Pope Francis’ real interest is geopolitics.
In less than two years in office, Francis has nudged the conversation away from sex to such as matters as Cuba-U.S. relations and climate change. In September, he will become the first religious leader who serves as a head of state to address a joint session of Congress.
Pope John Paul II was single-minded in the pursuit of ending Communism in the 1980s, while Pope Benedict XVI was a gaffe-prone bookworm fretting over relativism.
Francis, in contrast, is making his own pivot towards Asia. He already has been twice to the region shunned by his predecessor with a view not only to refilling pews, but also gaining traction with the rising powers.
The challenge for Francis — who is from a religious order that proselytized in China in the 16th century — is how to work with China today. The Vatican and the world’s most populous country have been at odds since 1951 over, among many things, the right to ordain bishops.
Francis, who says he would go to Beijing tomorrow, has a secret corridor with the new leadership for diplomatic messages. There have been small gestures on both sides: Francis didn’t see the Dalai Lama in Rome; doing so would have incensed Chinese authorities. President Xi Jinping allowed Francis to fly in China’s airspace, the first time a pope was granted that right.
China has about 12 million Catholics — three times the number in Ireland — compared with a mere 300,000 in Taiwan.
The gap between the pope’s knowledge and effectiveness may be large. Francis has dived into tough international conflicts including Korea, Cuba and Palestine and not all has gone well.
While he brought attention to the plight of Palestinians by praying in Bethlehem near graffiti that read “Free Palestine,” his visit was followed by violence against the Palestinians.
He was much more successful with Cuba, secretly hosting delegations from there and the U.S. and playing a vital role in the prisoner exchanges that led to renewed relations after half a century.
He has announced plans to shrink the bureaucracy that runs the church, removed executives at the mismanaged Vatican Bank and told cardinals to abandon their limousines and catch the bus.
At the bank, he’s brought a measure of transparency following allegations of illegal behavior and poor oversight. The bank now publishes an annual report, has closed 2,000 accounts and undertaken a review of 18,000 clients.