The latest dust-up about the unscripted words of Pope Francis came this week when he tweeted, in Latin, “Inequality is the root of social evil.” Conservative Catholics had their underwear in a bundle, nervously tweeting away about the dangers of addressing complex issues on Twitter, and warning about thinking that “redistribution” would solve global inequities. Some feared this was giving Thomas Piketty’s new popular book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, more press. Liberal Catholics were delightfully surprised, once again, and argued that the pope was doing nothing more than putting Catholic social teaching into a tweet.
Inequality is the root of social evil.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 28, 2014
But this latest interchange, happening of course between Catholics in the global “North,” misses the real point. Pope Francis’ tweet is another example of how we are hearing the voice, and seeing the actions, of world Christianity from the global “South.”
It’s nearly impossible to underestimate, in my view, the stunning historical significance of the College of Cardinals’ action. Until their selection of Pope Francis, Europeans had served as popes since the year 741. In 1900, two-thirds of the Catholic Church was found in Europe and the United States. A century later, two-thirds of Catholics are found in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, reflecting overall the most historic and dramatic geographic shift in the presence world Christianity ever to have happened in so short a period. Yet, the centers of administrative power, resources, and capital — both financial and theological — have remained in the control of Christianity’s shrinking minority in the global North.
Before the College of Cardinals selected Pope Francis, I wrote this (at Religion News Service and God’s Politics’ Blog):
One act by the College of Cardinals meeting in the Sistine Chapel can create a dramatic, symbolic, and yet powerful change in this present dissonant reality — namely, electing a pope from the Global South.
That single step would alter public perceptions and private expectations toward the spiritual leadership of half the world’s Christians, bringing fresh life, inspiration, and vitality to the Catholic Church, and serving as a model to the wider Christian community.
That’s exactly what we now see happening. And this isn’t just about the Catholic Church. It’s about the global perception of world Christianity.
Viewing Pope Francis only as a Jesuit who took the name, and model, of St. Francis upon his election, and is trying to revitalize the Catholic Church, misses the most important story. Pope Francis is giving a voice, and a model, of the witness of world Christianity in the Global South. That’s where the future shape of Christianity is being forged, and Pope Francis gives us some glimpses of what this looks like.
I’ve been with evangelical Christian leaders in Ghana, who in one breath testify to the saving power of Christ, and in the next breath condemn the unjust global economic structures and powers of the world that preserve economic inequality. Recognizing that massive income inequality is a sinful reality, creating suffering and inflicting evil, is a common, obvious assumption among Christians across the ecumenical spectrum who simply view the world through the eyes of the Global South.
Similarly, when Pope Francis suggests that we spend “too much time” focusing on issues like homosexuality or abortion, he’s not attempting to radically change Catholic doctrine. But he is expressing common sentiments among Christians whose ministry is rooted among people living on the margins, facing daily struggles for the dignity of life in the present.
Likewise, Pope Francis’ gestures of simplicity and humility — where he lives, what kind of car he rides in, and whose feet he washes — demonstrate that kind of integrity and example that simply makes sense to the vast majority of Christians living in the Global South. The latest rumor I’ve heard from Catholic friends is that Pope Francis would like to sell Castel Gandolfo, the luxurious summer residence of popes. If he did, who would be upset? Mostly hierarchs in the present power structure, dominated by those from Europe and the U.S. Catholics and non-Catholics alike from the Global South would cheer.
So I’d suggest that Protestants — evangelicals, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestants — look to Pope Francis not simply as a dramatic and hopeful change in leadership for the Catholic Church. Rather, look and listen to this unique, modern, fresh Christian leader to emerge from the Global South, and see some signs of what the global shift in world Christianity means for all of our future.
Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.