Pope Francis

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Faith Perspective
The Catholic Church and the Pope are tied to the philanthropic sector both in the theological ideas that they advance and through direct programmatic work. Notions such as “charity” and “philanthropy” are frequently promoted in Christian scripture and theology. “Catholic social teaching” includes wisdom for a just society, such as the dignity of all humans, the importance of family and community, rights and responsibilities, care for the poor, and God’s creation. With several of these principals in mind, it is not surprising to hear the Pope say, “To trample upon the dignity of a woman, a man, a child, the elderly, is a grave sin that cries to heaven” (Erlandson 2014).

Written by Andy Williams


Biographical Highlights

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1936 of Italian immigrant parents, was elected the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013. He is the first pope from outside of Europe since the year 731 and is the first pope ever from the southern or western hemispheres. He is also the first member of the Catholic “Society of Jesus” (a.k.a. “Jesuits”) to be Pope. Given these unique attributes, many within and outside of the Catholic Church were surprised by his election.

Bergoglio is known as a humble man—preferring public transport and cooking his own food as Archbishop and Cardinal, spending a great deal of time in the community, and expressing himself with an irenic and conciliatory tone. His choice of papal name, Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, reflects his concern for the poor and for the natural environment, which are qualities for which St. Francis is remembered. Moreover, he is the first pope to have taken this name. Consistent with this thinking, the new pope chose not to live in the papal palace and instead is living in Vatican apartments. He explained this decision saying, “I’ve remained living in…a residence which accommodates bishops, priests and lay people,” as “part of a family” in which he leads a “visible” and “normal” life (Squires 2001).

While he is innovative and beloved by many, in important ways, he is a typical pope. That is, he navigates issues and challenges common to the office. For instance, Pope Francis continues to deal with the clerical sexual abuse scandal, calling it an “absolute monstrosity”, as well as the lack of transparency and accountability in church finances. He also addresses prominent topics of theology and practice for the approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. From a theological perspective the current pope is relatively traditional. For instance, he eschews liberation theology and holds traditional Catholic theological positions on abortion and marriage. However, he is less rigid in the expression and application of principals than some Catholic leaders, including his immediate predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.


Historic Roots

Bergoglio entered the Society of Jesus in his native Argentina in 1958 after occupying several non-clerical positions, such as chemical technologist, bar bouncer, and janitor. Within the church he served as Priest, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and Cardinal before his election to the papacy.

His clerical tenure in Argentina spanned the period of a right-wing anti-socialist military junta and its “dirty war” (1976-83) in which thousands of left-leaning politicians, church-leaders, intellectuals, and others “disappeared” (i.e. imprisoned or killed). Bergoglio resisted this regime in a variety of ways (e.g. helping government targets flee the country in secrecy), but also was criticized for not being proactive and public enough in his condemnation of the government.

Another important part of his background is membership in the Society of Jesus or the “Jesuits.” This religious order - a group of clerics who live apart from society and follow a set of “rules” or standards of life within the Catholic Church -  is known for its focus on critical thinking and education, and they have founded many schools and universities. One can see hallmarks of this emphasis in the faith of Pope Francis as he wrestles with controversial social questions. While he remains largely within Catholic orthodoxy on issues such as marriage and procreation, he takes a less doctrinaire approach. For instance, he wrote, “In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage…These [priests] are today’s hypocrites. Those are who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, and must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!” (Berry 2013).



It is hard to overstate the transformational figure that Francis is within the Catholic Church and the world more broadly. As noted above, his biography is unique on many levels for the papacy.  He is a living emblem of the geographical shift of the Catholic Church and Christendom, which are now more prevalent in the global south than they are in the northern hemisphere. In 2010, Europe and North America contained only 24% and 8% of world-wide Catholics. The remaining 67% were in Latin America and the Caribbean (39%), Sub-Saharan Africa (16%), and Asia-Pacific (12%) (Pew Forum). A similar phenomenon has also occurred in protestant Christianity with its rise in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

