The Moral Perspectives and Policy Priorities of Pope Francis

The Moral Perspectives and Policy Priorities of Pope Francis

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
from Religion and Foreign Policy Webinars

More on:



Vatican City

John L. Allen Jr., associate editor of the Boston Globe, discusses Pope Francis’s moral perspectives and policy priorities in advance of the papal visit to the United States, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


John L. Allen Jr.

Associate Editor, Boston Globe


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good morning from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio will be available on our website,

We are delighted to have John Allen with us to discussion Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the United States. Mr. Allen is associate editor of the Boston Globe and Crux, the Globe’s website covering Catholicism. He is a senior Vatican analyst for CNN and was a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter for 16 years. He is the author of 10 books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs and is also a popular speaker on Catholicism and the papacy both in the United States and internationally. His weekly Globe column, All Things Catholic, is widely read as a source of insight on the global church, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, CNN, NBC, NPR and other media outlets.

Welcome, John. Thank you very much for joining us from Rome today. We appreciate your being with us.

Earlier this week you published a media guide to Pope Francis’ first trip to the United States, saying that we should, quote, “expect the unexpected” from the pope. Could you talk a little bit more about that give us your sense of what we will—are likely to see in the days when he is here in the States?

ALLEN: Sure. Thank you, Irina, and thank you to the Council for (sic) Foreign Relations for inviting me to do this. I’m deeply honored by it. Hello to everyone from Rome, where I’m getting ready to get on the papal plane on Saturday to fly with Francis to—off to Cuba for three days and then eventually to make our way to the United States for his visit to Washington for a joint meeting of Congress, New York to address the General Assembly of the U.N., and of course Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.

You’re right. My column last week was what I called a media guide to the pope’s visit, basically trying to respond to questions because a lot of my colleagues in the press who do not follow the pope on a regular basis were asking about this trip. And as you rightly indicate, my fundamental piece of advice was to expect the unexpected, because I have been covering Francis day in and day out now for about 2 ½ years, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that this pope ought to come with a warning label like a pack of cigarettes that reads, “Caution: predictions are hazardous to your health,” because you just never quite know what he’s going to do or say. He is famously not a man particularly beholden to protocol, and he is someone perennially capable of surprise.

In terms of what to expect from him in the States, you know, the title that was given to this (hearty ?) presentation was the “The Moral Perspectives and Policy Priorities of Pope Francis,” and I thought perhaps the most helpful thing I could do briefly here up top, before we get to your questions, was to try to give you two key words that might help get at the heart of two things, that is moral perspective and policy priorities.

So I’m going to give two key words. I will briefly unpack each, and although I won’t always be specifically talking about his trip to the States, I would expect these two concepts and these two words to figure very prominently in everything he says and does in the States.

So in terms of the moral perspective, I would suggest that the key word is “mercy,” and in terms of the policy priorities, I would suggest that the key word is “peripheries,” “peripheries.”

So just a brief thought about each. Mercy—it’s not exactly a moral word. It’s certainly more a spiritual word. So it is—but it certainly informs the moral perspective of Pope Francis. I think it is his core spiritual ID. “Mercy” is my motto as pope. His motto is a Latin phrase, “Miserando atque eligendo,” which is a little difficult to render into English, but basically it means choosing through the eyes of mercy, choosing through the perspective of mercy. It was in his first homily as pope where he said that in his opinion the strongest message of the Lord is mercy. It’s in his passion for the sacrament of confession. It’s why he has called a special jubilee Year of Mercy, which is set to begin on the 8th of December and will run to the 20th of November in 2016. And I think mercy is also key to understanding another thing about Pope Francis. I think when it comes to American public opinion, we can all agree that Francis is in some ways a change agent; he is some way—in some ways a reformer. I think it is less clear to many Americans exactly what kind of reform it is that he’s trying to bring. But I think if you understand mercy as the touchstone, that’s the key to it all, because he is not a doctrinal revolutionary. That is, he is not changing the church’s traditional teaching. He is instead trying to change the way that that teaching is understood and applied. So he is—rather than a doctrinal revolutionary, he is a pastoral revolutionary trying to press for the most generous, the most compassionate, the most merciful possible application of traditional Christian doctrine.

So I mean, he is not changing the traditional definition of sin, but—and in fact mercy only enters the picture, from a traditional Christian perspective, when one believes that sin has been committed. But he is trying to shift the church’s stance with regard to sin away, in the first instance, from judgment and towards mercy. I mean, another way of putting his point is that he’s not changing the church’s lyrics so much as he’s changing the melody. And that’s not a hollow PR exercise. I mean, anybody who works inside Christian churches will tell you that as important as doctrine is, the way that doctrine is applied in the trenches is equally important, and I think that’s the level at which the Francis revolution is being felt. It is, fundamentally, a revolution of mercy.

