This spring marks five years since the election of Pope Francis. From the first days of his papacy, he became known worldwide for media reports highlighting his humility, simplicity, and joy, as well as his “eloquent symbolic actions,” such as paying his own bills and embracing a sick child, Thomas Massaro notes. But soon, the scholar says, the world would come to know this pope as a bold voice for the values of “mercy, inclusion, dialogue, and reconciliation.”

Massaro, a professor of moral theology and the former dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, wrote Mercy in Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis (Rowman, Mar. 2018) to explore Francis’s distinctive vision of mercy, as revealed in his encyclicals, speeches, letters, and travels. The book shows Francis in action in six chapters that focus on “economic inequality, worker justice, environmental degradation, the health of family life, the well-being of refugees and other displaced people, and the advancement of peace,” Massaro says.

Massaro, whose earlier book was Lasting Justice, tells PW, “For past popes, the dominant concept in Catholic social teaching has been justice, giving people what is due to them, almost arithmetical. But Francis is willing to reach into a different bundle of concepts. For him, mercy is the motivation for all our actions. The virtue of mercy links the interior to the exterior. It cannot stay within you; it has to move out into the world to be mercy.”

Massaro says that Francis repeatedly affirms that “Christians must indeed meddle in politics, that business is a noble vocation, and that every person has the power to offer love and forgiveness.” Still, Massaro argues in his book that kindness and good will are not enough. Mercy must motivate systemic change and confront imbalances of power. He writes, “This pope’s ‘spin’ is that he brings forward an enhanced sense of urgency for social change that enlivens the church’s ministry to the marginalized.”

Not everyone, however, has such a positive view of Pope Francis, Massaro notes. Mercy in Action describes critics who accuse the pope of sliding away from doctrinal purity, describing him as a “reckless and bumbling theological lightweight,” or calling him a “schemer.” Massaro disagrees with those assessments, saying that Pope Francis has “subtracted nothing from the church’s social teachings.” Rather, the pontiff has added to them, deepening and broadening their reach. Francis defines mercy as “the very purpose and mission of the church: to reflect the love of a compassionate and forgiving God to a needy world.”