Argentina’s Jose Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, became the new head of the Catholic Church yesterday, assuming the papacy that was vacated by Pope Benedict XVI at the end of February. As a cardinal in Argentina, Bergoglio eschewed excess, living in poverty and often visiting the nation’s slums and other impoverished areas. Francis took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the most famous Catholic advocate for the poor, and as pope, he will have the chance to continue the Church’s legacy of fighting growing rates of income inequality and defending the poor.
Though Bergoglio took strides to distance himself from liberation theology, which advocates for the reform of capitalist economics in a way that benefits the disadvantaged, while serving in Argentina, he has in the past railed against economic inequality and the lack of focus given to the poor by the world’s economic elites. He has called “extreme poverty and and unjust economic structures that create great inequities” a violation of basic human rights, and he has chastised the wealthy for not “taking into account the poor.” In 2007, he went even farther, decrying the economic inequality that exists around the world:
“We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
Recent popes have made similar declarations. In 2011, with streets around the world filled with protests of economic inequality and austerity that was inflicting even more pain on the poor, Benedict called for more economic equality and sweeping reforms of the global financial system in a way that would lead to the “achievement of a universal common good.” Benedict also called for greater wealth distribution to eliminate world hunger and for the greater protection of labor unions to help workers around the world.
Catholic social teaching, in fact, is rich with doctrine about the importance of defending and helping the poor. Still, the Catholic Church has been criticized for not taking sufficient action on those issues. Benedict, after all, formally censured the largest group of American nuns, who focus primarily on advocating for the poor through health care reform and poverty programs, because he said they were not focusing enough on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Francis has a chance to change that, whether by re-upping his anti-austerity messages in Europe, where spending cuts have driven up unemployment and decimated poverty programs, by leading opposition to increased income inequality in the United States, where cuts to poverty programs have helped exacerbate the effects of the recession, or by pushing for reforms to economic and health programs to benefit the poorest citizens of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.