And then as far as the peripheries go, I would say that the key to understanding the pope’s policy priorities is understanding that his heart is really with the peripheries of the world, rather than its traditional centers of power. His preference for the periphery—and he always talks about how he wants the church to be at the peripheries, the existential and the geographic peripheries of the world. And his preference for those peripheries is clear in multiple ways. It is why, for example, he has held two consistories—those are the events in which a pope names new cardinals—he has held two consistories, named only a handful of Europeans and absolutely no one from the United States while lifting up new cardinals from places that had never, ever had them before, places such as Haiti and Panama and New Zealand and Myanmar and the Pacific island of Tonga. It is why, before he would set foot anywhere in Western Europe or North America, he has traveled to Asia twice, he’s traveled to Latin America twice, he has traveled to the Middle East twice, and he has traveled to Eastern Europe twice. And it is also why, in his mind, that the peripheral men and women of the world today—that is, the migrants, the refugees, the poor, the victims of armed conflict, those who suffer in the first instance the effects of climate change—it’s why those traditionally peripheral persons are the heart of his concern.

So if you’re looking for a couple of scarlet threads that I think will run through everything he says and does in the United States—and this is based on covering nine other foreign trips this pope has taken—I would tell you that beyond all of the specific points, beyond what he has to say specifically about immigration reform or what he has specifically to say about economic policy or the looming Paris summit on climate change, beyond all of that, I suspect that if you’re paying careful attention, you will find that the themes of mercy and the option for those who are at the peripheries, both the geographic and the existential peripheries of this world, those will be at the heart of his message. And bear in mind this is really the first trip Pope Francis has taken—has taken that brings him to one of the perceived centers of the world. Certainly on the basis of its economic, military, cultural importance and so on, the United States could hardly be called “peripheral.” And I suspect, above and beyond everything else, the message he wants to bring to the United States is twofold. I think he is going to say to us, one, be merciful and, two, do not forget about the peripheries, do not forget that you have a responsibility to those who are at the peripheries. That, I suspect, will be at the core of his message.

OK. So that’s basically what I had in terms of, you know, what I wanted to say at the top, and at this stage I am far more interested in knowing what the rest of you would like to talk about.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much, John, for those opening remarks. I think we can open up now to the group for questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Greg Hamilton with Northwest Religious Liberty Association.

Q: Yes. Dr. Allen, I’m on a vacation trip out here in Wyoming, and I just wanted to ask you a question about the Middle East and your basic core theme of analyzing Pope Francis’ themes of mercy and periphery. How does that apply to the Vatican’s or the pope’s policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to refugees? What insights do we find in that? I can see the periphery part or the mercy part, but could you expand on that?

ALLEN: Sure, Greg. First of all, you do not in any sense need to call me “Doctor.” I do possess only honorary doctorates, but I didn’t actually earn one. So “John” will be just fine.

The pope on refugees—I mean, he—well, I mean, first of all, it is worth saying that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who is now Pope Francis, is himself the son of immigrants. His ancestors emigrated from the Piedmont region of Italy, in northern Italy, in the early 20th century to escape basically the growing power of the Blackshirts, the Fascists, under Mussolini. And so he very much for personal and biographical reasons identifies with people on the move, migrants and refugees.

His first trip outside of Rome as pope actually came in early July 2013, when he went to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which has become infamous as the primary point of arrival for all of these migrants and refugees who are trying to get across the Mediterranean in this rickety, unsafe boats and trying to get into Europe. Lampedusa is typically where they wash up and where they’re detained. He went there to put a wreath in the sea to commemorate the 20,000 people who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in the last couple of decades and also to condemn what he called the globalization of indifference to migrants and refugees. You may have read recently that he’s—in the context of the current refugee crisis in Europe, which is the most significant refugee crisis since the second world war, he’s called on all Catholic parishes, monasteries, convents, shrines, every Catholic facility in Europe to open its doors to at least one refugee family. And he has put his money where his mouth is in the sense that he has indicated that both St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and also St. Anne’s Parish, which is the parish church for the workers in the Vatican, both of them are going to receive and make housing available to a refugee family. So this is clearly a core concern for the pope.

You ask specifically about refugees in the Middle East. I think aside from his general concern with people who are on the peripheries—and certainly migrants and refugees would fall into that category —there is another dimension to the Middle East that is of special concern to this pope, which is that a very large percentage of the migrants and refugees and victims of armed conflict in the Middle East today happen to be Christian. That is certainly true in Iraq. That is certainly true in Syria. It is true of other parts of the Middle East. And for Pope Francis, this issue of the new martyrs and anti-Christian persecution has also become a kind of defining concern. Pope Francis has taken to referring to what he calls an “ecumenism of blood” that is uniting all of the different Christian churches today, because they all have their martyrs, and in a particular way that’s true of the Middle East.

