The first non-European pope is upsetting the balance of power within the Catholic Church. Will Pope Francis succeed in his mission? “I don’t read blogs, for my mental health”, he has confessed.
His internal political programme is the Second Vatican Council and his foreign policy is Ostpolitik but in a world no longer divided between East and West but between North and South. Pope Francis thus proposes to act as an intermediary between North and South, just as Wojtyla did for East and West. I feel this definition of the policies promoted by Pope Francis is effective and complete, five years since his taking office, on 19 March 2013, and is an apt description of the Holy See’s soft power approachto the international stage. The opening of the Holy Gate of the Jubilee, in November 2015, in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, provided further proof of the geopolitical reversal championed by Francis: the outskirts now talk to the centre not the other way round. After all, Mario Bergoglio, a descendant of Italian emigres, has always viewed the world from the outskirts and his speech at the European parliament represented this migrant stance, when he askedits members where the receptive and integrating Europe, heir to many thousands of years of Mediterranean civilisation, had ended up. But this obvious geopolitical reversal is not anti-globalist, as some have suspected. “If globalisation creates connections, leaving each with their identity, then it’s fine; it’s not fine, if it promotes indifference”. These words explain Francis’ global vision, with the poor at the centre who – once again in his own words – are not a theoretical formula concocted by the Communists, the target of the pastoral action of the Church of the Second Vatican Council”.
But let’s get back to geopolitics: to understand what is actually going on in the Catholic Church, one has to analyse the situation between the United States and the Vatican. Five years into his pontificate, there’s still no love lost between Pope Francis and the Church in the United States. For a long while, things between Rome and Washington went pretty smoothly, at first with John Paul II, a fervent anti-Communist, and then with the Eurocentric Benedict XVI. With the election of Pope Francis, the Christian Europe and the West in general have certainly lost their centrality. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a “global” pope, not just because he was chosen “almost from the end of the world”, as he has jokingly remarked, but because his point of view is entirely new.
Francis looks elsewhere: his travels have rarely touched down on the European continent except for Italy where he is the archbishop. His first trip to the United States only took place two and a half years after his election, and coincided with an appointment set up by his predecessor (the World Meeting of Families). The role of the American clergy, albeit cautiously, has been reined in by the Argentine pope, with American bishops less involved in decision making processes and in the most important appointments (only 6% of bishops appointed by Bergoglio are from North America).
Francis’ universalism also undoubtedly clashes with the moralist supremacism of the White Christians backing Trump. The strategic disclosures of the former apostolic nuncio in Washington Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano during the pope’s visit to Dublin, were the unmistakable sign of a battle taking place. His supposed negligence regarding instances of paedophilia in the Church sounds like a call to arms for his many diverse detractors (not all American), while the rise of the evangelicals in Americaseems unstoppable.
After all, from a geopolitical perspective, Francis’ agenda, rather than being doctrinal, is essentially opposed to the American one: the openings offered to regimes such as the one in Cuba, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the first steps towards bridging the thousand year old cold war that has divided Moscow and Rome, and, last but not least, the agreement with China, do not exactly match the agenda set out by the US president.
There’s no doubt that Francis has brought Vatican geopolitics back onto the international stage, after years of falling back on the problems that have afflicted the church from within (the financial scandals, paedophilia), by acting as a universal geopolitical player. It’s not by chance that the Secretary of State has been passed on from a canonist such as Bertone to a diplomat as is Parolin.
Wojtyla certainly travelled more, visiting over 200 countries, more than all previous popes put together. But John Paul II was also a globe trotter, rather than a global Pope. His geopolitical values were mainly connected to anti-Communism and his fight against the “Empire of Evil”. And Benedict XVI was even less global, in his attempt to reconquer Europe at a time when religious Eurocentrism was already cornered.
Francis has looked to Latin America but also to the Orient. Benedict XVI, in the eight years of his papacy, never set foot in Asia, the least Catholic continent in the world, while John Paul II had already called for a return of the cross to Asia in the third millennium. Francis has been to South Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. One would be tempted to view it as a circuitous approach towards China. The agreement reached in Beijing in September is a strong move and a first step along a path towards possible reconciliation. Even if the object of the agreement is pastoral rather than political, there are many political offshoots in this choice, which Pope Francis has pursued ever since the beginning of his pontificate along with his Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who drafted the famous “letter” by Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics in 2007, which marked a change of approach, after years of tensions between the Holy Sea and Beijing. The understanding is still tentative and foresees regular assessments of the situation. However, the agreement is a fundamental building block in this papacy’s eastward leaning, even though the revival of diplomatic relations is still a long way off.
The main obstacle is Taiwan: the Vatican is the only European state to have relations with Taipei and any chance of a break-off is unthinkable. The Taiwanese vice-president Chen Chien-jen commented the agreement by saying that the government of Taiwan is aware that this agreement only concerns religious issues, and has no political implications. If everything works out as planned, one might imagine Francis paying a visit to China; the pope has mentioned it since 2014, ever since Beijing granted the Vatican the right to cross its air space during one of the Pope’s Asian visits.
Many voices, both internal and external, have spoken out against it. First among them cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who has always pointed his finger against the pope, accusing him of selling the Church short to Beijing’s advantage, seeing as the latter “shows disdain for genuine faith”. Then there’s the major American centres of power, which take a dim view of the resumption of relations between the Catholic Church and China, which has once again become an enemy in the Trump era. The Vatican’s acknowledgement could go a long way to help the “international normalisation” to which China aspires, distracting attention from the issue of the respect of human rights.
What view does this non-European pope hold of Europe? Bergoglio has claimed he is a son “who rediscoversin Mother Europehis roots of life and faith “. The itinerary of his travels throughout the continent started from the gates of Europe: the Mediterranean. His first visit was to Lampedusa, then came Lesbos. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard”, were his strong words to the parliament in Strasbourg, as he invited the 28 to engage in concerted action, as the only way of facing up to the issue of migrations in a systematic way. In the Pope’s own words, “Creativity, genius and a capacity for rebirth and renewal are part of the soul of Europe”. “What has happened to you, Europe?”.