Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Pope Francis among other disruptive leaders



Evaluations of Pope Francis usually contrast him with his predecessors. When engaging in politics, however, he faces the same challenge as they did.

Pope Francis greets fansHe must first strengthen the Catholic Church in its faith, and so influence national and international relationships by persuasion and diplomacy. His distinctive contribution will come through the way he embodies and commends his personal faith.

Pope John Paul II did this through strong personal leadership in which he was the authoritative face of a Catholic Church united and disciplined in faith. From that basis he could go among national leaders as an equal and commend humane values and resolutions to conflict.

Pope Benedict XVI was personally more reticent, but was also the authoritative face of the doctrinal and cultural tradition of the Catholic Church. He engaged politically as an ethical guide and teacher in a conflicted society.

In comparison with his predecessors Pope Francis' personal engagement both in the Catholic Church and in the political world has been through reversal and disruption.

He presents himself less as the authoritative leader of the church and of its tradition, than as an ordinary Catholic and human being among others. Remember the shock when after his election he insisted on paying his own hotel bill and on moving from the papal palace into the guest house.

This behaviour is rooted in his conviction that he is a sinner to whom God has shown great compassion and has called to follow Jesus. The joy of meeting a compassionate God in Jesus Christ is for him the heart of the Christian Gospel and tradition. The Gospel is commended when Christians go out humbly to others and show Christ's accepting and compassionate face.

That conviction shapes the way in which the Pope acts and speaks both in the church and more broadly. Many of his homilies are off the cuff and idiomatic in their language. His visits abroad often conclude with uncontrolled press conferences in the plane back home. He is happy to hear opposed views and to live with misunderstandings of his own.


"Trump and Duterte offer themselves as strong leaders who alone can disrupt established patterns of governance and so heal society. Francis divests himself of the trappings of strength and goes about as an undefended human being."


His ritual celebrations, too, often take him outside churches to join people in need. His striking Holy Thursday visit to a youth detention centre where he washed the feet, among others, of a Muslim woman prisoner was the precursor of a penitential service on Lampedusa for drowned refugees, regular visits to prisons, and a Mass on Lesbos for refugees seeking protection in Europe. He came less as ruler or teacher than as brother and friend.

For Francis faith and tradition are not foremost treasures to be protected but resources for living out the Gospel through personal encounter. When visiting prisoners and pushing into crowds to embrace disabled people he embodies a faithful church. In his addresses he insists that bishops and priests should always be compassionate in their dealings with those in need and in messy relationships. Catholics should not judge but welcome people on the margins.

Francis' reflections on the major issues of our times — the movement of peoples, economic settings that enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and the environment — also reflect his solidarity with people whose lives are blighted. His language is strong and concrete, particularly when criticising policies that canonise greed and self-interest. He speaks from the bottom and not from the top.

The Pope's identification with people who have been marginalised by the noxious aspects of globalisation and his distinctive papal style bear comparison with other contemporary disruptive political styles. People like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte and the promoters of Brexit also distinguish themselves from professional politicians and identify themselves with those harmed by the effects of globalisation. They and Pope Francis feed off the popular instinct that business as usual will not do in church or in society.

Despite these common features, however, there are significant differences in the disruptive politics of Francis and that of people like Trump and Duterte. The latter offer themselves as strong leaders who alone can disrupt established patterns of governance and so heal society. Francis divests himself of the trappings of strength and goes about as an undefended human being.

Disruptive political leaders, too, offer people a common set of enemies to hate: Muslims, Washington insiders, Brussels bureaucrats, petty criminals, refugees, Greenies etc. They promise to restore pride to the humiliated by excluding those who are different. Francis encourages people to identify themselves with those who are needy. They will find themselves and connect with others through compassion. And only that will lead to a better society.

Is Francis' style of political engagement effective? It has certainly gained him a favourable hearing within church and society. His message and his personality suit the times. Whether it will be lastingly effective will depend on whether he changes attitudes, particularly those of people who will be responsible for governance in church and state. But at the very least he has stressed the ethical and religious urgency of treating refugees, the environment, and the economy with respect.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks for your observations which were incisive as usual. I listened to Bishop Heather's evidence to the Royal Commission yesterday and I despaired. There appeared to be no introspection nor understanding of impact of the Catholic Church actions on innocent children and I was left to wonder whether, given the same circumstances, would he would have endeavoured to protect the reputation of a pedophile priest/church again instead of those of his flock. So for me the Pope has a challenging task ahead of which he doesn't seem yet to fully comprehend and thats to change the mindset of his staff, the priests under his management.

