The first pope to address Congress isn’t new to politics

Havana — “I always was interested in politics,” Pope Francis told a journalist from his native Argentina last year. That interest was developed in childhood, in the influence on him of his grandmother Rosa, who once defied fascists in Italy while active in a church organization called Catholic Action.

As a teenager, Jorge Mario Bergoglio would drift between local political party offices as he listened to discussions. He was drawn to being a priest, but felt the tug of a political calling, too.

Beneath the gregarious, spontaneous Francis lies an unusually acute political mind. In Argentina, they speak of him as the most talented politician since General Juan Perón. The Jesuits refer to him as a mixture of a desert saint and Machiavelli.

He began a PhD thesis on the dynamics of disagreement. He studied the way contrasting points of view, held in tension, led to new fruitful solutions, and how the task of a leader was to hold polarities in tension, without letting disagreement fall into division. The PhD was never finished, but he applied its lessons, as cardinal archbishop, to the renewal of Argentine politics.

During his life a Jesuit, bishop, cardinal and now pope, Francis has never ceased thinking deeply about leadership and statecraft. He has been fearless in deploring the failures of global political leadership to tackle the world’s pressing problems, has issued one of the most far-reaching social critiques ever written by a pope, and has challenged the existing world order with the boldness of a prophet and the language of a revolutionary.

Just what are the pope’s politics, ahead of Thursday when he becomes the first pope ever to address the U.S. Congress? Where do his sympathies lie? What does he want?

What Pope Francis is not

Pope Francis is not a social liberal. As cardinal archbishop, he was deeply opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and, of course, abortion. The idea of organizing society around the autonomy of the sovereign individual repels him. “Many people are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns,” he said in Bolivia in July.

Nor is Pope Francis an economic liberal: he describes sink-or-swim capitalism — in which the elderly and the unemployed are condemned to poverty — as “an economy that kills.” In his address in Bolivia to workers in the informal sector in July, he warned that “once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.”

In the same speech he spoke powerfully of the right of all to land, labor and housing. On Sunday evening in Havana, he told young people that a society that does not create job opportunities for those under 25 condemns them to suicide and addiction.

His rejection of both social and economic liberalism is captured in his critique of what he calls the “throwaway culture,” one of his metaphors regularly invoked in his papacy. It is a mindset that not only consumes wastefully without concern for the impact on the planet – think gadgets, styrofoam cups and air conditioning – but also regards the unborn as disposable.

None of these positions are surprising in a pope. His critiques may be expressed in startling metaphors and sometimes scandalous phrases – it has not been easy for some to forget his quote from Basil of Caesarea that the unfettered pursuit of wealth is the “dung of the devil” — but in context he has added little to the thinking of his predecessors.

Where Pope Francis is coming from

Yet Francis does have a distinctive political outlook, one that is shaped by his experience as a Latin American Catholic nationalist whose thinking matured in the 1960s, a time of deep political ferment in Latin America provoked by the Cuban Revolution.

The dominant liberal doctrine of the time was “developmentalism,” promoted by John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Developmentalism, underpinned by modernization, assumed that closer economic ties between the U.S. and Latin America would produce growth to the benefit of both. The Marxist critique of that model started from the opposite view: the closer Latin America was tied to the U.S. economy, the more it would be impoverished.

“Cuba vs. US” was the Manichean choice of the time and has poisoned Latin American politics since, but the Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio rejected this polarity. He was a Peronist: anti-colonial, pro-worker, offering a “third way” between capitalism and communism that was true to Latin America’s Christian-humanist traditions. That made him naturally sympathetic, in 1959, to the original “national” and “popular” Cuban Revolution, seeking social justice, political and economic independence, but it equally horrified when within two years Fidel Castro allied with the communists and fell into the Soviet orbit.

While in Cuba, Pope Francis has been helping to build a pluralistic Cuba resting on nationalist-Christian foundations. In a 1998 book reflecting on Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island, he wrote that neither “neoliberalism” nor “communism” reflected what he called “the soul of the Cuban people,” a phrase he used in his speech arriving at Havana airport on Saturday. A new politics has to be forged in Cuba, one that takes the original national-popular ambitions of the Revolution and combines them with a social democracy that cares for the vulnerable.

Why Pope Francis wants a new model

This is not just about Cuba. Francis is convinced that the whole of Latin America has a key role developing such a politics in the future as it achieves greater continent-wide integration. He regularly uses a phrase first coined by early 20th-century Latin-American nationalists to capture the idea of the patria grande, or greater homeland.

As cardinal, he supported the idea of Latin America playing a key role on the world stage. But in a 2005 essay he perceived the twin threat to that goal as “weak thinking” that reflects “the cultural colonialism of the empires,” manifested in both liberal-individualist globalization and “adolescent progressivism.”

As pope, he has spoken of how Latin America can offer “new models of development” that reconcile both technological progress and Christian concern for justice and equity. Francis believes politics must be rooted in, and serve, the values and concerns of ordinary people, uniting them by focusing on the needs of the poorest.

“Never stop being rooted in local realities,” he said in Bolivia, words directed especially to politicians. “The father of lies is able to usurp noble words, to promote intellectual fads and to adopt ideological stances,” he warned, adding, “But if you build on solid foundations, on real needs and on the lived experience of your brothers and sisters, of campesinos and natives, of excluded workers and marginalized families, you will surely be on the right path.”

Francis believes that politics that does not raise the poor and lead to the inclusion of the marginalized is empty, which is why, straight after addressing Congress, he will be with homeless people in Washington D.C.

Few realize how deep his vision for the renewal of politics runs. On Thursday, they will find out.