Pope Francis great and lasting success in his efforts to build understanding and cooperation among people around the world, and we hope to see more of that spirit in the politics of our democracy.