As a representative of the global south, with its greater prevalence of poverty and structural inequality, it is logical that Pope Francis is seeking to create a less cloistered and opulent church. In this way, the Pope reflects teachings of Jesus and the Christian New Testament. For instance, Jesus' famous challenge to the “The Rich Young Ruler” is to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-30). Also, a well-known verse from the book of James connects faith and care for the poor: “Religion that is undefiled and pure before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Therefore, it was not a coincidence that his first trip as Pope was to visit refugees on the Italian island of Lampedousa. In addition, in 2016 he washed the feet of refugees on Holy Thursday—the day celebrated as the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion and the “last supper", and he did the same for prisoners on Holy Thursday in 2017. Pope Francis explained his conviction when he said, “Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis…For me, he [St. Francis of Assisi] is the man of poverty, the man of peace…How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!” (Erlandson 2014).

Yet, unlike many Jesuits and many Latin American Catholic theologians and religious leaders, Pope Francis is wary of “liberation theology.” Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian philosopher and Dominican (a Catholic order) priest, is recognized as the leading advocate of this system of theological-political thought that speaks of “the preferential option for the poor.” He writes that poverty “is not simply an occasion for charity but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected” (Gutierrez and Groody 2011). To this point, Francis would likely align well with liberation theologians. But, the Pope warns of the penchant within liberation theology to reduce Christian teachings to social justice and to embrace a “Marxist analysis of reality” (Caño and Ordaz 2017).  

His desire to maintain Catholic orthodoxy while also embodying simpler and more relevant Christian ethics has many historical connections, but the most important of these in modern church history is undoubtedly the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II (1962-1965). Over the course of three years, several thousand leaders and theologians within the Catholic Church gathered to consider “the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted…” (Pope Paul VI 1965). The council made strides toward creating a more accessible church with a focus on improving life for all of God’s children (i.e. all humans). Many themes from the council align well with the emphases of Pope Francis.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Catholic Church, and its leader, are tied to the philanthropic sector both in the theological ideas that they advance and through direct programmatic work. Regarding the former, numerous theological concepts relate to philanthropy. Notions such as “charity” and “philanthropy” owe a debt to Christian scripture and theology—especially as they developed and are used in the West.

A more specific way in which the Catholic Church and Pope Francis relate to philanthropy is via a set of doctrines known as “Catholic social teaching,” which is “wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). This set of doctrines includes principals such as the dignity of all humans, the importance of family and community, rights and responsibilities (not only rights), subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, rights of the worker, solidarity, and care for God’s creation. With several of these principles in mind, it is not surprising to hear the Pope say, “To trample upon the dignity of a woman, a man, a child, the elderly, is a grave sin that cries to heaven” (Erlandson 2014). Perhaps one of the lesser known of these principals outside of Catholic circles is the concept of subsidiarity, which is the idea that societal decisions and actions should be taken and implemented by the “lowest level possible and the highest level necessary” (Clark 2012). This principal aligns well with contemporary philanthropic emphasis on empowerment and it calls for greater recognition of the agency and importance of local community, including the family. Pope Francis has remarked, “Local economic development…[is] the most suitable response to the challenges presented to us by a globalized economy, the results of which are often cruel” (Shimek 2015). Subsidiarity is both a caution against high concentrations of power (by markets or governments), and a call to local responsibility for human welfare.

A concrete connection between the papacy and philanthropy is through the philanthropic initiatives and institutions of the Catholic church. Ecclesial bodies themselves are generally regarded as philanthropic institutions in the category of religious membership organizations. The Catholic church also is deeply engaged in education, the arts, relief and development, peace-building, and political advocacy.


