Francis Pope Francis, who will visit the United States in September, is the first Jesuit pope and the first non‐European pope in more than 1,200 years. He has made headlines with his outspoken style and by venturing into areas of politics and economy with comments that have attracted both praise and criticism.
Pope Francis has spoken about inequality and climate change, criticized capitalism, and warned European leaders about increasing bureaucracy that stifles democracy. “Keep democracy alive” he advised the European Parliament. Pope Francis has also changed the Church’s tone on sexual minorities.
Katharina von Kellenbach, Professor of Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland had an honor to meet with Pope Francis in June. She was interviewed by Maija Harkonen, Executive Director of the CSD.
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills”. – Evangelii Gaudium of The Holy Father Francis, November 2014.
How did you get to meet with the Holy Father Pope Francis?
I was in Rome June 28 ‐ July 1, 2015 to attend the annual conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a document debated and passed by the Second Vatican Council (in 1965) that fundamentally altered the church’s teaching on Jews and Judaism. The participants came from 42 countries (including the Vatican) and represented various local and national Jewish and Christian dialogue organizations. Among them was Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who is a long‐time friend of Pope Francis, and whose personal relationship probably secured this papal audience. We spent the entire morning in the Vatican, which was a surprising investment of time and energy, since our visit was flanked by the publication of Laduate Si, the encyclica on the environment (June 18) and his departure to Latin America (July 5). Pope Francis will turn eighty next year, but his vigorous schedule and political ambition belies his age.
What are your impressions of him as Pope?
I saw two very different faces of the pope: First, I witnessed a man who delivered a papal address in a monotone voice, reading a prepared (and pre‐translated) statement on Jewish‐Christian relations. Then, I saw a man who beamed at each person, one at a time. The man who read the statement seemed tired and subdued, burdened by protocol and procedure. The man who greeted people seemed alert, spontaneous, and charismatic. At the risk of over‐interpretation, I could see the effort it took this pope to perform the ceremonial duties in the Vatican, while he seemed to genuinely enjoy meeting and interacting with people. This becomes obvious in his commitment to the poor.
How important is the theme of economic / income inequality to him?
Pope Francis has very quickly established himself as the most powerful proponent of liberation theology. He envisions a church that communicates the “preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters,” to quote Laudatio Si, the encyclical on the environment. He has reversed the policies of his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVIII, who censored, silenced, and defrocked prominent liberation theologians. As the first pope from Latin America, he is well aware of social, political and economic inequalities that can be traced all the way to the Spanish colonial conquest, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of African peoples. A very small elite controls much of the land and most of the natural resources. Pope Francis calls systems in which “access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership … structurally perverse.Those are strong words. At his most radical, Pope Francis can be read to condemn (the excesses of) global capitalism as a system that promotes greed, selfishness, and materialism. We will see whether his moral case on which his passionate pleas for a change of heart rests, will prove persuasive. Certainly, his trip to the United States is both eagerly awaited and feared.
Professor von Kellenbanch’s areas of expertise include Holocaust Studies, Jewish‐Christian studies, feminist theology and inter-religious dialogue. She is the author of The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Lives of Perpetrators of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and of Anti‑Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings (AAR Cultural Criticism Series: Oxford University Press, 1994). Professor von Kellenbanch was a student of Protestant evangelical theology in Berlin and Göttingen (1979‐1982) she completed her Ph.D. in the religion department at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1990.