So I think when he looks at the Middle East today, Greg, he would see two levels that he would want to engage in. One is the broad humanitarian level that shows up in times of armed conflict, shows up in terms of a growing tidal wave of migrants and refugees streaming out of the region and trying to make their way to the West that obviously need to be taken care of, and then at the second level I think he would see a religious freedom issue that in particular menaces the Christian minority of the Middle East. And I think, you know, I mean, like any pope, he would take the survival of Christianity in the Middle East extraordinarily seriously, because after all this is the land of Christ. It’s the last where Christ was born, where he conducted his public ministry, where he died and where, according to Christian—traditional Christian belief, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. And I think Pope Francis quite honestly does not want to be the pope on whose watch the Christian presence in the Middle East is extinguished. So I think, for both of those reasons, the Middle East is very important.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steve Gutow with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Q: Hello, John. Thank you for your erudition and your wisdom about this. It means a great deal to us—to me.

And here’s my question. You know, I mean, the pope is not only—and I’ve read a lot of biographies of him and other, you know, discussions of his past. He’s not only a very moral and ethical man but he’s also not politically obtuse. And I guess my question is, he’s about to speak to a U.S. Congress next Thursday that is not particularly engaged or happy about some of the things that he has spoken out for so strongly. How will he frame the message to keep both his political astuteness and his ethics—you know, his integrity and morals when he does it? And is there any—do you have any wisdom on that idea, on that—on what’s going to happen there?

ALLEN: Well, first of all, thank you for the question. And let me just echo the insight of the question, which is that this is a very politically savvy operator.

You know, what I usually say about Francis is that if you want a four-star banner headline insight into the man, never forget that beneath that humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician. I mean, I know a lot of Argentinians who believe that he is the greatest natural politician their country ever produced, and that includes Juan Peron, that his political instincts are extremely strong.

So you know, you’re right. As he’s been thinking about what he wants to say to Congress, you know, I think he’s certainly thinking on the moral and pastoral level, but he is also thinking on the political level about, you know, what is not simply the right thing to say but what is the way to put it that might have, you know, the most desired effect. And I suspect that’s going to translate into a couple of things. One, I suspect that Francis is going to go out of his way to say positive things about the United States. Bear in mind, you know, this is his first time ever visiting the United States, and you know, he comes with a reputation for getting a kind of mixed reaction in some sectors of American public opinion. I think he’s very well aware of that. He’s been very thoroughly briefed about it.

His speech to Congress, by the way, is one of only four speeches—he’s going to give 28 speeches on this trip to Cuba and the States. That’s one of only four he’s going to deliver in English. And I think that is already a statement that he’s trying to—he’s trying to indicate that he’s trying to reach out by speaking a language that he’s not very comfortable with. So I think he’s going to—I think he’s going to praise the—basically the American ideal, I think its commitment to freedom and in particular religious freedom. I think he will certainly praise the generosity of the American people, which is something he has some experience with. Bear in mind he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires during the period of the economic collapse in Argentina in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Had it not been for Catholic Relief Services in the United States and some other philanthropic groups here and humanitarian groups, you know, Argentina would have been significantly worse off. He’s very well aware of that history, and I think he’s going to—and he’ll bring that biographic note to it.

I think the other thing is he’s going to try to offer a little something for everyone. I mean, I don’t think he wants this to be perceived as a partisan speech, so I think he is certainly going to talk about climate change, he is certainly going to talk about immigration, he is certainly going to talk about poverty, he is certainly going to talk about war, but in the same breath I think he is also going to talk about marriage and the need to defend the traditional concept of the family. I think he will talk about the need to defend human life. Whether he actually uses the word “abortion” or not, I don’t know, although he’s typically not shy about it. But in any event, I expect him to say something that will clearly be understood as a reference to abortion. And I also expect him to say something about religious freedom that will be understood as a reference to some of the debates that have been going on in the United States over religious freedom, particularly the contraception mandates imposed by the Obama administration as part of health care reform.

So I think everybody is going to be able to walk out of that hall, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, feeling like in some ways they got a bump and in other ways they were taken to the woodshed. And I think the overall impression, therefore, going to be that this was a message that came from a place of deep respect for the United States and that was bipartisan—that is, it was not grinding political axes but it was instead a pastor coming into the country and trying to call it to be the best version of itself.

