Reformed Rhetoric: Priming the Catholic Church for Long-Term Change

Harvard Political Review

By Minnie Jang

Over seven million followers on Twitter. Time’s 2013 “Person of the Year.” Hundreds of thousands of people lined up in the streets to see him during his recent visit to the United States.

Since his election in April 2013, Pope Francis has garnered unparalleled media attention. With nearly 50,000 media mentions in his first year as pontiff alone and tourism in Vatican City tripling since the beginning of his tenure, he has brought increased attention to the papacy and gained a celebrity-like status.

Media outlets are fond of calling him “the people’s pope.” This label draws attention to Pope Francis’s message of compassion for marginalized populations. Through rhetoric of openness and compassion, he has shifted the conversation away from traditionally controversial social issues, such as homosexuality and divorce, to that of building “a church that is poor and is for the poor.”

In evaluating the pope and his refocused rhetoric, the natural inclination is to look for tangible results. How many people has he lifted out of poverty? How much have Church expenditures changed? Yet these quantitative measures are the wrong frame of analysis. Harvard Divinity School assistant dean for ministry studies and field education Emily Click explained to the HPR that Pope Francis is not trying to control outcomes, and that “we often discount a shift in conversation as a powerful move.” While attempting to measure “the Francis effect” has value in ensuring that rhetoric does not wholly replace action, it should not substitute or devalue the importance of conversational change.

During the first two and a half years of his papacy, Pope Francis has initiated this complex process of change, looking outward toward the global Church’s varying priorities and looking inward toward reforming the discourse of the Church itself. These rhetoric-based reforms have sown the seeds of long-term change, which is just beginning to be defined in concrete terms.

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