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Pope Francis has used his soft power to speak progressively against an international system that creates and maintains economic inequality and poverty. This year the pope is expected to travel to Africa - a much needed visit for Africans of all faiths as it will once again remind the world of persistent injustices as well as the vast potential of the continent.

A recent Pambazuka News issue carried an article by the world reknown scholar-activist Prof Yash Tandon discussing Pope Francis’ ideas on global poverty as contained in his encyclical (papal letters addressed to the church and the world) ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. Prof Tandon makes an accurate analysis of the Pope’s critique of the global international system that creates too much wealth while leaving many people wallowing in abject poverty. This critique of the global system has left some champions of unbridled free market economy uncomfortable, since their economic theories are challenged as not being the best solution to solve global poverty.

Now that even secular scholars like Prof Tandon have developed an intellectual interest in Pope Francis’s ideas, it is high time we looked more closely at the deeper insights informing the Supreme Pontiff’s bold claims and massive global following even among non-Christians. The theory that will inform this discussion is that of Joseph Nye known as ‘Soft power’—the ability to attract – as opposed to the ‘hard power’ of economics and militarism or force. Clearly, Pope Francis has demonstrated a rare skill to wield soft power in a world facing the crisis of the international order. The second conceptual framework that can help us understand Pope Francis’ global appeal is that of global governance, that recognizes the fact that non-state actors are now part and parcel of the governance architecture, crucial among these actors being faith-based organizations, among which the Roman Catholic Church occupies a strategic position.

Why does Pope Francis capture the imagination of vast audiences across the globe as he travels to different parts of the world? Why do the statements he makes leave a deep and lasting impression in the minds and hearts of millions if not billions of people?


Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history” celebrating the triumph of liberal democracy and the free market over communism and state controlled economies. This triumphalism was short-lived when fundamentalist groups rose to the occasion with the dramatic 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. The rest, they say is history. The end of the Cold War did not usher in the much anticipated global peace and prosperity. While some countries have indeed prospered with the opening of the economies, some have remained trapped in abject poverty. While some countries are safe and stable, others have been declared failed states, the most dramatic being Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few.

The uni-polar world that was ushered by the end of the Cold War has also brought new threats to the international system. Key among these are global terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and Islam State militants. One wonders who is in charge of bringing peace in the current international system. It is not clear as to why a rug-tag of armed groups such as Boko Haram can hold an entire state machinery at ransom as the international system looks on helplessly. And it is not only African states that are under threat—just consider what the militant group did in France recently. Then add the Ebola crisis that took the West African states by surprise and all the health care systems as well as the international system could not contain the pandemic in a reasonable time.

2015 was the deadline for meeting the much celebrated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Some countries have made great strides in meeting these, but others have failed to meet the goals. Another set of Sustainable Development Goals has been designed and will soon be launched. 2015 is supposed to be the year of Action. There is hope and some pessimism.

This is the context in which Pope Francis’ prophetic voice has come on the global stage with some fresh insights as a thought leader of immense global stature. Is he a credible voice to bring humanity to the basics? Will the world political leaders pay heed? Will his global vision be embraced by international policy makers?


One who heads the Roman Catholic Church has to be exceedingly humble to avoid the temptation of power tripping. Do not be deceived by the Vatican State (seat of the Supreme Pontiff) that is just 109 acres of land! The Vatican also has diplomatic missions in about 122 countries and still counting; Catholic Dioceses are over 2000. The number of catholic schools, hospitals, charitable agencies such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Caritas far outweigh those of any single country on earth. One who leads such a multinational system can easily be corrupted by what Lord Acton characterized as: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Right from the time of his election as Pope, Francis portrayed himself as a humble servant who even begged Christians to bless him. And his famous phrase “Who am I to judge” has won the hearts of many.

Without comparing Pope Francis with previous pontiffs, it is clear that while in general previous popes tended to pontificate and issue complex doctrines, he tries to use simple and straightforward messages from his heart. He oftentimes delivers homilies not from a written text but from his heart. In his messages, he tries to bring out issues of the poor and suffering as needing great attention as opposed to deep theological doctrines. This makes him very close to the ordinary people. The fact that he comes from Argentina, a developing country, makes him a champion of the world’s majority who struggle for basics of life.

While the world is deeply polarized along religious lines with fundamentalist groups wrecking havoc, he tries to preach religious tolerance, stressing what unites than what divides. His recent trip to Turkey was such a gesture. He also recently joined other religious leaders to form a global network against human trafficking. He takes the suffering of humanity very seriously. He does not let the plight of refugees who cross dangerous seas escape his attention.

Even on some delicate moral issues such as divorced couples, he tries to show compassion rather than being judgmental. He has called upon the universal church to rethink its attitude towards those whose marriages are in difficulties or who even divorce. He even dares to address delicate issues of new marital arrangements that are not consistent with the church’s doctrine, stressing the need for understanding rather than condemnation.

On some delicate international issues such as war and economics, he does not shy away from calling for peaceful resolution of conflicts, avoiding offensive publications that might provoke violent reactions and challenging the unequal distribution of the world’s resources. He has curved for himself a niche as a conscience of the world amidst hushed voices from the high and the mighty.


