(CNN) -- When a Vatican cardinal presented a message from Pope Francis to the World Economic Forum, it might have been the first time a papal message actually has been read out in Davos, but it certainly wasn't the first time a Pope has spoken out on economic justice.
Beginning in the late 19th century, almost a dozen Popes have issued a long series of documents devoted to defense of the poor which are known as "Catholic social teaching." All that moral leadership, however, has not produced a notably more just world.
A recent estimate by Oxfam, a UK-based charitable group, claims that 85 people on earth control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world's population, despite 120 years of papal exhortations.
Is there any reason to believe that Francis could make a difference where so many of his predecessors haven't?
The surprising answer is yes, just maybe.
To begin, the first Pope from the developing world brings a degree of credibility on matters of economic justice that other world leaders lack. That's not merely because of his origins, but because of his lifestyle choices in favor of simplicity and humility.
This is the Pope, after all, who famously spurned a papal limo to take the bus after his election with the other cardinals, who wears the same brown shoes he sported in Argentina, and who rejected the papal apartment in favor of a modest room in a Vatican residence for clergy.
His aversion to ostentation is already the stuff of legend, so when Francis talks of a "poor church for the poor," people take him seriously.
Francis also has amassed massive deposits of political capital over his first 10 months in office, with approval ratings around the world that politicians and celebrities have to view with unalloyed envy.
That's why, for instance, political leaders these days are beating a path to the Pope's door. Francis recently welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin, he'll meet French President Francois Hollande on Friday, and the White House announced today that U.S. President Barack Obama will make a pilgrimage to the Vatican to meet Francis on March 27.
What's the subject for the Obama/Francis summit? According to a White House statement, it's "their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality."
In many ways Francis has become the new Nelson Mandela, meaning the world's leading source of moral authority. The difference in the Pope's case is that he combines personal charisma with the institutional authority of leading the world's largest Christian church, with more than 1.2 billion followers in every corner of the planet.
Catholicism is also the only world religion with its own diplomatic corps, as the Vatican is a sovereign state with bilateral relations with 180 nations. That gives the church a unique platform to act as a voice of conscience in global affairs.
In other words, Francis has some serious cards to lay on the table in the high-stakes poker game of global economic reform.
It's easy to say that no one person -- even a Pope who's also one of the most popular figures on the planet -- can bring down entrenched systems of power. Of course, that's what people said about Communism too, before Pope John Paul II set the dominoes in motion in Poland that led to the collapse of the Communist system in 1989.
Whether Francis will have the same luck defending the poor remains to be seen, but it's certainly not obvious that the smart money is against him.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.