Now, you know, (if he ?) makes any long-term difference in terms of the dynamics of American politics remains to be seen. Francis not the first pope to come to the United States, and he’s not the first wildly popular pope to come to the United States. When John Paul came in 1979, he had poll numbers every bit as high as the numbers that Pope Francis has today. And those previous trips did not magically transformed the polarized and acrimonious nature of American politics. I’m not sure this one is going to either. But all I can tell you is I think Francis is aware of that dynamic and is going to do what he can not to feed it.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Yuri Mantilla with Liberty University.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, John. As you well know, the pope is mainly going to deliver his messages in Spanish. There are around 50 million Hispanics in the United States. They’re the largest minority group in this country. At the same time, there is an increasing political discourse that is really anti-Hispanic, especially by Donald Trump, and that’s having an influence in the media and other levels of influence in the United States. How do you see the message of the pope in terms of immigration reform, in terms of respect for human dignity? How do you see that influencing the actions of the Catholic Church in the United States in terms of confronting a narrative that many believe is now anti-Hispanic? Do you see the pope coming to the United States, addressing those issues, and then do you see the Catholic Church taking some actions in a sense to fight against that type of political narrative which seems to exclude the largest minority group from—now from the—from political engagement? And considering that the pope is from Argentina, as you mentioned, he understands very well even the place of undocumented immigrants and not only the place of U.S. citizens of Hispanic origins, but also undocumented immigrants. So it’s a very complex context, and I think it’s a very unique context in which the pope is going to address these issues.

ALLEN: Yeah. Well, first of all, yeah, of course Francis is going to talk about immigration and the need for greater compassion, greater welcome, greater tolerance for immigrants when he comes to the United States.

Now, your question is, is that going to light a fire under the American Catholic Church? I think it will, although in fairness I think it should be said that the Catholic Church in the United States and in a particular way the bishops in this country over the last, I would say, decade or so have become increasingly outspoken in defense of immigrants and as advocates of immigration reform. I would say that it’s both for a humanitarian logic—that is, they see immigrants at some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in the country, and recent immigrants in particular, and feel the need to speak up for them—but it also for a very practical reason, which is, you know, Latinos, Latinas are now one-third of the Catholic community in the United States. There are roughly 70 million Catholics in the United States, and one-third of them are Hispanic. All the projections are that by 2050 or so Hispanics will be about 50 percent—that’s half—of the American Catholic Church. Luis Lugo at the Pew Forum says the dominant (megatrend ?) trend in American Catholicism these days is what he calls the browning of the American Catholic Church—that is, this rising Hispanic tide. And so the bishops are speaking out about immigration not simply because they want to be voices of conscience but because increasingly these are their people. I mean, what is happening in the 21st century is that the Catholic Church in the United States is in some ways returning its roots. You know, in the 19th century it was largely a blue-collar immigrant church made up of Irish and Italians and Germans and Poles and so forth, who had washed up in the United States and were trying to make a life here. And the church became their tribune, their advocate, their chance. And then in the 20th century, particularly the second half of the 20th century, American Catholics kind of went mainstream. But increasingly today the largest and certainly the most dynamic, the most vivacious component of the Catholic Church in the United States is once again blue-collar and immigrant.

So yes, Francis is going to address those issues. Two words I would predict you are not going to hear come out of Pope Francis’ mouth will be “Donald Trump.” (Chuckles.) It is sort of in the Vatican—(inaudible)—that he does not want to get sucked into the politics of the local elections. So he’s not going to be directing this at any specific political base. But you certainly will hear him talk—and, I think, more than once—and will hear him talk repeatedly about his admiration for the United States as a nation of immigrants, about the need for the United States to continue to set an example for the world in terms of its capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants. He will probably talk from his perspective as a Latin American pastor who would personally know people who have gone north in search of opportunity. I expect him to say all of that, and I do expect it to register in the American Catholic Church and again, not simply because the pope is saying it and not merely because there is humanitarian logic for it, but because increasingly immigrants are the base of the Catholic Church in the United States, and I think everyone recognizes they are the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, and so there is also a significant degree of self-interest on the line here. I think the Catholic bishops, Catholic priests, Catholic leaders in this country realize that defending immigrants and defending the church are not two separate conversations anymore; they are the exact same conversation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Brian Schmisek with Loyola University.

Q: Hello, John. Thank you for taking the time to speak with all of us today. I look forward to seeing you next time you’re at Loyola-Chicago. But the question I had was, can you speak about the challenges that Pope Francis may be encountering at the Vatican, especially with the curial offices?

ALLEN: Well, Brian, the next time I’ll be through Chicago is the next time you invite us, which is entirely under your control. But you know me; I would speak at the opening of an envelope, so I’m always willing to be there.

OK. You know, this is a question I always get in the lecture circuit. What about Vatican opposition to the pope? Look, two points. One, yes, there certainly is resistance in some quarters of the Vatican, particularly in what we would probably think of as more conservative quarters of the Vatican, that would be dubious about some of the pope’s doctrinal statements, that would be concerned about some of his liturgical practices and, you know, more broadly, might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but would just be worried about some of the winds that have been let loose in the church on his watch. That opposition is there, although it is decreasing every day because 2 ½ years in Pope Francis has had the opportunity to make a lot of his own personnel appointments, which means he’s had the chance to move likeminded people into many of the positions of power that matter. So for example, the cardinal secretary of state, who traditionally is the 800-poud gorilla in the Vatican world, today is very much a Francis guy. You know, the head of the Vatican Supreme Court is no longer the pope’s chief critic, who was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, but it’s a Francis ally in the form of French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and so on.

