Gender and Development

Pope Francis, A Global & Political Actor, In A Unique Position to Influence Critical World Issues

March 2018 marked the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. Andreia Soares e Castro takes a look at some facts, markers, initiatives and mediation efforts that demonstrate the Pope’s role as a political and global actor.


Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit, and the first non-European pontiff of the modern era to lead the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics. But most importantly, like his immediate predecessors (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), he is vociferously calling on world leaders to take action, identifying global problems and proposing concrete solutions for resolving critical crises worldwide. Advocating for the rights and realities of all men and women around the world, especially the poorest and the “peripheries” of our times, both geographically and existential, he lends a voice of pragmatism to the current debates of religion.

With political clout, charisma, simple gestures and communicating in a way people understand, Pope Francis uses his “soft power” to tackle global issues, that are also political issues, strongly condemning war, environmental destruction, economic inequalities, poverty or corruption, defending peace and reconciliation, human rights, economic and environmental justice, refugee rights, inter-religious understanding and so on, pursuing a very broad and inclusive foreign policy agenda.

Pope Francis’s view of the world is a global and inclusive one, but his approach is not new. Indeed, the Holy See is recognized as a member and participant in international society. With observer status at the United Nations since April 6, 1964, the Holy See has been invited to participate in the meetings of all the sessions of the General Assembly.

The Holy See has a vast field of action in multilateral diplomacy, apart from bilateral diplomacy – there are 183 States that currently have diplomatic relations with the Holy See – proving that it has a position on the world’s issues. In his first address to the UN on September 25, 2015, speaking to the global community, Pope Francis called for peace, environmental justice, the elimination of nuclear weapons, the need to end the persecution of Christians around the world, the right to education for girls, to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities and to combat widespread poverty, among various other issues. Another example is Pope Francis’ second Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ which addresses the “Care for Our Common Home”, affirming that he is strongly committed to the urgency of the issue of climate change and environmental protection, that he wants to enter into dialogue with all people and to encourage working together in Climate Change negotiations.

The Pope’s speeches to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings, the Messages for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, and “Urbi et Orbi Messages” in Saint Peter’s Square are also important occasions where he reflected on the sufferings and poverty that afflict the world. In an integrative analysis, which includes the whole world, and before an assembly that ideally represents all nations, the Pope expresses the concerns of the Holy See, confirming its commitment to a culture of peace and human promotion. For instance, in his last “Urbi et Orbi” Message, which in Latin means “To the city and world”, on December, 25 2017, Pope Francis called for peace in Jerusalem and for the Holy Land, for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and for a two-state solution. In his speech Pope Francis addressed other pressing international issues: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria, North Korea, Venezuela, Ukraine, Child soldiers, the migration crisis, minority groups (Myanmar and Bangladesh).

Pope Francis has also acted as a diplomatic actor (the Holy See has an historic role in international mediation). Here are three good examples of his “soft power” and effectiveness in deescalating conflicts: the initiative of Prayer between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Vatican, the breakthrough in US-Cuba relations and the peacemaking role in the Colombian peace process.

Another marker of Francis’ Pontificate is his commitment to establish greater dialogue with Islam and other religions. In 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill Head of the Russian Orthodox Church met in Cuba for the first time in nearly 1000 years, calling the international community to act to stop the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and recognizing the importance of interreligious dialogue and the value of religious freedom.

Pope Francis “soft power” tools include the digital platform for dialogue with the world, recognizing the importance of digital media and its use in his communication to change hearts and minds. According to the Twiplomacy Study 2017 Pope Francis (@Pontifex) is the most followed world leader with more than 33.7 million followers on his nine language accounts. On 19 March 2016, Pope Francis extended his digital footprint by creating an Instagram account (@Franciscus), which now has more than 5 million followers.

The nearness of Francis’ Pontificate, enhanced through global media, is visible also through its international trips: he has visited 31 countries all around the world and is on the way of becoming a travelling Pope, like John Paul II. The Pope’s international trips are also relevant for the international agenda-setting of the Holy See: visiting places where there are existing conflicts (Israel in 2014; Central African Republic in 2015; Myanmar in 2017) or reconciliation processes (Colombia in 2017); to enhance interfaith dialogue across the globe, most recently in Jordan, Palestine and Israel, Albania and Turkey in 2014; Bosnia and Herzegovina and Central African Republic in 2015; Egypt, Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017; or to alert to the problems of minorities and refugees like the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

When Pope Francis travels abroad, he attempts to give minorities and peripheries a voice and call the attention of the world to their problems. The concept of “the periphery” is central to Francis’ Pontificate, reaffirming that he really wants the church to go global.

Andreia Soares e Castro is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, ISCSP – ULisboa as well as a Researcher at the Centre for Public Administration & Public Policies CAPP/ISCSP-ULisboa. She received her Ph.D. in International Relations as well as her M.A. in International Relations from ISCSP-ULisboa.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Leave a Reply