The world loves Pope Francis. But many Americans (and Christians) still view him with skepticism, especially when it comes to his views on climate change, income equality and other social issues.
So what’s really going on? Is Francis an intentionally divisive figure? Or is the problem that we’re looking at him completely wrong?
Pope Francis by the numbers
Francis enjoys a wave of popularity in the U.S. According to the latest Bloomberg poll numbers, Francis’ favorability rating among all Americans is 64% — higher than all U.S. political leaders.
And his popularity isn’t limited to Catholicism. Although 86% of Catholics view Francis favorably, so do 55% of evangelicals and 58% of people who have no religion at all.
But in general, the public is less supportive of Francis’ issues. Here’s what Americans say when asked whether Francis is taking the church in the right direction on the following social justice concerns:
- Climate Change: In the U.S. (but not necessarily around the world), Francis fares most poorly on climate change. Only a third (33%) think he’s guiding the church in the right direction on climate change compared to 56% who say he’s headed in a bad direction and 11% who have no opinion.
- Welcoming Immigrants: The majority of Americans (70%) believe Francis is taking the church in the right direction when he urges nations to be more welcoming of immigrants.
- Economic Inequality: Support for Francis’ rallying cry of greater economic and income equality is mixed. Less than half (48%) think he’s taking the church in the right direction on issues of economic justice. Although fewer (37%) think he’s taking the church in the wrong direction, 14% simply aren’t sure.
These aren’t the only issues that are important to the Pope. He’s commented on a wide range of moral and religious issues. But it’s his views on social justice issues that are particularly divisive.
Understanding Pope Francis
In Francis’ mind, climate change and immigration and economic inequality aren’t separate issues. They’re interconnected. And to understand where Francis is coming from, it’s critical to understand a few basic facts about the man himself.
#1: He’s a friend of God.
Like him or not, there’s no denying the fact that Francis is a friend of God. He’s spent nearly his entire life in service to God, and by all accounts his relationship with Christ is the driving force behind everything he does. Unlike other public figures, he isn’t motivated by the accumulation of wealth and I don’t think he cares much about popularity polls. Above all else, he cares about being true to his calling and his views are rooted in his spirituality.
#2: He lives the gospel.
One of the things that separates Francis from other public and religious figures is that he’s authentic — he lives the gospel he preaches. Humility. Simplicity. He’s gone out of his way to eschew the trappings of his office in favor of more modest living conditions. Time and time again, we’ve seen him pay personal attention to the sick, the homeless and other people on the margins of our world. In my book, his willingness to live the gospel gives his message more credibility than the words of those who criticize his views from boardrooms and bully pulpits.
#3: He is a pastor.
Too often, Francis’ role as a pastor gets lost in the conversation. He doesn’t see himself as a bureaucrat, but as a pastor to the church and the world. So, when Francis speaks about climate change or income inequality or immigration, he’s not talking as a critic or a politician, but as a pastor who is sincerely concerned about the impact these issues have on the people in his flock, i.e., the entire world.
Finally, it’s critical to understand that Francis didn’t invent his stands on social justice issues out of thin air. From protecting the environment and combating climate change to encouraging nations to be more welcoming to immigrants and fighting for economic equality, Francis is reaffirming basic, historical Christian theology.
He’s preaching the gospel.