Pope Francis As a Global Actor

Where Politics and Theology Meet

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Alynna J. Lyon, Christine A. Gustafson, Paul Christopher Manuel
Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , February
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The identity and intersection captured in the title of Alynna J. Lyon, Christine A. Gustfson, and Paul Christopher Manuel’s edited collection, Pope Francis as a Global Actor: Where Politics and Theology Meet, hold obvious interest for scholars working across the areas of theology and politics. Popes—the Catholic bishops of Rome—are indeed fascinating and, in the contemporary period, rather unique global actors. They are the spiritual and temporal heads of what has been described as the world largest NGO: the Catholic Church, a hierarchical, faith-inspired organization reaching across the globe to it’s 1.2 Billion baptized members. These popes are also, essentially, collegially-elected kings of the micro Vatican City State with access to the Holy See’s extensive diplomatic machinery. Moreover, without changes in the substance of any of the core doctrine of his predecessors, Pope Francis has brought new attention to his office. This attention has generated added momentum to efforts to reform the curia, the Vatican’s civil service, which is considered by some commentators to hold more power than the Pope himself holds. In contrast to the self-interest of some in the curia, Pope Francis, as highlighted by many of the contributors to this edited collection of essays, has worked to transform the Catholic Church into an institution for the poor, wherein its pastors take on the proverbial smell of their sheep. In this, and other regards. Francis has indeed represented a seed change for Catholicism and its relationship with the wider world. The chapters in this present volume provide differentiated reading of the nature of the seed change that has been associated with the so-called “Francis effect” and “Francis factor,” which have seen the Pope’s teaching and action earn the attention of a wide audience, including those who might not otherwise be predisposed to give their attention to a Bishop of Rome.

The contents of Pope Francis as a Global Actor are wide ranging and, frequently, engaging. There are quality chapters on the significance of Pope Francis’ teachings and example to the Asia context. These include extended treatments of the intricacies of the conflict between the Vatican and the Communist Government of China over the appointment of Bishops as well as the applicability of Francis’ approach to diversity in light of social inequalities and the increasing prominence Hinduvata exclusivism in India. Other contributions include an introductory chapter by the editors unfolding how Francis does not fit easily into classifications of liberal and conservative as they are generally formed by political scientists, along with treatments of the significance of his Jesuit and Latin American backgrounds. Also offered are several considerations of how theology and faith-inspired ethics relate to his programming for the papacy in areas as diverse as addressing climate change, responding to the global migration crisis, and fostering his preference for cultures of encounter and dialogue. 

This collection’s strengths and weaknesses are bound together. Most of the essays have their origins in a series of conferences connected to political science meetings and opportunities for workshop insights. This has brought new voices and common threads into the subject matter. The featuring of these new voices in the volume means that scholars of papal teaching and practice, along with those focussed on religion and politics, will undoubtedly expand their horizons by reading Pope Francis as a Global Actor. Common threads include the frequent grounding of Pope Francis’ teachings in tangible events and practices, along with a consideration of the Pope’s subscription to a more apolitical form of liberation theology—the theology of the people. The latter is born out in frequent citations from Juan Carlos Scannone’s article, “Pope Francis and the Theology of the People,” published in the influential journal Theological Studies (2016), which described the concept’s relevance to Pope Francis’ intellectual and political context in Argentina. Yet, there are some surprising errors of fact and interpretation that have made it through to the publication of this volume. These range from simple breakdowns in copy editing, to more serious features that ought to have been filtered out via the editorial and peer review processes. An example of the later is the mis-rendering of the roman numerals attached to particular papacies. An example of the former is an extended but unreferenced discussion of ideological groupings of participants at the Second Vatican Council. This discussion displays elements of anachronism, and problematically frames the well-researched processes of ressourcement (returning to the sources, inspired by the new theology) and aggiornamento (letting in the fresh air, bringing up-to-date) that capture the approach to renewal that was active during Vatican II, and has been brought forward from that Council. Moreover, there are little errors of classification that prove distracting; for example, the erroneous classification of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as an encyclical, which is significant as the latter is a more authoritative form of papal teaching for Catholics. 

Such tensions noted, it should nevertheless be stated that taken with a proverbial grain-of-salt provided by a critical consideration of some of its contents, this volume remains valuable reading. It is also available from academic libraries to download on a chapter-by-chapter basis, which facilitates assigning content from this volume for reading in post-secondary classes. Here again, the volume’s promises and tensions can be fruitfully brought to the fore for the benefit of students. Alternatively, the stronger chapters could be parsed for their unique contribution. In both cases, and more generally, time with Pope Francis as a Global Actor will be well spent.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Hrynkow is Associate Professor and Department Head of Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.

Date of Review: 
August 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alynna J. Lyon is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Hampshire.

Christine A. Gustafson is Associate Dean of the College and Associate Professor of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

Paul Christopher Manuel is Distinguished Scholar in Residence in the Department of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.



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