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Pope Francis comes from Argentina, where poverty and debt have long posed serious challenges. In the past, when thrust into debates about the country's economic future, Francis had made strident comments about wealth, inequality and the markets.

Now, some Catholics are hoping their new pope will play a similar role, giving voice to the poor and exerting influence on a global scale. But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, others say the idea that Pope Francis is some kind of economic liberal is to misread him and the church.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Americans and Westerners in general tend to see the Catholic Church through the prism of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But Michael Sean Winters, who writes a blog for the National Catholic Reporter, says the current pope comes from a part of the world where those concerns take a backseat to poverty and wealth inequality.

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS: You know, if half your flock is going to bed hungry, you really shouldn't be worried about the kind of gender politics that we get excited about here in the United States. You should be focusing on how you can help your people.

ZARROLI: Compared to his predecessor, Pope Francis has written little, but he has sometimes made strong public comments on economic issues. During the Argentine debt crisis in 2001, he called the International Monetary Fund's debt policies immoral. He has bemoaned the negative effects of globalization and what he calls the tyranny of the markets. Steve Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research in Catholic Studies at Catholic University.

DR. STEPHEN SCHNECK: One of the things that Pope Francis has talked about at length as fundamentally immoral is just the huge gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in the world. In his estimation, that gulf itself reflects some kind of immorality at the core of the structures of our economies.

ZARROLI: Schneck points out that these views aren't really different from his predecessors and simply reflect Catholic teaching.

SCHNECK: It's not a rejection of the market. It's not a rejection of capitalism, but there is with it a suspicion that, you know, Adam Smith's invisible hands need to be guided by a moral heart if we're going to have justice.

ZARROLI: The new pope may be in a better position to promote those values because he has actually lived them, says Michael Sean Winters.

WINTERS: Pope Francis has the capability to have a more immediate effect because of the way he carries himself, because of the way he interacts with a crowd, because of the way he speaks, and because of his awareness of the importance of his personal example.

ZARROLI: But anyone who expects Francis to take an active role as a critic of capitalism is sure to be disappointed, says Samuel Gregg, research director of the Acton Institute. Gregg says even as the new pope was criticizing the IMF, he was also taking a stand against liberation theology, the leftist movement that swept some parts of the church in the 1970s and '80s. Gregg says Francis saw the movement as tainted by Marxist ideas that were at odds with church teaching and he didn't want the church in Argentina to become politicized.

SAMUEL GREGG: Liberation theology, at least certain strands of liberation theology, insisted that the church had to become involved in more or less revolutionary movements for justice. And his response was no, that is not the responsibility of priests. Priests are supposed to be pastors. They're supposed to be guides. They're supposed to offer the sacraments. They're not politicians. They're not revolutionaries.

ZARROLI: Gregg says the church stresses the importance of helping the poor, but it has traditionally allowed for a pretty wide range of opinions about the best way to do that. And he expects Francis to maintain a certain critical distance from political debates.

GREGG: When it comes to the economy, the focus is much more upon articulating the principles of Catholic social teaching, of Catholic ethics, rather than proposing detailed five-point plans for dealing with concrete situations because, frankly, that's the role of laypeople rather than the clergy.

ZARROLI: But there is also no question that the new pope understands issues of poverty and development in a much more direct way than his predecessors. That could affect the emphasis, if not the essence, of church teachings. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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