So you know, look, Brian, yes, there is resistance, but let me try to put this in some kind of historical perspective. Francis is the third pope I have covered, OK? I covered basically the last 15 years of John Paul II. I covered all eight years of Benedict XVI, prior to Francis. So I’ve covered three popes, and I would tell you that there’s a significant internal Vatican resistance to each of the three popes that I covered. And the historical part of me says this did not just start with John Paul II. There was also significant resistance to Paul VI. There was significant resistance to John XXIII. In fact, you know, I would submit that this goes all the way back to the very beginning of the church, you know. I mean, St. Peter had tremendous—and we know from the New Testament St. Peter had tremendous resistance from some of the other Apostles. I mean, Francis is the 266th pope in the history of the Catholic Church, and he is also 266th pope to run into some blowback from his bishops, including some of the guys who work in the Vatican.

So while there is resistance, I would not overdramatize it. I would not suggest that it is more fierce or more significant than the resistance that other popes have encountered, and I would also say—back to what I said earlier about Francis being a savvy political operator—he was in some ways more equipped to deal with that resistance than either John Paul II or Benedict XVI because unlike those two guys, Francis actually takes governance serious (sic), I mean, internal ecclesiastical. You know, John Paul in the early stages of his papacy was almost entirely concerned by the struggle against the Soviet empire, and later in his papacy he was concerned by the struggle against what he defined as culture of death in the West, what we seem to think of as the culture wars. You know, these were not—he was not interested in moving the levers of power inside the Catholic Church. And with Benedict XVI, he was—he was a German intellectual. You know, he wanted to lead a graduate seminar. He was not interested in the minutiae of internal governance. So for both of those two popes, they largely turned the keys over to their collaborators and let them run the internal shop, where they dealt with issues with regard to the outside world. Francis is not that kind of pope. Francis is keenly invested in the day-to-day challenges of internal management, including the management of the Vatican. So therefore, I think, he’s much more aware of where his support is, where his resistance is, and how to manage things so that he does what he can to bring the resistance along and, when he can’t, cuts it loose.

So look, you know, is there resistance? Yes. Is it more significant than it’s ever been? I don’t believe so. Is it getting in Francis’ way? Once again, I don’t believe so.

Q: Thank you. Yeah, great.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Jack Miles with the University of California.

Q: John, in your list of things that the pope will speak to America about, you included climate change. But climate change has been the subject of a really major papal statement in the form of “Laudato Si’” encyclical, and there has been scientific participation from Americans in that document. I wonder if you would expound a little bit more about that. That certainly is something that the pope could speak very dramatically about to Congress, with all the climate change denial that exists in it.

ALLEN: Yeah, I do expect that what Francis talked about as care for creation, which is sort of Catholic-speak for “environmentalism,” is going to be a major theme during his trip. You may not have seen, but just today the pope held an audience for all of the environment ministers from all of the governments of the EU nations, and he reiterated most of the major themes from his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which came out in June and was the first ever papal encyclical, which is kind of the most developed form of papal teaching—the first ever encyclical was devoted entirely to an environmental themes. And in that encyclical and once again in his talk today he basically accepted the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that human activity is a major contributor to that climate change. And he once again specifically called for stronger and more dramatic measures to be taken by the governments of the world when they gather in Paris for this United Nations summit on climate change that is scheduled for late November and early December.

And I don’t actually—it’s worth saying that that is one of the really unique things about “Laudato Si’,” the pope’s encyclical on the environment. You know, when papal documents come out, for those of us in the press, it is often very challenging to know how to assess their success or failure. You know, did they work or didn’t they? I mean, and typically what happens is there’s a kind of divided reaction in the theological community. Some people really like it. Some people don’t. Some newspaper editorials will weigh in favor of the encyclical. Others will criticize it. Lots of people will just ignore it. You know, while the Vatican publishes it, they don’t put it out for commercial sales, so there’s no way to assess where it ended up on best-seller lists or anything like that. You know, you can take polls and so on, but in general it is just very difficult to have a kind of empirical, objective measure to know whether an encyclical was a success or failure. Now—and that’s what makes this one a somewhat rare bird, in that Francis has given us a direct empirical way to measure its impact. He said he wanted this encyclical to be out over the summer because he wanted it to have an impact on the U.N. climate change summit in Paris in December, and he repeated that again today in his audience with these EU ministers.

