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No, Pope Francis isn’t more political than his predecessors, after all

Pope Francis celebrates a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

On Palm Sunday, which coincided with the 33rd World Youth Day, Pope Francis urged young people:

It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders, some corrupt, keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?

The message was widely understood to speak to the March for Our Lives protests against gun violence in the United States. The pope then shook hands with thousands — and showed himself again to be a beloved world figure.

Why? Fascination with the current pope is often explained as a response to how differently he leads than did previous popes. Many commentators have argued that Francis is drastically changing the direction of the Catholic Church. Some have gone as far as suggesting that Francis may well be the most politically liberal pope in the history of the Vatican.

But does Francis really break as strongly with previous popes as the popular commentary suggests?

To examine that question, I closely analyzed the pope’s written communications — encyclicals and tweets — to understand his papacy’s themes and positions. It’s true that Francis concentrates on modern and contentious topics, including inequality, climate change and immigration. But his more “political” statements are not systematically different from those of other popes; nor do they move away from the official church doctrine in critical ways.

My findings suggest that while this pope may attempt to break away from the Roman church’s past, the Vatican and its administrative apparatus, the Roman Curia, still heavily influence his communications — and in doing so, work to maintain continuity across papacies.

How I did my research

I explored the content of papal encyclicals, an official form of papal expression concerning the Catholic doctrine, and papal tweets.

In a first study, I was inspired by the popular belief that Francis’s famous climate change encyclical, “Laudato Si,” was a new type of political manifesto. I wanted to know whether it was truly more political than other popes’ encyclicals — or whether it fit the Vatican tradition of tackling problems in the secular world.

To answer this question, I collected the 34 papal encyclicals published during the tenure of the Second Vatican Council, from 1958 onward. I then evaluated the language of these documents using computational textual methods. I used an “unsupervised topic model,” which is an algorithm that uses word correlations to cluster texts, and then provides information about how to interpret the clusters. Technically, this model scales texts into a multidimensional set of topics that reflect underlying themes of the documents in question.

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This method allowed me to do two things. First, I could detect whether we can distinguish a consistent political tone in the encyclicals, distinct from the more theological message founded on spiritual concepts such as faith or the practice of praying. Second, I could examine whether only “Laudato Si” features political topics or whether they can be seen in other encyclicals.

In a second study, I explored Francis’s political interests on Twitter with a similar approach. I collected all the tweets from the account @Pontifex between 2013 and 2017. Once again using computational textual methods, I analyzed the extent to which Francis’s tweets are political — and whether his more political tweets tend to follow the kind of events to which the church has traditionally responded, such as conflicts and violent attacks of social and religious minorities.

Pope Francis is behaving much as his predecessors did

As expected, I found that Francis is a politically engaged leader; his political views clearly mark his writings. He consistently dedicates space to contemporary social issues: On Twitter, roughly one of every eight tweets tend to reflect a political issue or a politically relevant event.

But his communications aren’t more political, or more often political, than other popes’ writings have been in the past.

Nor are Francis’s encyclicals holistically different from those of previous popes. “Laudato Si” is only partly filled with a language of social concern and political shaming; it remains dominated by a “classical” ecclesiastic language that emphasizes that God has made human beings central to — and thus, responsible for — the natural environment.

Furthermore, the release of “Laudato Si” release was timed much as were all the most politically charged encyclicals published in the course of the 20th century — just after major international political developments. “Laudato Si” was released after massive 2014 marches for the climate held in London, New York and other places.

Similarly, Pope John Paul II released “Laborem Exercens” in 1981, following the 1979 world energy crisis, and “Centesimus Annus” in 1991, addressing issues related to capitalism and market liberalization that emerged with the Cold War’s end. Even Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 “Caritas in Veritate” discussed issues of poverty and injustice that could be traced to the 2008 financial crisis.

All this suggests that Francis is not different from other popes in examining the social issues salient to his global congregation.

While Twitter may be new, Francis’s approach to this medium is not. He responds to international events that include terrorist attacks in Europe, natural disasters in Asia, and immigration policy in North America.

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Like his predecessors, he mentions issues as they affect the international Roman Catholic community. For example, in this tweet about the major shipwreck in Italian waters in October 2013, he took a clear stand on immigration:

Francis has also made clear mention of tragedies such as natural disasters in East Asia in 2016 and the frequent attacks by the Islamic State in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Benedict XVI tweeted only 39 times before his resignation, but he similarly addressed political issues. For example, right after the 2012 Christmas holidays, following the Christmas shootings by Islamic militants in Nigeria, he tweeted, “Nigerians have a special place in my heart, as so many have been victims of senseless violence in recent months.” And in January 2013, Benedict XVI  tweeted, “Please join me in praying for Syria, so that constructive dialogue will replace the horrendous violence.”

What does this tell us about the future of Francis’s papacy?

In his popular writings, Francis consistently focuses on contentious topics that directly affect the poor and the global South, as he does in his communications about climate change. But his political messaging is carefully crafted and cautiously targeted at specific times and communities, keeping with the church’s traditions.

One reason that the pope is hardly breaking away from the past lies in the agenda of the administrative organization of the Catholic Church, known as the Curia. The Curia is the holder of the church’s concept of leading Catholic communities throughout its history, and it is intrinsically concerned with keeping with the traditionalism of Vatican’s institutions.

Francis’s desires to implement reforms to the church necessarily implicate a conflict of interest with the Curia. Francis’s reforms are still a work in progress. In the meantime, his papal messages have not broken away from the superimposed continuity of the Vatican church wanted by powerful administrators in Rome.

Federica Genovese (@fgenovese86) is a lecturer in government at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.