Carol | 15 September 2016  

“He must first strengthen the Catholic Church in its faith”….. The important aspect of Faith is not so much WHAT is believed, but WHY it is believed. In most cases Why we believe, like all the other believers of various religions, is that we bond to what we are brought up to believe, and the bonding can become bondage, so we can become unwilling, or even unable to think outside the parameters of our mind-set. All religions tend to claim, either explicitly or implicitly that their interpretation of God’s call is the one and only interpretation. But “There are many rooms in my Father’s House”. There are many paths up God’s Mountain.,each of which is shaped by the situation and degree of development of the people involved. Only when Faith in all religions is refined from these influences can it be reconciled with other faiths, and truly be strengthened

Robert Liddy | 15 September 2016  

Jesus was in the world but not of it. I think this is where those who wish to politicise Christianity go very wrong. Jesus preached against the arrant social evils of his day and he gave severe warnings of ultimate punishment to the most serious malefactors. Christians throughout the centuries have done this. One thinks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the late, great, saintly Bayers Naude in South Africa. They were Protestant and this Pope would warmly endorse them. There have always been Catholic social activists and reformers like the late Dorothy Day. The Catholic Church is not a church of party politics. It is concerned with social welfare and the dignity of every human being, Catholic or not. The current Pope is a man of great self-awareness nurtured by a deep, rich, living Latin Catholic culture. That culture is probably now more alive in South America and the Philippines then on the Continent of Europe. Poland, although not Latin, seems to be the only Catholic country in Europe where the Church is both the church of the nation and alive. Francis reminds me of the early Jesuits. He is on a mission to mend, defend and renew the Church. God willing, he will succeed.

Edward Fido | 15 September 2016  

Andy Hamilton at his gentle but profound best. He, like Francis, brings the Gospel onto centre stage. May he write more and more often. Thanks, Andy.

Donna Dening | 15 September 2016  

Since the advent of Francis, an echoing quietude seems to have befallen the various carping movements demanding change in the Church. Perhaps this has happened because Francis himself seems unopposed to change in some of those traditions which had taken root in the Church over some few hundred years. In some of his public pronouncements (such as on family and contraception) he does seem to embrace much of the change that various reformers have sought over recent times, but without radical abandonment of traditional Catholic teaching by taking a step too far. Balanced against his embodiment of the compassion of Christ for all mankind, he might well accomplish much politically without playing the politics of the Italo-Roman pantomimes of latter years. Hopefully the Church will follow in Francis' footsteps and not those of the clamorous reformers and renewalists.

john frawley | 15 September 2016  

There are at least two questions to be asked when we try to assess whether an individual is an effective leader or not. Does the leader achieve what he sets out to achieve? Does the leader achieve what his followers think he should achieve? For me the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965) is the most significant event in the history of the Catholic Church since 16th century. John XXIII was effective in launching the Council with its ecumenical and reforming spirit. Paul VI was effective in bringing it to a close - even if there was considerable unfinished business. But the Church measures time in millennia not decades or centuries. Thirty years later (1994) John Paul 2 wrote: "The best preparation for the new millennium ... can only expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teachings of Vatican 2 to the life of every individual and the whole Church." If we set that as the goal - "apply the teachings of Vatican 2 ...." I assess all post Vatican 2 Popes, whatever their leadership style, and the Synods of Bishops have been less than effective leaders.

Uncle Pat | 15 September 2016  

"Whether it will be lastingly effective will depend on whether he changes attitudes, particularly those of people who will be responsible for governance in church and state." Nothing like good example to achieve that goal - and the Pope is giving that good example. Ultimately, it is as you say - changing attitudes. That means learning to love those who we find distasteful, those who don't love us. It's not about what we believe - it's about how we behave.

David Healy | 15 September 2016  

Thank you Andrew for your penetrating analysis of the ways in which the behaviour of Pope Francis differs from that of other disruptive leaders. He has frequently stressed the fact that each one of us has a mission, a mission to bring the message of Christ to all. The actions of Francis to which you refer are instances of how he performs his role in that mission and examples of how we should perform ours. It seems to me that the essence of the Pope’s behaviour is captured in the comments of David Healy about changing attitudes – loving those we find distasteful – about not merely what we believe (important as that is) but how we behave and those of Edward Fido concerning the dignity of every human being, Catholic or not.