And so, you know, I think it is probably fair to say that if what happens in Paris is that the governments of the world do draw—adopt much stronger and more dramatic measures to try to combat global warming and climate change, and if they credit Pope Francis as part of the moral inspiration for doing so, then we can say that the encyclical “Laudato Si’” was unquestionably a success, measured against the standard the pope himself has given us.

You know, on the other hand, if the summit is a complete and when these heads of state come out of the room, if we ask them, what about the pope’s encyclical, they all look confused, then, you know, we can probably say that the encyclical, once again, measured against the test the pope has given us, did not have the desired impact.

Now all that is by way of saying that Pope Francis’ trip to the United States and in particular his address to the United Nations when he is New York is the last high-profile major foreign outing that he is going to take, certainly the last time he is going to be addressing the United Nations prior to that summit in Paris. And in that context, I would say it is absolutely unthinkable that the environment, which would include also things like, you know, deforestation and perhaps the water supply and so on, but in particular climate change—it is absolutely unthinkable that that will not be a centerpiece of his message throughout his trip in the United States but in a particular way during that address to the U.N. in New York, because this is a pope who in some way has put a lot of political capital on the line. Popes don’t like to do this. You know, they don’t like to set themselves up for the impression of having failed. But Francis has pointed in a very specific way to the summit in Paris and said, I want to have an impact there. Having done so, he’s not going to miss any occasion to try to prime the pump, and certainly he’s not going to—he’s not going to let an opportunity to address the U.N. in General Assembly go by without making a particular point about concern for the environment and climate change.

Q: Follow-up question?


ALLEN: Sure.

Q: Has there been any implementation in the form of education mandated by the cardinals, the bishops, down to the parish level of “Laudato Si’”? Did the pope give any instruction on that?

ALLEN: To date the pope himself has not issued the kind of—what we Catholics call a parate necrum (sp), which is like a handbook, OK, to how to translate the principles of this encyclical into reality.

Now, local bishops’ conferences in many parts of the world have. What I can tell you is that Pope Francis has tasked Cardinal Peter Turkson, who is a cardinal from Ghana in Africa, who heads the Vatican Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, with doing precisely this: with developing practical guidelines for parishes and convents and monasteries and other Catholic facilities around the world to implement—I mean, to go green, you know, to use the argot of the day, to implement the broad principles of “Laudato Si’.” And we expect those guidelines to come out within the new few months, but in the meantime, at the local level, you know, lots of people aren’t waiting for that. You know, they’re already moving ahead.

Now I don’t want to sugarcoat this for you. I should also say that there are parts of the Catholic world where this encyclical has generated not so much enthusiasm as kind of skepticism and perplexity. You know, there are some people who just think of this as a kind of overly political thing that doesn’t have much to do with the spiritual message of the church. You know, there are some people who for ideological or political or professional reasons are skeptical about the whole notion of global warming and climate change. So I don’t want to suggest that there is a universal chorus of praise across the Catholic landscape.

But I would say that both at the level of the Vatican and also at the level of bishops’ conferences in many parts of the world there are real efforts to make sure that “Laudato Si’” does not just remain words on paper but that local Catholic (sendees ?) have resources for trying to translate it into action.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is comes from John Rok with Salve Regina University.

Q: Hello. This is John, who’s sitting next to me—one of his colleagues from the philosophy department, Peter Colosi, at Salve.

And I am intrigued by the courtesy call that the pope is going to make to President Obama at the White House, and the White House just released the list of guests that the White House invited to the White House to be there, which is a rather intriguing list of people. So, John, I was wondering if you could comment on that list and what you think might happen there.

ALLEN: Well, I really can’t comment on the list because I haven’t seen it.

Q: Oh. Well—

ALLEN: I mean, I’ve seen the Vatican list of—(inaudible)—but I haven’t seen the White House—

Q: OK. Well, the White House—the White—the White House invited a homosexual Catholic blogger. I think he’s a practicing—and he—they invited a nun who I think would be considered a dissenting nun. I can’t remember her name. So that’s the list.

ALLEN: Yeah. Well, listen, I mean, in general, you know, my perception would be that when popes and presidents meet—and then it’s not just this president and this pope; I’m making the general observation—that, you know, presidents typically have a political agenda for the meeting, and popes typically have a pastoral agenda, you know, which means that after the fact you often get very different reconstructions of what happened. I mean, I remember, for example, when Obama came over there last year, right, and he met Pope Francis in the Vatican, if you look at the statements that the White House and the Vatican released afterwards, you would have thought for all the world that they were describing two completely different meetings. You know, Obama went to the foreign press corps here in Rome and gave a press conference in which he said that the contraception mandates and more broadly issues of religious freedom never came up, whereas that was the very top item in the statement the Vatican put out after the fact, about the issues the pope had raised and so on.

