01/22/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Pope Francis in the Philippines: Inspiring Political Transformation

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Pope Francis' recent visit -- capturing the hearts and minds of Filipinos from all walks of life, regardless of gender, class, and religion -- to the Philippines couldn't be timelier. The Southeast Asian country, the sole Catholic-majority nation in Asia, was in desperate need of a sacred touch of magical realism. The Philippines needed a charismatic, sincere figure -- standing above the fray -- to inspire collective spiritual rejuvenation and encourage sustained political reform in one of the most promising countries in the region, which has been held back by the sheer incompetence of its political elite and the glaring absence of modern, capable state institutions.

Despite pulling off impressive rates of economic growth in recent years, among the highest in Asia, there hasn't been a perceptible and dramatic decline in key economic indicators such as poverty, food insecurity, and employment in the Philippines. The Aquino administration, which rose to power in 2010 by riding a wave of enormous enthusiasm among the electorate, has yet to translate its highly-touted anti-corruption initiatives into the conviction of a single high-profile plunderer in the country, despite the existence of considerable evidence and testimony implicating dozens of leading politicians in large-scale corruption schemes over the years.

Despite its promise to overhaul the country's creaking infrastructure, basic services such as electricity are among the most expensive in the world, while mass transportation is still in need of a decisive overhaul. In short, the country needs both "good" and "effective" governance, simultaneously. In many ways, the Philippines stands as a testament to how many emerging economies, which have caught the attention of global financial institutions and media, are essentially havens for concentrated capitalist growth, benefiting a select few, who have astutely leveraged their economic resources and political influence to extract maximum value from cheap labor, abundant natural resources, and lax regulatory mechanisms.

No wonder, many hope that the Pope's historic visit to the Philippines will leave a lasting impact on the country's political landscape, reviving the pro-reform impulse among progressive forces -- and rekindle a sense of shame and an element of conscience in the hearts of corrupt leaders.

Extraordinary Man, Extraordinary Times

Since his ascent to the helm of the Catholic Church, the first non-European Pope in nearly 1,300 years has swiftly emerged as a genuine reformer, one of the most adored religious figures in modern history, and among the most perspicuous public intellectuals.

His visit to Muslim countries, culminating in his hugely symbolic decision to pray at Istanbul's Blue Mosque helped in building new bridges between Islam and Christianity; he inspired even more respect among the Muslims by showing his sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, calling for genuine peace negotiations to end the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Pope Francis' views reflect his astute grasp of contemporary challenges in 21st century capitalism -- palpably evident in his critical commentaries on scandalous levels of corruption, inequality, and materialism afflicting much of the world today. Thanks to the charity group Oxfam we now know that the richest 1 percent is expected to be wealthier than 99 percent of the world's population next year. And trends suggest, as leading economists such as Thomas Piketty have persuasively shown, we are headed towards a "New Gilded Age", reversing the egalitarian economic miracles, which underpinned the post-World War II emergence of a dynamic middle class across the industrialized world. Against the backdrop of explosive levels of income and wealth inequality, Pope Francis has unequivocally criticized the myth of trickle-down economics -- a pro-rich economic doctrine, supplanting the much more egalitarian Keynesian system, which dominated the capitalist system from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In a scathing critique of neo-liberal capitalism, Pope Francis observes how "Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless," which results in "masses of people find[ing] themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape." Emphasizing the importance of pro-active state regulation -- and its indispensable role in upholding public good -- he criticized how supporters of neo-liberal economics "reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control." He described this phenomenon as a "new tyranny", where the logic of an unfettered market "unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules".

Hailing from Latin America, a crucible of social injustice and democratic deficit for much of modern history, Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is intimately familiar with the perils of oligarchic rule in resource-rich countries and long-standing development challenges among peripheral states. His colorful background, prior to joining the Church, has surely played a critical role in providing him a better understanding of the lives and thoughts of ordinary people -- and the struggles of daily life for those on the margins of the society.

Latin America is also the place where a progressive form of Christianity, particularly liberation theology and its conceptualization by progressive theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez, grew into a formidable grassroots movement. It was here where the importance of balancing the religious leadership's spiritual responsibly for the salvation of humanity's soul, on one hand, with their temporal obligation to improve the conditions of oppressed, marginalized communities in the material world, on the other, was highly poignant.

Inspiring a Nation

Unsurprisingly, during his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis displayed tremendous amount of familiarity with the set of challenges faced by the Southeast Asian Catholic-majority country. (For many observes, the Philippines may have in fact more in common with Latin American countries than some of its neighbors.) The immense significance of his days-long visit to the Philippines had to do with his three-pronged emphasis on ending systemic corruption and social injustice; tackling climate change; and exercising responsible parenthood. All three issues are deeply relevant in the context of the Philippines.

With respect to corruption, the Pope provided a spiritual boost to good governance initiatives introduced by the Aquino administration, which seems to be running out of steam when it comes to addressing high-profile corruption scandals. During his speech before the Philippine political elite, Pope Francis declared: "Reforming the social structures which perpetuate poverty and the exclusion of the poor first requires a conversion of mind and heart," urging the country's leadership and the larger society "to reject every form of corruption which diverts resources from the poor, and to make concerted efforts to ensure the inclusion of every man and woman and child in the community." The Philippine media was quick to point out, through dramatic pictures, how Pope's statements made a huge impression on some politicians.

Eager to uplift the spirit of tens of thousands of Filipinos still reeling from the devastating late-2013 Haiyan super-typhoon, with lingering concerns over the quality and pace of reconstruction efforts in the affected areas, Pope Francis also visited, despite heavy rain and winds, central Visayan Islands. With the Philippines standing as among the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, he was quick to point out the necessity for addressing the issue of climate change, humbly sharing his views on how climate change for the most part is human-induced.

Recent years have also witnessed a dramatic national debate over the Reproductive Health bill (passed in late-2013), which mandates the Philippine state to assist citizens in gaining access to contraceptives and other means of ensuring responsible parenthood, among other things. With one of the fastest population growth rates on earth, (inflation-adjusted) average wages in the country has practically stagnated over the last few decades. Although Pope Francis didn't endorse artificial contraception, reiterating his belief in the sanctity of life beginning from the moment of conception, he nonetheless implored Catholics to exercise responsible parenthood, and not breed "like rabbits".

Without a doubt, the Pope left a huge impression on the country, inspiring millions of Catholics to stand by their faith and live as responsible citizens. Given the growing influence of Evangelical Christians in the country, who tend to adopt progressive views on contemporary issues and provide intimate and modern understanding of the Christian faith, the Pope showed that the Catholic Church is willing to adapt to the zeitgeist. And Pope Francis' election and his own views and reforms at home surely stand as a powerful testimony to this.

Pope's visit could play a crucial role in setting a new and more vigorous agenda for comprehensive reform in the Philippines. And as a leading Filipino political scientist, Professor Julio Teehankee puts it, "the papal visit will likely have a halo effect on the Philippine electorate and might be a factor in their choice of the next president."