Pope Francis is one of the most popular religious leaders in the world, with a fan base that stretches far beyond the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church. His admirers include millions of worshippers in other faith traditions, as well as millions of people who are not religious. Pope Francis is popular for many reasons: He is joyful, nonjudgmental, loving, smart, humorous, self-aware, humble, inclusive, and unpredictable. In other words, one thing the pope is not is a politician.
However, this does not mean that Pope Francis shies away from politics. In fact, he has been a strong proponent of civic engagement and—to the surprise of many—unguarded about commenting on political issues. Since the early days of his papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on Catholics to engage in politics as a vehicle to build more just societies. “We need to participate for the common good,” he said in a morning meditation in September 2013. “Sometimes we hear: a good Catholic is not interested in politics. This is not true: good Catholics immerse themselves in politics by offering the best of themselves so that the leader can govern.”
Pope Francis has urged his followers to participate in politics to fight apathy and has said that authentic faith is accompanied by a desire to transmit its values. He has even called politics the most important of all civil activities, referring to it as a “lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity” when it pursues the common good.
Pope Francis’s political commentary does not stop at encouraging civic engagement. Voters do not abdicate their values when entering the voting booth, and Pope Francis is arming willing listeners with plenty of values to consider when they cast their votes. In candid interviews, regular speaking engagements, and formal writings, the pope has weighed in on numerous, pressing political issues: He has called for more eco-conscious development practices; prayed for greater respect for the beliefs of others; demanded an end to the dual sins of global food insecurity and wasted food; and entreated the international community to take urgent action to protect migrants and refugees. He decries all violence, pleading, “Never war! Never war! … Stop it, please! I beg you with all my heart! … Let’s remember that everything is lost with war and nothing is lost with peace.”
In his November 2013 papal exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis lifted up three particular political issues: work, education, and health care. He warned against an economy of exclusion and bemoaned unemployment, unjust wages, and exploitative corporate policies that prioritize profits over the rights of workers. While he praised advances in the health care and education fields, he warned that a lack of access to either is detrimental to human rights.
As Pope Francis recently said, “A good teacher does not get lost in the details, but points to what is essential.” While religious leaders such as Pope Francis may not tell people who to vote for, their guidance can help people of faith and conscience reflect on the values behind policies, allowing them to think more critically and engage more actively in the political process. The words and writings of leaders can inspire voters to ask: Does this candidate represent my values? Do these policies resonate with my core beliefs?
Pope Francis’s support for faithful civic engagement is particularly poignant when he calls for the restoration of human dignity to the center of decision making. Political campaigns are buoyed by millions of dollars from the wealthiest contributors and driven by teams of data analysts who harness the power of new media: They produce a seemingly endless stream of ads that inundate voters with taglines and slogans. But Pope Francis invites a quieter, more thoughtful contemplation of what is really at stake in our politics. He calls for a rejection of the total autonomy of economic markets and the idolatry of profits and declares that, “Money must serve, not rule!” He begs people to look away from technology and to pursue a culture of encounter in order “to build a network not of wires but of people.”
While many pundits on both the right and left, from author Peggy Noonan to Sister Jeannine Gramick, have tried to claim that Pope Francis shares their views, the reality is that—like all great faith leaders—he challenges everyone. Faith best serves as a prophetic witness, not as a narrow political calculus. Faith teachings help us envision a more humane, just, and merciful world; they expand our moral imagination to see the full impact of massive economic inequality, students and families drowning in debt, people dying without access to adequate health care, and atrocities around the globe. Faith leaders also help us see beyond these things, to a world without such suffering. The pope entreats us all to shirk cynicism for joy and to build communities that are strong enough to endure and to outlast the challenges of the day.
In this election season—with polarizing issues at the forefront of the national dialogue—being a critical consumer of political news and a thoughtfully engaged voter is vitally important to strengthen our communities. With this in mind, in the weeks leading up to the election, the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative will examine three issues that Pope Francis is highlighting in his papacy—work, education, and health care. We will use his statements, and the moral philosophy in which they are grounded, as a lens to reflect on voters’ opportunities to, as Pope Francis says, “be builders of the world, to work for a better world.”
Claire Markham is the Outreach Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.