So look, you know, I—my perception would be that, you know, U.S. presidents, who are very conscious of the importance of the Catholic vote in the United States—and one-quarter of the American population—and sort of uniquely among definable subsets of the population, it is politically in play. It doesn’t reliably vote with one party or the other. It can go either way, depending upon what the issues are.

You know, presidents are always going to try to spin their encounters with the pope, both before the fact and after the fact. And you know, so I mean, if your point being that that there is a certain degree of spin going on here that is—(inaudible)—you know, certain kinds of Catholic dissent by including them in the meeting with the pope, yeah, that’s probably the case, and I don’t find anything at all shocking about that. I mean, that’s just kind of the standard deal.

I expect that the pope, when he meets these people, will be very courteous, but I would not expect to have it a fact for that to be the element of the encounter that the Vatican would pick up on. On the contrary, what I would expect of the Vatican after the meeting with the president is an emphasis on those elements of the encounter that they know full well in advance that the president himself is not likely to emphasize, right, which would mean, you know, issues of religious freedom, issues of human life and so on.

I guess what I’m saying to you is, if you want a real sense of what’s going to happen in that meeting, don’t just look at the White House delegation and the White House statement afterward. Put these two things together, put the White House statement and the Vatican statement and the White House delegation and—(inaudible)—and then put that all together and sort of divide it—(audio break)—that probably gets—(audio break).

FASKIANOS: John, you kind of broke up at the end there of—when you—after you said “put it all together.”

ALLEN: Yeah. I was so—I’m sorry. What I was saying is, I mean, you take—there’s—the way to understand these encounters between popes and presidents is to take the delegation that the White House assembled and the delegation of the Vatican’s and the pope; the statements that the White House makes afterwards and the statements the Vatican makes afterwards; put all of that into a set and then kind of divide by two and that will bring you fairly close to the reality of what actually happened.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Thomas Uthup with Friends of the United National Alliance of Civilization.

Q: Hi, John. A great admirer of your writing. I had—you’ve touched—you’ve touched on this a couple of times—about his speech at the U.N., that there would be a focus on climate change. I was wondering about his focus on religious freedom. It just so happens that there is a meeting starting Friday on religious freedom at the U.N. being convened by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. So what will be his emphasis there? Would it be primarily about the Middle East? And the second question is relating the fact that the Catholic Church apparently in the U.S. is facing some serious fiscal issues, and there have been some concerns about donors who are more conservative not being very happy with Pope Francis. Is—are the opinions of the Catholic bishops going to be very consequential in his speeches to the—his public speeches? Thank you.

ALLEN: OK. So first, on religious freedom, yeah, I expect that will be one element in his address to the U.N. How central it will be I don’t know. I actually expect religious freedom to be a much more prominent theme during the three days that Francis is in Cuba, because that is a place where, certainly from the perspective of the local Catholic community, religious freedom is a very live issue. And so I think it will come up at a various points along the way during the trip. I would say it might be a heavier message at the very beginning—that is, during the stop in Cuba—than once he gets to the States.

You know, in terms of how influential the U.S. bishops are going to be in crafting the pope’s messages, look, you know, no pope wants to come to a foreign country and give the impression that he is somehow undercutting or sandbagging his local bishops. So of course popes all would take the opinions of the local bishops very seriously in terms of the kinds of points they have to touch on in these trips, you know, even where they should go and not—I mean, you know, the schedule for this trip was not worked out entirely in Rome. I mean, it was worked out in very close collaboration with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now, you know, that said, I mean, one thing you need to understand is that, you know, in the United States we have an awful lot of bishops. I mean, there are 195 dioceses, archdioceses and eparchies in America, so that’s almost 200 diocesan CEOs. You add the auxiliary bishops we’ve got in America, you’d be close to 250. You add in the retired bishops, you know, you get close to 330 or 340. I mean, that’s a very large body of bishops, and they do not all think the same thing. So to talk about what the bishops think in the United States, you know, in my opinion, that’s a big red herring. It’s like talking about what the Catholic laity think or what theologians think or what American nuns think. I mean, you know, you’ve got to be more precise. You know, which bishops are you talking about and which theologians (you’re talking ?).

So yes, you know, the opinions of the bishops will count for a great deal in the way the pope goes about things, but just bear in mind those opinions—they’re not all telling him the same thing. He has been collecting a lot of opinions for bishops in the States in the run-up to this trip, some of them through formal channels, some of them informal. He’s been working the phones. He’s been calling bishops and so on. And I can guarantee you, just based on what I have heard informally, that not all of that advice has tracked exactly in the same direction.

