The Pope's visit.
Pope Francis is popular because, unlike his predecessors, he is not a hard-nosed reactionary. He remembers the political message of the Gospels that Christians must be just and that justice calls for equality. Christians should not put their own well-being ahead of everyone else's; they should, as the Gospels says, love their neighbor like themselves. They should even love their enemies.
In one way or another Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, have preached this message in their churches weekly for close to two millennia. So have Imams in their mosques and rabbis in their temples.
If we have learned anything in the last 2000 years, it is that preaching is, on the whole, a waste of time. There is no reason to think that the world has become any less dangerous or violent or bloody-minded in the last 2000 years in spite of all the homilies and sermons and addresses from the pulpit or the front of the sacred space. This is surely the lesson of the bloody 20th century.
This Pope and all his predecessors have not learned that lesson. Francis goes blithely around telling people how to be good, and exhorting all of us to be good boys and girls. You may be edified at the moment but it is extremely unlikely that you will give up being a politician who tells lies day in and day out and makes deals with people they should not even be talking to. You will not suddenly discover that the people you have been catering to are not only greedy and selfish, but also live well at the expense of hard-working poor people. You will not suddenly raise taxes on the rich – as even Donald Trump recommends – in order to alleviate the suffering of the poor.
But that is of course what Pope Francis is telling you to do.
We have learned in the past so many thousand years that preaching to people does not make them act differently. But of course we have also learned how people can change. Members of cooperative communities learn how to cooperate. They learn how to love their neighbors because the culture of their community demands it and doing it every day it becomes a habit. Where neighborhoods organize themselves to solve their own problems, the neighbors learn to stand on their own two feet, they gain autonomy and self-respect because that is how they come to live every day. Religious communities that practice what the Pope preaches may well create peaceful and respectful citizens because they practice together how to banish violence from their lives and how to take the other as seriously as they take themselves.
We learn to be better persons by living in social conditions in which acting well is what everybody does habitually.
If the church is trying to make this a better world by making us be more charitable towards our neighbors, the sort of social context the church creates for its members is much more important than the messages of the Sunday sermons. If you look at the organization of the church of which the Pope is the head, we do not see much Christian love. Instead there is a hierarchy reminiscent of an army. What is more, the hierarchy is mostly male. When it comes to the liberation of women, Pope Francis does not have a lot to say and the practices of the church are plainly medieval. Being a member of a strictly hierarchical organization does not promise to make you into a person who seeks equality for all. Practicing domination and being dominated every day is about to leave a very negative imprint.
Humans improve by leading a good life in the company of other humans also living a good life. The organization run by Pope Francis is not an example of what we need to do to create a more peaceful world. The changing-the-world-through-preaching project after all is based on the assumption that some of us know how to live right and others do not, and that those who know must tell the rest of us how to be good persons.
There is no reason to think that following that strategywill make the world a better place.
You may find Pope Francis edifying and likable. But salvation comes from local self organizations of groups of people, not from benevolent moral know-it-all's.