Pope Francis, who made his name caring for the poor in Argentina, is urging the world's political, financial and business elite attending the World Economic Forum to use their expertise to help the poor.
In a message read on Tuesday to the annual gathering of the WEF in Davos, Switzerland, Francis said, "I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it."
Although the pope praised the "fundamental role" modern business has played in helping improve health care, education and communications, he said that progress has often been achieved alongside widespread social exclusion of the poor.
On Tuesday, the pope’s overall tone was not as condemnatory as a similar message in his first major policy statement, which was issued in November and denounced trickle-down economics and a system that “tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits.”
In another section, Pope Francis wrote that he was begging “the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor” – a call that President Barack Obama heard, and answered with a major speech calling income inequality and social immobility the key twinned issues which will be the focus of his second term.
Obama called growing income inequality in the United States “the defining challenge of our time,” and quoted from the pope’s apostolic exhortation: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Obama is expected to address inequality in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28 with discussions of the need for a higher minimum wage, universal pre-school and closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama would meet with the pope on March 27 during a four-day European trip that is scheduled to include a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands and a U.S.-European Union summit in Brussels.
The meeting will be the first between the president and Francis. “The president looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said in a statement.
Although the Vatican and the White House have a relationship best described as complicated, the White House may see the pope's emphasis on the alleviating plight of the poor as way to add moral heft to the president's agenda.
Francis, however, has made it clear that Roman Catholic stances on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion have not changed.
"But in his view those issues which create conflict need to be de-emphasized a bit," said John C. Green, a political scientist who specializes in religion and politics at the University of Akron.
Paul Begala, who was a top aide to former President Bill Clinton, said Obama can only benefit from Francis' emphasis on economic disparities.
"It becomes very difficult for conservatives to attack President Obama for being divisive, when the world's greatest figure for unity is saying pretty much the same thing," Begala said.
"American Catholics as a whole don't tend to take specific policy guidance from the pope, whether it's Pope Benedict or Pope Francis," Green said, referring to Francis' predecessor. "But what the pope can do is to get them thinking about particular issues and thinking about them in distinctly Catholic ways. That kind of rethinking could very well be an advantage to President Obama."
Still, Francis' focus on poverty has also captured the attention of Republicans, among them Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a devout Catholic and Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. Other Republicans, such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have also taken anti-poverty positions.
The pope’s representative read the statement on the same day Oxfam released a report saying the world’s elite have rigged the global economic system to create inequality so gaping that the 85 richest people on the planet are worth nearly as much as the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population.
The WEF, which organizes the Davos conference that the pope was addressing, warned last week that the growing gulf between the rich and the poor represents the biggest global risk in 2014.
The Forum said income disparity in the wake of the global financial crisis is the "most likely risk to cause an impact on a global scale in the next decade," and warned of a "lost generation" of young people that could stoke tensions in society.
"The generation coming of age in the 2010s faces high unemployment and precarious job situations, hampering their efforts to build a future and raising the risk of social unrest," the Forum said in Global Risks 2014 (PDF), which was compiled with contributions by 700 global experts.
The warning from the WEF comes amid signs that the global economy has finally gotten over the worst that the financial crisis has thrown at it. The U.S. has begun to rein in some of the extraordinary monetary policies it put in place to get the economy out of recession and avoid a repeat of the 1930s. The countries that use the euro currency are past the worst of their debt crisis. The World Bank, in a report this week, went so far as to say the global economy has "turned a corner."
Last week, Adrian Monck, who is the head of communications for the WEF, defended the gathering, noting that inequality and wealth gap were now on the agenda for discussion.
"It's important that people have that brought to their attention and that we mobilize people around those issues," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services