The new pope favors a modest lifestyle without chauffeured limousines or ostentatious palaces. I am sure that his concern for the poor is sincere. Yet, he is not going to do anything radical to reduce poverty. If he did, he would weaken the Church.
Like his predecessors, Pope Francis will likely take a conservative line on social policy. He may be concerned about the poor. Yet do not expect him to sell the vast treasures of the Vatican to feed the hungry. Do expect him to pursue a social agenda that encourages poverty.
Catholics, and other Christians, like to preach equality, fairness, and humility but their actions tend to shore up hierarchy and privilege. The split between theory and practice is illustrated by the controversy over liberation theology. This radical Latin-American movement sprang from revulsion over the huge gap between rich and poor in the region and sympathized with Marxist revolutions there. The Vatican criticized liberation theology as being too far removed from the spiritual mission of the Church and not concerned enough with preparing souls for the afterlife.
Liberation theologians take the Sermon on the Mount quite literally in its rejection of social hierarchy but conservatives argue that this text deals with the Kingdom of Heaven, and not this world. In other words, it is pie in the sky.
Many conservatives feel that eradicating poverty is not their primary objective and that doing so is likely impossible. Yet poverty is not inevitable. In affluent countries, it is a solvable problem.
What you can do to prevent poverty
Disadvantage begins in childhood and the key to reducing poverty is to bring down the number of children who grow up poor and therefore ill equipped for occupational success.
So there are two related practical problems. First reduce the number of children born to mothers who are at risk of being poor, particularly teenagers. Second, ensure that all children are well provided for so that they can hope to succeed in school and the work force.
The first problem can be solved through a combination of public school education in responsible sexuality, and widespread use of contraception as illustrated by the success of such interventions in Sweden. The second problem can be solved through extensive government supports for children, as well as aggressive pursuit of child support payments from fathers. Once again, Sweden was so successful in these endeavors that there is little child poverty. Indeed, households with children are better off than those without.
Why Pope Francis will not support poverty reduction
Instead of promoting contraception as a key preventative of poverty, the Vatican bans its use, and that policy is not about to change despite that fact that the overwhelming majority of Catholic women in developed countries use contraception. The preferred alternative of abstinence just does not work and advocating it sets up religious teens for avoidable pregnancies. Moreover, the Catholic Church is not about to teach responsible sexuality for singles because the official position is that such behavior is always sinful.
Once a child is born, the government can ensure it is well provided for. There is a long list of reasons why the Catholic Church is opposed to this aspect of the welfare state. To begin with, the economic role of fathers in nuclear families is partly replaced by the state so that fewer Swedish women even bother to get married.
Then there is the radical redistribution of wealth that the Vatican rejected from liberation theologians as too Marxist, or too materialistic. As I pointed out my recent book, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion, welfare states encourage secularism and few countries are more secular than Sweden (4).
Reading between the lines, if Pope Francis was successful in getting rid of child poverty in Catholic nations, he could expect a substantial decline in the number of followers.
Don't worry Catholics! He will make believe that he is St. Francis and promote charities for the poor. Yet he is not going to do anything substantial to prevent poverty.