If the President Can be a Brand, Why Not the Pope?

He’s been called many things ranging from positive—”The Reformer Pope”—to the not so positive—”The Dictator Pope.” But no matter your take on this pontiff, one thing remains certain: Pope Francis is unafraid of bucking tradition and has, in the process, created a personal brand that transcends one of the most historical and traditional roles in Western society.

Last week, Pope Francis made headlines, once again, this time announcing that the Roman Catholic Church considers the death penalty “unacceptable in all cases”—a reversal of centuries-old Church doctrine that previously permitted executions in cases of public endangerment.  According to The New York Times, Pope Francis codified this announcement, making a formal change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

Given that the death penalty is already banned in most European and Latin American nations, the announcement can be seen as a rebuke aimed specifically at the United States, where the death sentence has enjoyed increasing support over the past few years and where four Supreme Court Justices (and 1 nominee) are Catholic. In his condemnation of the practice, the pope spoke in harsh terms saying, “the death penalty is neither human nor Christian,” making it clear that while he’s a traditionalist, he’s also a humanist—a “people-first” brand, if you will.

Although the role of pope has historically been inextricable from politics, Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, eschewed politics for the most part and stuck to the pulpit. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has not only weighed in on global politics but has publicly sparred with leaders like Donald Trump, effectively pitting brand against brand.

That the role of pope is in and of itself a brand which encompasses political and spiritual aspirations, it is no wonder that Pope Francis views himself as a de facto world leader. As Vatican correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee, pointed out, “He is one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, and what’s happening is he has a vision and he has time to put it in place…the longer he continues, the more likely these changes will be irrevocable.”

Perhaps that’s why Pope Francis’ policy shifts on more polarizing issues like contraceptive use and gay marriage have traditionalists concerned. In this way, his agenda appears to pit his brand as Pope Francis against the more traditional core brand of the papacy. Yet despite his critics on the left and on the right, the popularity of his papal brand is evident.

In a 2018 Pew poll, Pope Francis was ranked favorably by 62% of all U.S. adults. Furthermore, Pope Francis has been embraced by groups other than just Catholics, with 65% of Jews, 53% of Protestants, and 51% of atheists and agnostics regarding him “favorably” (he is less popular among Muslims with only 28% viewing him favorably—as has been the case with previous popes).

Perhaps due to Pope Francis’ outspoken political views, he is viewed differently by American Catholics based on their political affiliation. In 2018, 55% of all Catholic Republicans in the U.S. consider the Pope to be “too liberal”—a huge increase from 2015 when only 23% of Republican Catholics considered him too progressive. Among Catholics who identify as Democrats, Pope Francis is ranked favorably by a whopping 89% of adults. These percentages are consistent with how republicans and democrats relate to the presidential brand as well…I refer you to my article on the increasing polarization in political parties.

In a world where politicians are no longer being seen as problem solvers and citizens look more and more to the private sector for social and ethical leadership (61% in fact), Pope Francis’ brand popularity poses a unique and significant departure from the norm. And, despite his overall popularity being slightly affected by the Church’s unceasing sex scandals, the pope himself remains a favored brand.

The above statistics, combined with the pope’s political plight have cast Francis as one of the most powerful political and moral brands today. The challenging question is whether Pope Francis is translating this ostensibly benign religious role into a dominating political force, and whether we, as a Democratic country that values clear delineation between Church and State are okay with where that might lead.


 People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision- John C. Maxwell

What do you think?


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