ROME — A broad consensus regards Pope Francis, who today wraps up a five-day trip to Lisbon for World Youth Day, as a revolutionary figure. His ambitious change agenda over the last decade has aroused both delight and division, both inside and outside the Catholic Church.
However, the pontiff’s most recent blockbuster media interview – and the preponderance of such interviews is, itself, part of what makes him such an earthquake – offers a reminder that the real Francis revolution is ad extra, meaning outside the Church.
In a wide-ranging conversation with the Spanish platform Vida Nueva, perhaps the most telling line comes when the 86-year-old pontiff says candidly, “I know I’m a stone in the shoe for more than one [critic] … so they have to somehow drive away the pain of the stone.”
One might imagine the pope was referring to his intra-Catholic opposition. In fact, the comment came while discussing international policy.
Here’s the full version of the quote:
The political problem in Latin America is that there are times when countries reach the limit. Imperialism is very strong, and America is the victim of empires of all kinds. Faced with this, it is necessary to bet on a popular line, not popularist, in which the people are the true protagonists of the destiny. Instead, [an] empire overrides the people, takes away the independence of their hearts. What did our American heroes like Bolivar do? Liberate the peoples. But when the empires come… and Latin America is a victim of the empires. I speak badly of any empire, whatever the trend. For this reason, I know that I am a stone in the shoe for more than one when I report these situations, so they have to somehow drive away the pain of the stone.
While it’s technically true that Francis didn’t single out any specific empire in the passage, in the context of Latin America it seems reasonably clear he was referring primarily to the legacy of European colonialism and, more recent, the political hegemony of the United States. That impression is confirmed by the fact that in the very next paragraph, the pontiff focuses his criticism of imperialism on Europe.
Here’s the thing.
To be a “revolutionary” in the full sense, it’s not enough merely to be on one side or the other of pre-existing fault lines, even to lead one of those parties to final victory. A revolution is about changing the equation, rejecting the ways choices were posed in the past and creating an entirely new model.
Ad intra, meaning concerned with the internal affairs of Catholicism, Francis can be seen as a progressive in many ways, but not really a revolutionary. As he would be the first to tell you, in many ways he’s simply resurrecting an ecclesial agenda that’s been around in various forms since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, most elements of which were pioneered in Europe and North America – communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, for instance, was floated decades ago by theologians and pastors in Germany.
In the long history of the Catholic Church, alternating between papacies seen as “liberal” and “conservative” on doctrinal matters is hardly a novelty, and certainly not tantamount to a revolution.
On the other hand, another constant in that long history, at least for the last millennium or so, has been the association between the Catholic Church, especially its headquarters at the Vatican, and Western civilization. This is where the real Francis revolution is unfolding, because he’s fundamentally repositioning the Vatican and the Church outside the framework of thought that’s come to dominate the West left, right and center.
In that regard, the pontiff’s choice to compare himself, even indirectly, to the Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar is telling.
The clearest example of his revolution right now is with regard to Ukraine.
For American politicians of whatever stripe, the debate today isn’t over whether U.S.-style economic and political liberalism or Putin’s “managed democracy” is the more virtuous system, simply whether it’s in the national interest to be so heavily invested in this particular fight. More or less, that’s the common position across all NATO member states, where the moral superiority of Western secular democracy is taken for granted.
It’s that supposition which Pope Francis, with his innate skepticism about empires of all sorts, is challenging.
Recently, the renowned New York-based correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Federico Rampini, traveled to South Africa ahead of the looming summit of BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) later this month. While there, Rampini spoke to lots of voices from across the global south, political leaders and ordinary people alike, and reported that he collected a whole catalogue of grievances against the West.
Seen from the southern hemisphere, for example, there’s deep skepticism about the current sanctions being imposed on Russia, since the global banking and finance system hardly reacted the same way when the United States unilaterally invaded Iraq. Africans in particular resent the rise of anti-migrant populist nationalism in Europe and the US when, they say, it was the NATO role in deposing Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011 that helped create the present crisis. People from the global south also grouse that U.S. alarmism over Islamic terror overlooks the fact that it’s been the failure to do justice to the Palestinian cause that’s fueled much of that radicalism.
If all of that seems familiar, it should, because it’s reminiscent of things the Vatican under Pope Francis has either said out loud, or at least implied.
To be fair, some of the gravitation away from the Vatican’s traditional identity as a Western institution towards a more global outlook predates Francis. To a large extent it’s driven by demography, since by mid-century three-quarters of the world’s total Catholic population will live outside Europe and North America.
Still, Francis as history’s first pope from the global south has accelerated that transition to such an extent that it’s difficult to imagine ever going back. It’s not a matter of picking one side or another in political debates as defined by Western categories, but of rejecting those categories altogether. Westerners, perhaps especially Americans, simply are going to have to accept that in many important respects, the Vatican from here on out is not going to be on “our” side, or even necessarily speaking “our” language.
Yes, Pope Francis might represent a “stone in the shoe” for his ad intra opposition too, but it’s at least the sort of stone they’ve seen before. Ad extra, however, he’s more than a stone – he’s an avalanche.