John Hassett | 15 September 2016  

Pope Francis is reading the signs of the times far better than some of our political leaders in many ways, including care for the natural environment and concern for climate change action. On the climate change issue, Pope Francis has said 'Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony and disdain'. With the Australian Government having such a weak carbon reduction target and drastically reducing funding for CSIRO and ARENA, we all need to act personally to reduce our carbon footprints, and in future ensure that we install politicians who will show much greater care for Earth, Our Common Home, on which all life depends. With the disruption already being caused to Planet Earth by escalating climate change, we need to heed the words of Pope Francis, our disruptive Pope, in his encyclical Laqudato Si' before a tipping point is reached and our planet is really 'cooked'.

Grant Allen | 15 September 2016  

It is becoming increasingly obvious that everything, including Religions, need to evolve. The first Christians, ’Followers of the Way’, were moved by the Spirit of love, and acted out, though without formulating it, the principle, ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. This Spirit attracted millions of Followers for hundreds of years. When they were persecuted by the Jewish establishment they fled to live among the Greeks, who embraced The Way, and wrote, but also adapted the Gospels to include their own traditions. Similarly The Way was embraced by the Romans, adapted again to suit Roman ways. These Greco-Roman traditions are causing most of the problems in the Church, and need to be recognised and refined or eliminated. It will not be easy, or quick, but hopefully Pope Francis can start us on the right path.

Robert Liddy | 15 September 2016  

He is much more inclusive than Benedict. He comes across as more human and eshews societal status. Inequalities of wealth and property beleager the Church of England and the Vatican. Centuries of collections have enriched the Vatican as well as the English monarchs. He may decry "economic settings that enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor, and the environment" but look at the art treasures of the Papal State. Look at the Vatican bank presided over by Pell and the Cardinals. The church has to consider its own holdings and how best to use them for the benefit of its members rather than point the finger elsewhere.

francis Armstrong | 15 September 2016  

A couple of years ago, two leaders of great symbolic power met - Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Francis. They spoke cordially together then exchanged gifts. Neither influence others by their use of brute force but by example. Many would say the monarchy is past its use-by date but few would argue about the way the Queen has impacted positively on others. This is also Francis' strong suit. Many people see the church's weakness as a hindrance but I'm sure the Pope doesn't.

Pam | 15 September 2016  

"Also reflect his solidarity with those whose lives are blighted ".You would have a mammoth task to convince those of the Catholic community living within the vast Townsville Diocese ,stretching from the east coast to the NT border. Our most recent Bishop has been dead for two years & his poor health indicated that probability for a further 18 months . Yet we have still not had a new Bishop appointed despite appeals to the leadership in Rome Father Mick Lowcock is doing an extraordinary job as caretaker ,but imagine under what differculty ,given he is over a thousand Km from Townsville seriously serving his vast ,multicultural community within an area equal in size to some of our States . A little while back he took a plea from the laity to the ACBC ,yet the silence is deafening .

john kersh | 15 September 2016  

There are obviously serious moral issues the Catholic Church has an obligation at address and challenge in our word, but it;s not issues like contraception and family any longer - because "the church" ie the people, have already taken a conscientious stance in good faith.

AURELIUS | 18 September 2016  

Belated comment, but thanks Andrew for you analysis of Francis' personal and idiomatic style of engagement. Francis demonstrates these attributes in a very special way in his communication with children as evident in the superb publication 'Dear Pope Francis' in which Francis responds to the questions and drawings of children across the world. He displays extraordinary sensitivity and insight into the letters of the children and his responses to often challenging questions are spontaneous, intimate, surprising and profound. Perhaps you might consider a review from the perspectives of catechetics and communication of faith.

Denis Quinn | 19 September 2016  

A deeply insightful and inspiringly taut, high impact classification, Andy, comparing, yet contrasting Francis's disruptive politics with those of Trump and Duerte. Its much more than a difference of style, of course; however, I'm still puzzled as to why you set out your propositions in a preliminary piece.

Michael Furtado | 30 September 2016  

A wonderful essay as usual Andrew. John from the vast Townsville Diocese, I understand your concern. I was privileged to serve in the Townsville Diocese some years ago and loved and respected "my boss", Michael, who like Francis was very much a man of the people. Sadly Townsville is not alone, Wagga and Wilcannia-Forbes in New South Wales are in a similar situation. Our Archbishop is currently in charge of Wagga as well as the vast area of Canberra-Goulburn. The role of Bishop is a very difficult role these days and with an aging and decreasing numbers of able bodied clergy, the number of suitable candidates is declining. Appointments are made from the Vatican with advice from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference - local input from the Diocese concerned is minimal. (NOT good!) For all the above reasons and the slowly turning wheels of the bureaucracy in Rome, John, I would not be holding my breath for a resolution any time soon. Sadly it's bureaucracy, not Pope Francis, which is the problem.

Gavin | 03 November 2016