Pope Francis I: Can Populist Pope At the Head Of a Reluctant Church Accomplish Anything?


When Pope Francis was elected, I didn't count myself among the enthusiastic hopefuls who believed a new wave of change had fallen upon the church. Aside from suffering from a distinct lack of baptism-soaked Catholicism myself, I had already endured my disappointments with another iconically idealistic leader: Obama.

In a similar vein to our current sitting president, Francis has been a vocal advocate for sweeping transformations within his powerful institution. I imagine another similarity he shares with our president, is that his legacy will most likely be marred with compromised disappointments once his divinely ordained proclamations prove to be ineffective against the actual powers that be.

In recent weeks, Francis has been reaching out to the disengaged youth and fragmented denominations of his faith, by redeeming atheists, recognizing homosexuality in the church, and most notably denouncing a global financial elite that propagates the "cult of money" by tyrannizing the poor and turning humans into expendable consumer goods.

"Money has to serve, not to rule … we have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal."

This is all well and good, but rather than admonish other institutions, one could ask how the Church itself could go about combating poverty better? With every statement Francis makes, members of the Vatican's administration have been quick to edit, modify or backpedal — raising the alarming concern that they might be questioning the so-called infallible word of God!

Whether Pope Francis is a sincere idealist, or a performing figurehead, is irrelevant. The central point of debate, should be whether the church has it within its means to actually create a better world, and if the Vatican will allow Francis to act on his claimed intentions.

His views might very well go a long way to inspire others to turn their focus away from fighting secularism, and embodying the altruistic teachings of Christ — but what about transforming the lavish Church itself?

Those who oversee the actual mechanics of the Vatican's function and wealth, have strong cause to resist Francis' new direction to ensure the Church doesn't radically change its structural course.

For instance, though they sit a top a vast library of art, literature and culture — amassed over millennias of ravaging Europe through religious subjugation — there is little motive to sell any of it to raise funds in the fight against poverty. Especially when it can all earn the church more money over time through Vatican tours and museums. Similarly, they aren't inclined to sell their global network of large cathedrals, expensive basilicas, and medieval temples, mostly as no one would be inclined to buy them — even if the world wasn't suffering from a real estate slump.

Now, factor in the overhead of their thousands of employees and staff around the world, and the Church begins to look like any other non-profit that spends most of its money sustaining itself, rather than solving any charitable crisis. Let's not forget, however, that the church also has to deal with a slew of expensive sexual abuse lawsuit settlements.

This is the Church's supposed dilemma. It wants to be a force of good in the world that enforces Jesus's will and combats poverty, but it needs to sustain its holy houses first. Beyond this contradiction, there are the lesser known aspects of the Church's wealth. The Vatican Bank, which is also known as "God's Bank" or "Institute for the Works of Religion" is a multi-billion dollar profitable enterprise — which once served as a money-laundering operation for Mafia families like the Gambinos.

As well as a financial holding that counts in the multiple billion, the Church has invested in chemicals, steel and construction to diversify its interests. It also amassed an unholy amount of wealth during WWII supporting Mussolini — which it used to buy up vast areas of luxury property around the world, including rich districts of London and Manhattan. 

Though I don't doubt Jesus would have made a convincing and savvy real estate broker, off-loading these assets wouldn't require selling any historical antiques, and could go a long way to practically finance a solution to global poverty, hunger and disease.

At the core of every religion, no matter how vast it grows or how transformed it may become over the years, is a shared human propensity for spiritual curiosity. A child-like sense of wonder and mysticism that suggests this world around us may not be the absolute limits of reality in the universe. Bishop John Shelby recently discussed why it's not in a Church's best interests to recognize this universal altruism in lieu of dogmatic obedience.

A more succinct visual representation might be the time-line spread of world religions in the last 5,000 years, in which missionary faiths like Christianity and Islam can be seen swarming across the continents like locusts. 

There will always be factions within faiths that truly prioritize social justice, spiritual harmony and universal altruism. To some degree, it is inspiring to see one of those voices sit at the head of the world's most powerful church. But rather than simply speak against the ills of the world, Francis must truly transform the power and capability of his own house towards action if he hopes to be anything more than a historically enthusiastic mouthpiece.