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The Man in White

Source: Flickr

Jonathan Adams

It seems almost paradoxical that the leader of the world's smallest nation should be one of the world’s most powerful men. Indeed, the Pope occupies a truly unique position in international relations. As bishop of Rome with a jurisdiction of less than a single square kilometre, Pope Francis influences more than a billion Roman Catholics across the world. As the modern papacy takes on a more distinct socio-political role, this influence will undoubtedly play a major part in shaping the global political landscape.

Pope Francis himself is a somewhat controversial figure, particularly within the Church. As a Jesuit, Francis is more ‘liberal’ in his interpretation of Church doctrine than some of his fellow cardinals, particularly when compared to his predecessor, the staunchly conservative Pope Benedict XVI. Having relatively little academic theological experience, Francis’ papacy has been characterised by a ‘pastor-like’ approach to Church governance. This has seen Francis break away, albeit delicately, from what many see to be traditional Catholic doctrine. Over the course of his seven-year papacy, Francis has explored roles for women in the clergy, advocated for action on climate change, and made it possible for Catholic divorcees to receive communion. This has won Francis many supporters, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and the magnitude of these actions speaks to the growing socio-political influence of the Vatican on the world stage.

Broadly speaking, the influence of the Holy See has been separated into two categories - direct and indirect influence. Historically, direct influence referred to the geopolitical power of the Papal States and the coercion of various military leaders and heads of state with the threat of excommunication. Indirect influence, on the other hand, referred more to the moral and religious teachings, the intangible facets of the Church. The indirect nature of this influence came from the hierarchical structure of the Church, where ideas were passed down from archbishops to bishops, bishops to priests, and ultimately from priests to parishioners. Nowadays, direct influence refers to a Pope’s forthright action, that is, a Papal Bull or some similar decree, while indirect influence remains largely unchanged. As Timothy Byrnes describes, Pope Francis’ indirect influence comes:

“ … by speaking to and influencing the members of his global Church who then, in turn, advance related initiatives and policy preferences through their own lay vocations in the secular world.”

Francis’ socio-political actions fall neatly into these two categories. The publication of Laudato si’, Francis’ second encyclical letter “on care for our common home” is one such example of direct influence. Issued under the seal of the Holy See, an encyclical letter is second in importance only to an Apostolic Constitution, a decree which cements the contents as Canon law of the Catholic Church. Addressed to “every person living on this planet”, Laudato Si’ asks us to take action to combat the growing threat of climate change:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. ”

Although this stance was met with minor opposition from conservatives within the Church, the Laudato Si’ represents a shift in Vatican international policy. The Pope is no longer content with a purely passive role in the international order, instead he wishes to use his remarkable influence to “affect international policy.”

Francis’ indirect influence has recently been exhibited through his recent appointment of the first African-American cardinal, as well as his apparent support for same-sex unions. The appointment of Archbishop Wilton Gregory to the College of Cardinals is a significant decision, especially when framed by the current racial tensions in the United States. Further, Archbishop Gregory has a reputation for wading into controversial topics, and for encouraging his congregation to engage in political discussion. As he said at a gathering for young Catholics:

"You cannot be a Catholic and sit on the sidelines … To be a member of the Church means you've got to get in and get your hands dirty”

Archbishop Gregory’s politically hands-on approach reflects Pope Francis’s ‘pastor-like’ Church governance. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this year, Gregory was vehement in his condemnation of the police:

“Many of us remember similar incidents in our history that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, where we repeatedly saw Black Americans viciously brutalized by police on television and in newspaper photos … Moments like this [George Floyd’s death] cause people of good will, who believe in the value, respect and dignity of every human life, to wonder if and how we can move on from here.”

Gregory went on to comment on the “virus of racism”, and reflected on the “divisive and xenophobic attitudes of nationalism”, in a paragraph that appeared heavily anti-Trump. The appointment of such a prominent and outspoken public figure to the Church’s highest body signifies Francis’s endorsement of his views, and constitutes the Pope’s indirect influence. Now equipped with the platform afforded to him by the College of Cardinals, Gregory’s socio-political views will undoubtedly reach a greater number of Catholics, who in turn will seek to act on these principles in their own community. It is clear to see that the Pope’s indirect influence has the potential to affect large-scale social change.

Stalin famously mocked the significance of the Vatican, asking “How many divisions has the Pope?”; while the days of the Papal armies are long gone, the pope continues to wield great influence on the global stage. With no ‘iron fist’ in his ‘velvet glove’, the Pope is the quintessential example of the efficacy of soft power. Through direct and indirect influence, the Pope can play a major role in informing the political agenda of over a billion people. And, as the global political landscape becomes ever more tumultuous, the Pope may find his theological role equaled by his diplomatic one.


Jonathan Adams intends to begin a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Australian National University next year. He has an interest in politics, international relations and international security.