Key Related Ideas

  • Globalization describes the growing interconnectivity between nations around the world via economic trade and the exchange of ideas. Pope Francis warns against and attempts to mitigate some of the dehumanizing effects (e.g. poverty and inequality) and environmentally degrading aspects of globalization (particularly global markets).
  • Local agency in philanthropy is the idea that communities, even vulnerable and impoverished communities, have the right and obligation to act. One example is the trend toward “asset-based community development,” which focuses on the abilities and resources of communities (assets utilized for the community’s own advancement), and not their deficits or needs.
  • Religious philanthropy is an important element of philanthropy in many cultures. In the United States, religion is the single largest domain within the philanthropic sector. An important component of religious philanthropy is education—Catholicism has a strong tradition of primary, secondary and post-secondary education.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566): Las Casas was a Catholic Dominican Friar and advocate for equitable treatment of indigenous American peoples. His book, A Short Account of the Devastation of  the West Indies, lead to the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery in the Americas (at least as policy). Las Casas' advocacy also prompted the Valladolid debates within the Catholic Church. Arguing principally against Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Las Casas made the case that Native Americans where equal to Europeans despite some practices, such as cannibalism and human sacrifice, that were particularly repulsive to Europeans. Las Casas was regarded as a forerunner to the modern human rights movement.
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546): Luther was the Catholic priest whose Ninety-Five Theses of 1517, which argued against abuses and theological errors of the Catholic church, ignited the Protestant Reformation. His intent was not to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, but to reform it.
  • Pope John Paul II (1920-2005): Karol Wojtyla, or Pope John Paul II, was another unexpected and transformative choice for the papacy in the modern era. His election was surprising because he was the first non-Italian pope since 1523—he was Polish. His reign was transformative as he championed reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council (including better relations with non-Catholic faiths) and stood steadfastly against the oppression and aggression of the Soviet Union until its demise.
  • St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226): St. Francis was the son of a successful merchant and noblewoman, who abandoned a life of comfort and pleasure to dedicate his life to the Church, the poor, and creation. Pope Francis is the first to choose this regnal name, and he did so because of his concern for the poor and the environment.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) is a network of Catholic poverty relief and social service organizations that serves vulnerable individuals regardless of religious affiliation. It is also a member of Caritas, an international network of Catholic poverty relief and social service organizations (catholiccharitiesusa.org).
  • Catholic Relief Services is an international relief and development organization under the authority of the Catholic Bishops of the United States. It aims to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas regardless of race, religion, or nationality (www.crs.org).
  • World Vision: World Vision is the single largest private international relief and development organization in the world. It is religiously Christian, but not denominationally affiliated. Like Caritas and Catholic Relief Services, World Vision provides a host of relief, development, and social services to vulnerable populations around the globe (www.worldvision.org).


Reflection Question - Pope Francis, from South America, is an example of the growing strength (economically, politically, culturally, etc.) of the global south. What might his geographical origin, including concerns common in the global south, signify for Catholic philanthropy? Religious philanthropy? Philanthropy as a whole?  



  • Berry, Jason. “The Significance of Pope Francis: First Jesuit Pontiff.” The Ground Truth Project. http://thegroundtruthproject.org/the-significance-of-pope-francis-first-jesuit-pontiff/
  • Caño, Antonio and Pablo Ordaz. “Pope Francis: The Danger is that in Times of Crisis We Look for a Savior.” El Pais. https://elpais.com/elpais/2017/01/21/inenglish/1485026427_223988.html
  • Clark, Meghan. “Subsidiarity is a Two-Sided Coin.” Catholic Moral Theology. https://catholicmoraltheology.com/subsidiarity-is-a-two-sided-coin/
  • Erlandson, Greg. Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac: 2014. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2014.
  • Fiorenza, Francis Schussler. “Reflections on Pope Francis: Is he a reformer, a traditionalist, or both?” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2014. https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/winterspring2014/reflections-on-pope-francis
  • Gutierrez, Gustavo and Daniel G. Groody. Gustavo Gutierrez: Spiritual Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011.
  • Pew Forum. The Global Catholic Population. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/02/13/the-global-catholic-population/
  • Pope Francis. The Name of God Is Mercy. New York: Random House, 2016.
  • Pope Paul VI. Guadium et Spes. Vatican City, Italy: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965.
  • Shimek, John Paul. “In Letter to Italian Mayor, Francis Emphasizes Principal of Subsidiarity.” The Catholic World Report. http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2015/10/19/in-letter-to-italian-mayor-francis-emphasizes-principle-of-subsidiarity/
  • Squires, Nick. “Pope Francis Shunned Official Papal Apartments to Live ‘Normal Life.” Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/the-pope/10086876/Pope-Francis-shunned-official-papal-apartments-to-live-normal-life.html
  • United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching. http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/seven-themes-of-catholic-social-teaching.cfm
  • Films: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/ng-live/150922-vatican-pope-francis-lecture-nglive
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.