Pope Francis has never let language barriers get in his way. Whether he’s conversing in Spanish, giving homilies in Italian, or addressing crowds of followers in English, Argentinian cleric Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the title Pope Francis around two years ago, has succeeded in building immediate and intimate connections with his audiences. Yet Pope Francis’ appeal extends beyond those who faithfully attend his public appearances. According to a Pew survey conducted in February, he is viewed favorably by 90 percent of Catholics in the United States. Francis has also garnered support from members of other faiths and non-affiliated individuals. In the latter group, his approval rating in the US is a formidable 68 percent.
However, recent public attention has been focused less on the language in which the Pope is speaking and more on his actual words. The sovereign of Vatican City, Francis is not only the spiritual leader of the Catholic world but also a considerably powerful political figure. In his appeals to millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike he has wielded extensive “soft power”, and his influence in this regard is perhaps only matched by the likes of the Dalai Lama. Over the past two years, the Pope has used his public platform in proactive and innovative ways. For a world in which religion’s hold on political and social matters is increasingly deemed tenuous, Francis stands firmly at the forefront of political discussions.
To understand why, one has to consider the unique way in which Francis is talking about these modern issues, something Jim Yardley and Azam Ahmed of the New York Times call the “pope code.” Put simply, this “code” is Francis’ way of combining religious and political rhetoric in his efforts to reposition the Catholic Church as a central figure in both realms. Breaking with his predecessor Pope Benedict’s focus on piety and social conservatism, Francis has utilized Catholic teachings to address current global political and economic challenges such as human rights, poverty, the environment, and same-sex marriage.
No place or subject matter reflects this matter more prominently than Cuba does. As the first Latin American Pope, Francis has reinvigorated interest in the Catholic Church in the region. This excitement translates into immense social and political influence; Gianni La Bella, an expert on Catholicism in Latin America, goes as far as to call Francis “an alternate to the United Nations in the region.” Though this may seem a lofty comparison, when the Pope arrived in Cuba he was welcomed onto the island as a figure with resounding authority. Anticipation grew into expectation as Cubans attended mass in Havana’s Plaza de Revolución and other public appearances in the hopes of hearing the Pope speak. This eager reception is partly due to Francis’ ability to bridge the geographical and cultural gap between the Vatican and Latin America. However, this enthusiastic response remains remarkable because Cuba’s communist government has drastically diminished the role Catholicism plays in the lives of its people. Today, only 27 percent of Cubans identify as practicing Catholics and 44 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation. This statistic hints at that which became increasingly clear as the Pope’s time in Cuba progressed: Pope Francis while predominantly known for his religious role was not in Cuba to speak about faith alone. Greeted by groups of school children, shuttled to private meetings with Raúl Castro and other senior politicians, and offered platforms to deliver speeches, Pope Francis received the kind of treatment often reserved for heads of state. Meanwhile, the Cuban public gathered by the hundreds of thousands to hear the 78-year old speak and immediately recognized what The New Yorker referred to as the “current official Cuban-Vatican love affair” as a political opportunity. Many were eager to voice their opinions. Yet, in an almost ironic turn of events, the people with whom Francis didn’t meet seemed to shed equally important light on perceptions of the Pope’s identity. Despite the outpouring of public support for the Pope, many Cubans also expressed sentiments of frustration over the fact that Francis did not meet with dissident groups during his visit. Both the popular call for Francis to increase political pressure on the government and his unwillingness to respond to these demands outline the boundaries of the “pope code” in Cuban affairs. Although he is perceived as a powerful political figure, Francis continues to carry out his agenda by working with, not against, the limits of the current government.
Overall, Pope Francis approached many aspects of the trip in a manner similar to his last two predecessors, both of whom visited the island during their papacy. However, two departures from the previous papal visits emerged relatively early. Firstly, Francis’ close emotional connection with the Cuban population was undeniable. Francis lived up to his signatory role as a “Pope of the people”, capturing not only the attention but also the affection of the Cuban public. Secondly, the political fanfare that surrounded the Pontiff’s presence had a clear focus: US-Cuban relations. This highlights yet another instance of Francis’ religious and political prowess: he has been credited with facilitating and actively supporting the talks that resulted in the normalization of ties between the two countries this year. Among other things, Pope Francis promoted the dialogue by both personally appealing to Barack Obama and Raúl Castro and offering to host the diplomatic forum. This extensive political engagement represents the active nature of the “pope code.”
The code’s other, subtler quality emerged in Francis’ comments on Cuban current affairs. The Pope clearly seemed to steer his message towards Cuban politics without delving into overtly controversial topics. Pope Francis focused his homily in Havana on peace talks in Colombia, advocating for reconciliation and peace. He also emphasized the role of religion in matters of service, poverty, and the environment. Yet the Pope refrained from mentioning human rights violations, an issue for which Cuba has faced great criticism. This omission likely stemmed from a desire to focus on the immediate role of the Catholic Church in policy; the Pope was not there to target specific problems but rather to discuss the general role of the Church in Cuba’s future. But this decision also demonstrates the complexity of the Pope’s religious and political identity. By implicitly and sparingly referring to opportunities for Cuba to advance, the Pope strives to demonstrate influence without pushing the Cuban government too far. Francis’ efforts in US-Cuba relations dive deeper into this duality. By treating both parties equally and providing a neutral forum for the two to discuss, Pope Francis has balanced political goals with religious etiquette.
It is important to acknowledge that these strategies are likely the product of both self-determined and titular boundaries. The official limits of the Pope’s position as leader of the Catholic Church are clear. At the same time, Francis may also consider it inappropriate for a nonpartisan, predominantly religious figure to exert pressure on a government to make major changes, such as altering its political structure. These limitations highlight potential challenges to the Pope’s agenda; while he might go too far, he also might not go far enough. If the Pope presents his own policies and goals with extreme force, he risks losing credibility as a neutral third party and the respect and affection of the people. If he exerts too little pressure or if his message is too disguised by the “pope code”, Francis could waste chances to extend the influence of both the Catholic faith and the Vatican.
Just as both religion and politics earn legitimacy from external recognition, Pope Francis’ evolving identity remains subjective to the interpretation of those with whom he interacts. While he continues to be the head of the Catholic Church, his political influence is more important in the eyes of the Cuban people. In other situations, Francis remains simply a religious leader with political opinions. However, it is clear that the Pope’s unique background and personality have brought this debate of identity to the forefront of international politics. Francis’ visit to Cuba and role in the US-Cuban detente reflect the possibility that his political influence will increase. How exactly this responsibility impacts his religious role remains to be seen, but it will undoubtedly ensure that he, and the Catholic Church, will play an active role for time to come.