True to the pattern of Pope Francis’ option for the marginalized sections of society, it has been informally said that he is coming to Africa later in the year. The lucky countries to be visited are Uganda and Central African Republic. While the Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi was guarded on the exact dates for the papal African trip, there were underground preparations in Uganda, as soon as the sacred rumor started making rounds. Late last year, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni made a trip to the Vatican, and it is reported that he, together with the Catholic hierarchy in Uganda had extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Uganda.

The choice for Uganda has great justification. Uganda is home to the famous Uganda Martyrs whose national feast is celebrated on 3rd June. The catholic population in Uganda is about 45% of the 37 million Ugandans, with a vibrant Christian faith. If you add the protestants who are about 35% of the population, then you have a predominantly Christian country that can host Pope Francis with pomp. The last time the Supreme pontiff visited Uganda was in 1993 when Pope John Paul visited the pearl of Africa (as Winston Churchill labeled Uganda). This was 21 years ago. But the history of popes visiting Uganda dates back to 1969 when Pope Paul VI visited Uganda and consecrated over 30 African Bishops—it was the first time a Pope visited the African continent. There is also a geopolitical advantage for selecting Uganda. The region that is much talked about as the Great Lakes Region has Uganda as the epicenter. People from Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, will easily come to Uganda to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father. In fact, every 3rd June pilgrims who come to celebrate the Uganda Martyrs day trek from Kenya, Rwanda, and DRC, taking several days by road to the Uganda Martyrs Shrine in Kampala. And of course Uganda has had its fair share of political turmoil, significant being the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency that lasted over 23 years wrecking havoc in Northern Uganda. Scars left by this ugly war need to be healed by the Pope’s visit.

Going by the trend so far, Pope Francis is likely to attract a mammoth crowd of believers and fans of all creeds and ideological persuasion. Of course, the politicians in Uganda will maximize their political capital from such a high profile visit. Elections are due 2016 - the timing is perfect. Such a high profile visit will also be an opportunity to speak about governance, peace and care for the needy and marginalized.

Uganda’s weather is ideal for hosting a large crowd of papal enthusiasts. Open fields with Kampala’s tropical climate will provide free shelter, as it always happens on the Uganda Martyrs day. Uganda is also blessed with abundant food. Kampala city can comfortably feed over 10 million people for a week. Another vital factor is security in the country. There has been relative security for over 25 years—pilgrims will freely roam the streets of Kampala at any time of the day including the night.

Will there be enough accommodation for such a large crowd of people? Uganda hosted Commonwealth Heads of State Summit in 2007. Lots of hotels were built for this global event and many more have been added - “There are many rooms in Uganda’s mansions.” But also given Uganda’s hospitality, many families will be willing to host pilgrims. No doubt, the Pope’s visit will also boost Uganda’s “soft economy”—especially tourism and hospitality. The visit will bring not only heavenly but also economic blessings.

The other choice, Central African Republic is also on target. This country has gone through tough times with Christians fighting with Moslems. Pope Francis’ soft power is much needed to bring about healing and dialogue between Moslems and Christians. And there is a good balance: Uganda being an English speaking country and Central African Republic being a French Speaking country.

With the mantra of Africa rising, Pope Francis will boost this optimism of Africa on the rise and also help to amplify the voice of those who are promoting social justice and good governance on the continent. Pope Francis’ soft power is what Africa needs in dealing with Al Shabab , Boko Haram, the conflicts in South Sudan, Eastern DRC, Central African Republic, and the influx of refugees.

As Africans wait eagerly for Pope Francis’ visit to the rising continent, the year 2015 will move quite fast. No one knows what other events will happen in this mysterious continent as the year 2015 unfolds. The wish is that 2015 becomes Africa’s year of jubilee and prosperity both in material and spiritual terms.


Given the current crisis in the international order, Pope Francis has come as a fresh impetus to boost humanity’s optimism. He has come just at the right time when the world needs a sober voice that can address humanity without being trapped into ideologies or dogmas that usually polarize. Those who hold the possibility of cosmopolitics or global governance have an ally in the person of Pope Francis. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace MDGs have a worthy ambassador in Pope Francis.

The question lingering in many people’s minds is: Will the world listen to Pope Francis and heed his call for a more caring and compassionate humanity? Will the world leaders who have been schooled in and intoxicated by political realism as a norm for international relations embrace a more humane vision of dialogue, solidarity and care for one another and the environment, for which Pope Francis stands?

Of course, there are some who interpret Pope Francis’ non-dogmatic stance as lack of sharp clarity on moral issues. To such we can only say, humanity has come a long way, and our long experience on plate earth assures us that moral and ethical issues are never in black and white. Human beings are much more complex than simple doctrinal formulations can comprehend. Those who prefer that humanity goes back to the time of the inquisition to settle doctrinal issues may try their luck. But fundamentalist groups currently abound to give us sufficient evidence against that dangerous path. Soft power is the way to go. Jesus himself, for whom Pope Francis is a vicar on earth, offered an alternative vision for humanity and also espoused soft power using concepts such as: love of neighbor, love of enemy, compassion, helping the needy and forgiveness.

It is hoped that Pope Francis’ soft power will bring fresh perspectives on how to address Africa’s burning issues of uneven economic development, sluggish democratization processes, pockets of insecurity and misuse of natural resources.

* Dr Odomaro Mubangizi teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa and is Dean of the Philosophy Department, as well as Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.

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