You know, you asked about conservative donors and does that in any way factor in the pope’s message. I mean, first of all, although there have been a couple of stories, I mean, the thing on stories is Cardinal Dolan in New York saying, you know, there was a guy who was giving money to St. Patrick’s who was upset about the pope’s critique of capitalism and was threatening to withhold contribution. You know, to be honest, there haven’t been too many other examples of that. And what I would say is that if you look at Pope Francis’ poll numbers in the United States, you know, despite whatever blowback he may be getting in some quarters, this pope still has approval ratings in the United States that politicians and celebrities would crawl across hot coals and sacrifice their children to pagan gods to have. I have not seen any particular evidence that in any fundamental giving to the Catholic Church has declined because of Pope Francis.

So you know, I would not exaggerate any of that that. I think—yeah, I think fundamentally the pope wants to take American concerns and in particular the concerns of the American bishops into account, but I also believe—I come back to where I started—his fundamental convictions are that mercy is the core spiritual message that he was elected to convey and that this option for the peripheries is the core policy message that he was elected to convey. And I don’t think, you know, the threat of blowback either from the bishops or from any other quarter in any fundamental way is going deter him from bringing those messages either during his trip to the United States or for however much longer his papacy goes on.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.                                                                                                 

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Dr. George Gatanis (sp), an attorney.

Q: John, please be advised our honorable assembly is going to move to proffer you another honorary doctorate. You deserve it, and just let us know where you want it mailed. But our gratitude exudes to you for your professionalism and insight, which never ceases to illuminate.

(Audio break.)

Q: I’m afraid we’re breaking up a bit. I hope my questions can be heard.

John, a general question and then a specific question. To quote you, “This pontiff is perennially capable of surprise, from his schedule to his statements. I confess that through the years I’ve teasingly answered facetious questions with another question: Is the pope Catholic?” Would you be so kind to answer the question: Is this the least Roman Catholic Roman Catholic pope? And if so, why?


FASKIANOS: John, are you there?

ALLEN: And I’m sorry. Did you—

Q: Hello?

ALLEN: Yes, I’m here. Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Great. Great. OK. I think we’ve got the question. So, John, over to you.

ALLEN: OK. Is the pope Catholic? Well, you know, obviously the answer to that question is yes. I mean, by all the traditional measures of Catholic identity, you know, Francis is unquestionably Catholic. He was baptized, he was confirmed, he was ordained a priest, he was accepted as a member of the Society of Jesus, he was consecrated as a bishop, and he was elected in canonically valid fashion as the supreme pontiff. So of course he’s Catholic.

But that wasn’t really your question, was it? Your question was, is he Roman Catholic? And there, I think, the answer becomes a bit more interesting. At one level I would tell you that Pope Francis takes his responsibilities as the bishop of Rome—that he is the head of the local diocese here in Rome—extraordinarily seriously. You know, he has already made—what is it—21 parish visits in Rome.

“Bishop of Rome” is actually her preferred title. He prefers to refer to himself as the “bishop of Rome” much more than “supreme pontiff” or something like that. He speaks fluent Italian and takes delight in engaging the Italian cultural and political and social scene. And so in one level you could say that he’s very much Roman Catholic in that sense.

On the other hand, you know, I would say he is certainly not the least Catholic pope, but he may be the least Roman pope we have had in recent memory, in the sense that, as I say, he is very much a man of the peripheries. Now when it comes to the broad geopolitical scene, that means his heart is with the least developed and most neglected countries of the world. When it comes to the ecclesiastical scene, his heart is very much with those places that have never been considered as kind of thriving crossroads of the Catholic Church but, you know, that are instead sort of young, often overlooked but nevertheless pulsating, dynamic sort of center of the Catholic energy. I mean, I think he—in other words—put it this way. I think Francis wants to lead a church that is truly catholic, and of course the root etymological meaning of the word “catholic” is “universal.” I think he wants to lead a church that is truly universal, and in order to do that, I think he believes that the church has to become slightly less (Rome ?), OK? So I guess the sound bite answer to your question—this is a pope who is unquestionably Catholic. He is maybe slightly less Roman than some of his immediate predecessors.

FASKIANOS: John, unfortunately we are out of time. I apologize to those of you who are still queued up for questions and we just could not get to you. But I think we can all agree that your insights and analysis, John, were very insightful. We appreciate it. And I encourage you all to visit the Boston Globe’s website Crux for John Allen’s continuing excellent coverage of the worldwide Catholic Church and Catholic life in the context of other religious traditions as well. You can access the site at, and you can also follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnAllenJr.

So, John, thank you again.

ALLEN: You’re very welcome. This was a great privilege.

FASKIANOS: And we look forward to watching you as part of the report on the papal visit to the United States.

We hope you will join us for our next Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call on Monday, September 28th, from 4 p.m., with Georgetown University’s Susan Martin to talk about the global response to the migration crisis that we are seeing in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you all again and look forward to speaking with you soon.

Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  


The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.