Pope Francis Visiting the United States is a Big Deal

September 22nd 2015

Kyle Jaeger

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, is paying his first visit to the U.S. this week, and he's expected to deliver a "tough love" message to his American followers. The visit is part of the pope's global tour during which he will hold prayers, offer religious instruction, and lecture on issues concerning the mission of the Church.

Pope Francis

Americans tend to politicize the pontiff—interpreting his speeches through a political lens and assigning him partisan identities (Pope Francis has been described as a Democrat more than once). To be sure, Pope Francis has fashioned himself as a Catholic reformist, and both his practices and policies do appear to reflect shifting attitudes in the religious hierarchy.

But the pope is not here to weigh in on partisan politics. Above all else, Pope Francis is here to reiterate his messages about social justice and the role of American Catholics in ensuring that social justice for all. Here are four ways that Pope Francis has stood up for social justice:

1. He condemns income inequality

Pope Francis has spoken out against the excesses of global capitalism since before he was even the pope. In 1998, he published a book that featured several chapters on the economic challenges and limitations of capitalism, arguing that though it might be good for development, it often comes at a moral compromise—income inequality. He has also challenged Catholics to take more responsibility for the poor, a fundamental tenet of the biblical cannon.

"Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change," the pope said at a meeting held at the Vatican this year. He added that the current global capitalist system "has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature."

2. He advocates for environmentalism

For Pope Francis, climate change is not a subject of political controversy, it is an issue to be dealt with swiftly and collectively. He has encouraged world leaders and his followers to take a proactive role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, citing the scientific consensus in an effort to persuade the global community that human behavior has played an instrumental role in pushing the planet to a "breaking point."

"What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?" Francis asked, calling for a revolution in the way we approach climate change. "The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal."

3. He has challenged the church to be more socially accepting

One of the reasons that Pope Francis has been such a controversial figure in American politics is because he has supported dramatic shifts in the relationship between the Church and the LGBT community. While his predecessors have vocally and repeatedly opposed same-sex marriage (Pope Benedict XVI said that gay marriage threatened global peace, for example), Francis has made a point of welcoming LGBT parishioners.

In a 2013 interview with America Magazine, he discussed his papal understanding of the issue, recalling a conversation with a person who once asked him if he approved of homosexuality. "I replied with another question," Francis said. "'Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being."

"Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?" the pope asked, responding to a reporter's question about a gay priest who had recently made headlines.

4. He favors forgiveness over condemnation

Though he has not necessarily broken with the Catholic tradition, he has taken steps to ensure that women are not shamed or ostracized by the Church for using birth control or having abortions. In keeping with his message of forgiveness over condemnation, the pope tackled one of the thorniest issues that has developed between social liberals and conservative Catholics, emphasizing the importance of acceptance.

"I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it," the pope said last month.

Francis has also supported reforming the Church's policy on marriage annulments to make it so that people who have divorced and remarried are treated no differently than those who have not. He also indicated that he would expedite the annulment process, describing the current system as burdensome.

"Some procedures are so long and so burdensome and people give up," Francis said last year.