When Pope Francis delivers his Christmas message this weekend, he will do so not just as the head of the Catholic Church but as the improbable standard-bearer for many progressives around the world.
With conservative and nationalist forces on the rise in many places and with figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande on their way out, many on the left—from socialists in Latin America to environmentalists in Europe—are looking to the 80-year-old pontiff for leadership.
“Pope Francis really inspires a lot of people to want to fight. I’m pretty sure if he weren’t the face of the Catholic Church, he’d be out in the street with us,” said Bleu Rainer, an activist in the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage movement in Tampa, Fla., who traveled to Rome last month for an international meeting of grass-roots activists addressed by the pope. “He reinforces our issues and makes them moral issues.”
Yet the pope’s support for some liberal causes, rooted in traditional Christian concern for the poor and defenseless, has meant joining forces with some partners who reject major Catholic moral teachings. Critics also say that the church’s leader shouldn’t take such strong stands on political questions about which Catholics are allowed to have a range of views.
Pope Francis has taken bold positions on a variety of issues, including migration, climate change, economic equality and the rights of indigenous peoples. His June 2015 environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” called for a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels and described global warming as a major threat to life on Earth. The document was also an indictment of the global market economy, which he said has plundered the planet at the expense of the poor and of future generations. The Vatican now requires students for the priesthood to learn about environmental problems, including climate change, during their seminary studies.
The pontiff’s views on migration—he calls, in effect, for open borders for refugees and economic migrants—spilled over into criticism of Donald Trump earlier this year. The pope said that the Republican candidate was “not Christian” for calling for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Just days before the American election, in a speech to grass-roots activists from around the world, Pope Francis warned against the “spread of xenophobia” and the “false security of physical and social walls”—remarks widely seen as a critique of Mr. Trump.
The pope has also been blunt about economic equality. He has said that “land, shelter and employment” are “sacred rights” and added that “if I speak of this, some people conclude that the pope is a communist.” In his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, he praised the late Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, for “her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed.”
Such statements have made him a hero to many politicians on the left. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who left the campaign trail for two days before the New York primary to attend a Vatican conference, called himself a “fan of the pope’s clarity, his humility, his vision and his courage.”
In a novelty for a pope, Francis has addressed three consecutive annual meetings of “popular movements.” The gatherings have included grass-roots activists for nonunionized workers and landless peasants in developing countries, as well as U.S. groups such as Black Lives Matter and proponents of a higher minimum wage. At the latest meeting in November, the pope told the activists to “revitalize and recast our democracies, which are experiencing a genuine crisis” and to “get involved in high-level politics” in their countries. The Vatican is co-sponsoring another such a meeting in California in February, focused on poverty, migration and racial justice. (The pope isn’t expected to attend.)
The pope’s positions follow a longstanding current in Catholic social teachings, started by a late 19th-century encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, which criticized the excesses of the free market and affirmed workers’ rights to organize. “He has not radically changed the mainstream social doctrine of the church,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, an official in the Vatican office on social-justice concerns. But the pontiff has adopted language and priorities that reflect his background in the developing world, the archbishop said.
As a young priest in Argentina, then-Father Jorge Bergoglio eschewed Marxist schools of Catholic “liberation theology” in favor of a “theology of the people,” which rejected materialism and class conflict. He and his family were also supporters of the country’s strongman, Juan Perón, a caudillo whose brand of authoritarian populism eluded easy left-right categorization.
Historians note modern precedents for popes linking themselves to political movements. After World War II, the Vatican backed Italy’s Christian Democrats, and in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II supported the Solidarity labor movement in his native Poland, thereby hastening the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse. Both movements were explicitly anticommunist.
Francis’ alliances have entailed some strange bedfellows. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a fiery leftist critic of globalization, last year gave the pope a sculpture combining a crucifix with the communist hammer and sickle. Francis said that the sculpture didn’t offend him and took it back to Rome.
Critics warn that, by aligning himself too closely with one end of the political spectrum, the pope could alienate more conservative Catholics. In the recent U.S. presidential election, according to exit polls, more than half of Catholic voters chose Mr. Trump. “The global left clearly see an opportunity to appropriate the prestige of the papacy for their causes,” said Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, a Michigan-based think tank with a religious, free-market approach. “That introduces polarization in the church about issues that Catholics are free to disagree about.”
Francis’ views have allied him with groups that oppose some of the church’s moral teachings. Many environmentalists back population-control measures as a way to limit ecological damage, but Catholic doctrine forbids abortion and artificial birth control. The pope has denounced discrimination against gay people and urged compassion and understanding for transgender people, but he does not accept same-sex marriage.
The pope has reduced the awkwardness of his progressive alliances by playing down thorny questions of sexual and medical ethics and emphasizing such commonalities as economic justice and environmental protection. Francis’ political relationships lean to the left, says Archbishop Tomasi, “not because he’s a Marxist or because he is a leftist, but because [such groups] represent…the wounds of society.”