With the exception of Senator Elizabeth Warren, American politicians had a terrible year. President Obama's approval ratings plummeted along with those of
Congress. Indeed, the most popular "politician" in the United States was a non-American, the new head of the Catholic Church, 77-year-old Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis.
Beginning with his March 13 election to the papacy, Francis has been singular. He's the first Pope from the Americas -- the first non-European Pope since 731 -- and the first Jesuit. Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the papal name Francis -- another first -- in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. It wasn't a cavalier choice of name. Like many Jesuits, Francis cares deeply about social justice.
In his illuminating New Yorker article, journalist James Carroll noted that in his first week as Pope, Francis said, "How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor." Francis' commitment to social justice can hardly have come as a surprise to the College of Cardinals who elected him in March. Carroll notes:
By the time Bergoglio was named a cardinal, in 2001, his simplicity of style had already set him apart from other prelates. He preferred a small apartment to a palatial residence and travelled by public transportation instead of chauffeured car. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he encouraged his best priests to live in the slums, joining them for Mass and often walking through the shantytowns... he also was strident in his denunciations of neoliberal economic policies that condemned many to abject poverty.
As Pope, Francis has continued his pattern of simplicity by choosing to live in a two-room apartment instead of the Apostolic Palace and wearing a plain white cassock instead of fur-trimmed velvet capes.
For many progressives, Pope Francis first came onto our radar on November 24th when he issued his Evangelii Gaudium, explaining his liberation-theology-influenced morality. Chapter 2 regards his assessment of inequality in the modern world: "We have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences... The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident."
After condemning the "idolatry of money," the Pope said, "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality." He observed, "[In contemporary society] Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded."
Pope Francis attacked the prevailing conservative economic ideology:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system... To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.
Francis identified the core ethical problem:
The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! ... Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God... With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: 'Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.'
Pope Francis concluded with a strong appeal for social justice:
A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders... Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
In 2013 there was a resurgence of populism in the U.S., with the enormous popularity of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and the victory of Bill De Blasio in the New York mayor's race. And populists gained a powerful ally in Pope Francis.
Populists believe the true backbone of America is the middle class; not the elite one percent. We believe in a level playing field and government as a force for good. Populists believe the government must provide a social safety net to protect Americans' human rights.
Populist values emphasize empathy, compassion, and fairness. Those are the very same values that Pope Francis has highlighted the past nine months. That's why he was the 2013 "politician" of the year.