Pope Francis was named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year today, a decision that is eliciting cheers from Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the globe. But while many progressives have championed the current pope for his relatively liberal statements on issues such as homosexuality and income inequality, some argue that his accomplishments thus far have been more about tone than substance. Sure, he’s said some promising things, but what has the pope actually done this year?
Granted, Francis has been in power for less than a year, a short amount of time for any high-level office, much less one that oversees a billions-strong institution that is notorious for being agonizingly slow to change. Yet the pope has actually already enacted several substantive reforms during his first few months as pontiff, many of which fall in line with progressive values and stand to better the lives of millions.
Here are a few:
1) Tackling financial corruption. Francis has shown himself to be unflinching when it comes to tackling financial corruption. Shortly after assuming the papacy, he set up an expansive inquiry into The Vatican Bank, otherwise known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR, that has long been seen by many in Europe as a secretive tax and money laundering operation. Francis charged investigators with deciding whether the bank is capable of meeting European standards — including transparency — that would allow the Vatican to continue using the Euro. The pope’s committee, which threatened to overhaul or even shut down the bank, has already produced results: the IOR released its first annual report in its 125-year history earlier this year, and a European committee charged with evaluating the Vatican’s financial reforms gave a positive report last week on the bank’s progress.
Francis’ financial reforms have not been without controversy. There are, for instance, reports that the pope is now at risk of an assassination attempt by the Italian mafia for tackling corruption. Yet the pontiff continues to be stalwart on the issue of bank reform, and even recently appointed his personal secretary and “right-hand man” to oversee ongoing investigations.
2) Laying out a sweeping vision for economic justice. Last month Pope Francis unveiled his first Apostolic Exhortation, a 50,000-word statement entitled “Evangelii Gaudium” that offered a lengthy defense of the poor and an equally lengthy critique of the excesses of free-market capitalism. The document demanded the church live “out on the streets,” specifically called on world leaders to care for the poor, and dismissed “trickle-down” economics as factually unproven.
While the document isn’t an agenda in the traditional sense, it does outline the theological and moral grounding for positions on economic policies around the world. This is especially significant given that papal exhortations usually dictate how the church spends its vast financial resources and global political clout. Taken together with the pope’s recent proclamation that the church has become too “obsessed” with issues such as contraception and abortion, the new document could signal a shift on how the Vatican plans to target its influence in the future.
What’s more, given the pope’s global reach as a moral leader, just talking about economic inequality can spur change. Indeed, President Barack Obama even quoted the document while delivering a recent speech that outlined his own economic agenda, citing the pope’s “eloquent” question, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
3) Suspending the “Bling Bishop.” Francis’ has famously insisted on living a humble life, and has urged the rest of the church hierarchy to follow suit — or else. When reports came in of extremely lavish spending by German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Pope Francis wasted little time exacting the powers of church discipline. The bishop, who let the cost of renovating his residence and other church buildings balloon to more than $41 million (including a $20,000 bathtub), was called to Rome by Francis to defend his opulence. Just two days later he was stripped of his position on the grounds that he “currently cannot exercise his office.”
4) Calling an extraordinary synod on family issues. The Vatican announced in June that Pope Francis was making preparations for an “extraordinary synod” that would tackle “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” — a long-winded name for a gathering of high-ranking bishops that aims to tackle hot-button issues such as marriage equality, contraception, and divorce. Granted, the synod, while uncommon, is primarily advisory, and isn’t set up to change church teaching. Yet the fact that the pope is even discussing these issues so soon in his papacy exposes the potential for change — indeed, in the bureaucratic behemoth that is The Vatican, this could very well be what change looks like.
5) Polling the world’s Catholics. As part of the lead up to the extraordinary synod on family issues, Francis has instructed bishops worldwide to fill out a survey explaining what their parishioners think about various family issues, including marriage equality, divorce, and contraception. The move may not seem ground-breaking at first glance (why wouldn’t a leader want to know what his followers think?) but it belies a potentially transformative shift in how the Catholic Church decides church policy. By expending church resources to essentially poll the world’s one billion lay Catholics, the pope is signaling that the laity’s opinion matters on these issues. This is even more groundbreaking when one considers the fact that large percentages — if not the growing majority — of Catholic parishioners already openly espouse progressive religious views that contradict church teaching on issues of marriage equality, contraception, and divorce.
It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will turn his more welcoming statements on issues such as gay marriage and women’s role within the Catholic Church, and progressives are right to want to see proof. In the meantime, however, it’s worth noting that when it comes to issues of corruption, economic inequality, and the role of lay people in decision-making, Francis is already practicing what he preaches.
Alyssa Rosenberg argues that the pope’s most substantive accomplishments are yet to come.
Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. Follow them on Twitter @CAPfaith.