Pope Francis wrapped up his tour of the United States this week after a series of speeches where he pressed leaders to address some of the critical issues affecting the world today. Flanked by two devout Catholic statesmen – Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner – Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress to urge its leaders to use their power and summon “a spirit of cooperation” to act on climate change and address the income inequality that is afflicting the globe. As the increasingly popular leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis tried to leverage his voice to spur an overly lethargic and partisan Congress into action.

Pope Francis wrapped up his tour of the United States this week after a series of speeches where he pressed leaders to address some of the critical issues affecting the world today. Flanked by two devout Catholic statesmen – Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner – Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress to urge its leaders to use their power and summon “a spirit of cooperation” to act on climate change and address the income inequality that is afflicting the globe. As the increasingly popular leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis tried to leverage his voice to spur an overly lethargic and partisan Congress into action.

After successfully brokering improved diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, the Pope hopes to use his popularity in the US to push leaders to tackle these issues. As compared with his predecessors Pope Francis has stepped away from social issues like gay marriage and abortion and has focused on income inequality. In previous statements he has claimed that respecting the dignity of labor is paramount in a just society. While not overtly critical of capitalism during his visit to Washington, Pope Francis has said that contemporary capitalism created an economy of exclusion and that only a small minority have enjoyed its benefits. The Pope echoed these statements in a recent meeting with Director General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Guy Ryder, where the two discussed how low wages and income inequality as mutual issues of concern.

While some lawmakers have accused the Pope of socialism, it is imperative not to view the Pope’s political views through a Republican vs. Democratic prism, but rather as the result of Argentine Peronism and Catholic social doctrine. Like many Argentines, Francis was attracted to Peronism’s appeal, as it tried to bridge the bi-polar world of laissez-faire capitalism and Marxism. Under General Juan Peron, the Argentine government attempted to bridge class divides with a highly centralized social welfare state and a subtle religious nationalism that appealed to the country’s working poor. While Peron’s support for the poor was hardly altruistic – the linkage between his government and the working class was vital to consolidate his power – the role of the state in assisting the less fortunate clearly had a profound effect on Pope Francis’ political upbringing.

Additionally, the Pope’s quest to bring income inequality to the forefront of U.S. political discourse stems from his experience with Liberation Theology, a branch of Catholicism that was popular among Catholic clergy during the 1960s and 1970s. As a young member in a Jesuit seminary, Francis enthusiastically took up Liberation Theology’s mandate to address the economic and political displacement of the poor in Argentina, organize for social change, and address some of the structural causes of poverty. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis took on these principles and was active in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

As the first pope from the developing world, it is clear that he has a more profound connection to the worlds disenfranchised than his predecessor. And, though Pope Francis still holds conservative views on abortion and gay marriage, his personal experience and work on extreme poverty appears to drive the focus of his papacy. As such, many in the United States have labeled Pope Francis a progressive. Coupled with populist campaign rhetoric during this primary season, and stagnating US wages, some political pundits have identified him as a Democrat, frustrating both members of the Republican Party who are used to the Catholic Church advocating on social issues they believe in and the Pope, who does not identify with either US party.  

This viewpoint is short-sighted and insular as the Pope's visit to the United States has not been an effort to push a domestic political agenda, but rather to use his position as the head of the Catholic Church to mobilize followers into action to fight for an issue at the very heart of Catholicism. Influenced by his own experiences working among the poor, the Pope’s speech was a reflection on the economic realities that affect millions of Catholics in the United States and the rest of the world.