Gawker Heroes: Pope Francis, Our Blessed Hero of Reduced ExpectationsS

We know the villains of 2013. But who were the heroes? To accompany Ken Layne's essay on Francis the Friendly Pope, each Gawker staffer wrote a short post about his or her hero of 2013. Click through the links below to read them.

You can tell a lot about a pope by his nickname. The last pontiff was known on the Internet as Emperor Palpatine, the evil old ghoul from the Star Wars movies, and even his supporters called him "Panzer Cardinal" or "God's Rottweiler." Rush Limbaugh calls the new guy a Marxist. I call him Francis the Friendly Pope.

The best heroes are the ones you never expected at all. Pope Francis, the 76-year-old Jesuit from Argentina who became leader of the Catholic Church in March, took office after the rigid and terrifying Pope Benedict suddenly quit following a half-dozen years of constant scandal and endless Internet argument over whether or not he was a Nazi.

But Francis has a mission that's far bigger than improving the Vatican's terrible public image. Francis is chasing a real Devil, the Devil that keeps a very few people incredibly rich and most everyone else struggling to survive.

Caring for the downtrodden and heartbroken is the most coherent message the gospels offer. Francis became a popular sensation this year for wearing the uniform of a regular priest as he quietly took to Rome's streets at night to feed the homeless. He surprised some of the bummed-out people who write letters to the Vatican with his personal phone calls. Instead of the usual damnation, he gave his benediction to gay Catholics with the humble and honest admission that homosexuality is not for a mere human pope to judge.

Francis is not the first Catholic leader to show actual compassion, and he should not be praised too much for simply practicing what he preaches—no matter how loathsome his predecessor was. What makes Pope Francis one of Gawker's Heroes of 2013 is his "social media skill" of making the unfairness and inequality of the whole world a major news story, finally. Here is the powerful leader of an outrageously wealthy world organization saying that it's morally wrong for so few to have so much while so many struggle. But Francis doesn't just drop a few humanitarian platitudes into the usual papal routine. The stated mission of his papacy is to make profits secondary to people. It is a rejection of a global system that punishes the many for not being the few.

At the end of 2013, humanity is at a weird place. In important ways, we are another species entirely from the one that not so long ago allowed gulags and genocide camps and the atomic bombings of cities full of schoolchildren. In rapid time, it has become officially unacceptable for people to be bullied and jailed and murdered for the color of the skin, the details of their romantic lives, or the religion they choose to practice. But much of this progress is about the identity of specific communities, rather than the overall ordeal of the struggling masses. As Martin Luther King repeatedly said, racial justice cannot exist without economic justice.

Most conflict is economic. Most public debate, civic questions, issues of pressing need and potential leaps forward are all argued in terms of money, with lousy terms like "austerity" and "entitlements" thrown around like it's perfectly fine that nine out of ten people struggle, forever. If luck is so consistently bad for almost everyone, then luck shouldn't be required for the basics. People work away their whole lives and never have basic security, all because mean little men unjustly clench the purse strings of the planet, because they got lucky.

When Mayor Bloomberg was questioned about the homeless girl profiled in the New York Times series, he had the nerve to say this: "That's just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not."

Sorry, Bloomberg, but that God sounds like an asshole. God—whatever God you do or don't believe in—is created in our image. That's how Francis can offer a much better God than Joseph Ratzinger could ever imagine.

Every human deserves "dignified work, education and health care," the new pope wrote in the economic manifesto he published in November. What you hear on American talk radio to the contrary, these are basic human rights in the 21st Century. These are the building blocks of a just and prosperous society. We really do stand at a fork in the road: One way leads to a devastated planet of misery and violence. The other leads to (maybe!) the Earthly Paradise of utopian science fiction. Which way do you want to go, and what are you willing to do to get there?

Defenders of the market's exhausting and exploitive cycle of boom and bust were quick to attack Pope Francis for questioning the cruelty and excesses of Late Capitalism. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by calling for new controls on the massive banks that play humanity like a pair of dice, and even Barack Obama turned his attention to income inequality this month. Rush Limbaugh, Wall Street's vile propagandist, seems genuinely scared of this Jesuit preacher from Argentina. Meanwhile, the "Pope Francis Effect" has Catholics filling the churches again, even in Europe.

Non-Catholics aren't supposed to get too excited about popes, and non-Christians are routinely told to stay out of the Vatican's global business. Especially when that business involves priests molesting little kids. But the church is so big, so rich and so powerful that it's impossible to separate it from the secular world. When Catholicism mirrors the worst parts of human nature—deception, conspiracy, child abuse, and the brute force of money and power—it's the business of the whole world. And with someone like Francis suddenly in charge, anyone who cares about a civil and just society must care about the workings of the Vatican.

Francis says that all of us, believer and non-believer, are "redeemed" when we follow our conscience and do the right thing. We are the only creatures on this planet to develop morality, because we're the only ones who need it. To this strange new pope, God really is love.

"Those men and women who, although not identifying themselves as followers of any religious tradition, are nonetheless searching for truth, goodness and beauty, the truth, goodness and beauty of God," Francis said during his first weeks as pope. "They are our valued allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in safeguarding and caring for creation."

The reality of global 21st Century secular civilization is that the people fighting hardest for justice do so simply because it's right. If Pope Francis can welcome the non-believer, the non-believer can acknowledge there are good religious people, too.

There's still plenty to despise in the Catholic Church. Francis himself has spent much of his first 10 months in office steering the Vatican away from its obsessions with the role of marriage and gender and sexual preference in the church, even though he has disappointed liberals by remaining opposed to both abortion and the ordination of women clergy. Still, who really believes he would remain pope (or remain alive) if he allowed women priests and married priests and some compromise on abortion in his first months at the Vatican?

Those liberals with opposing views on these important matters could wash their hands of his whole campaign, but that would be as much a waste as a non-believer dismissing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. because he taught Christian doctrine, or ignoring the Dalai Lama because Tibetan Buddhism opposes abortion. Liberals were thrilled with the 2008 version of Barack Obama, even when he said he liked Ronald Reagan, even when he got that megachurch pastor to speak at the first inauguration.

"Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect for the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say," writes Francis. "It assumes that there is room in the heart for the person's point of view, opinion, and proposal. Dialogue entails a cordial reception, not a prior condemnation. In order to [have] dialogue it is necessary to know how to lower the defenses, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth."

What will come of Francis' crusade for economic justice depends on how seriously the non-religious take it. Popular religious leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Thích Nhất Hạnh are admired and respected far beyond their religious communities. Francis has the ear of the bankers and politicians and billions of people, and unlike Occupy Wall Street and its companion movements around the globe, it is not so easy for the Western media to ignore or belittle a beloved pope who calls uncontrolled capitalism our "new tyranny."


Ken Layne writes Gawker's American Almanac and American Journal.