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The new Vatican geopolitics

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The first Latin American pope and the first from a major city has upended the Eurocentric tradition by giving local churches their independence.

Among recent Popes, Jorge Mario Bergoglio reached the papal throne with the “least” baggage in terms of international relations and travels. Nothing compared to Angelo Roncalli, who had also been a nuncio, or Giovanni Battista Montini, who had worked for in the State Secretariat and undertaken an extensive mission in Poland, or Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. Bergoglio however, is perfectly suited to today’s world. He is the first non-European popeand the first Latin American, a situation that not only mirrors the internal balance of power within the Catholic universe, but also the more general one of the planet, marked by the end of Eurocentrism and, as Bergoglio would say, by a strong shift in geopolitical influence withcountries previously on the fringes such as Russia, China, India and Iran now wanting to be heard. He is also the first Pope who, at a time of vast and often forced urbanisation (today over 50% of the world’s population lives in major urban centres, a figure that at the beginning of the 19th century stood at 5%), has lived in a sprawling urban metropolis with 13 million inhabitants like Buenos Aires.

Hardly surprisingly then, Pope Frances has started to mirror this “new world order” in his decisions related to the Church. Firstly, he has increased the independence and responsibility of the local Episcopal Conferences, relinquishing the “Eurocentric” tradition of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when local Churches were mainly required to apply directives from Rome.

But that’s not all. In the first two years of his pontificate, pope Francis’ cardinal appointments have shifted the geopolitical balance of the assembly that will elect the next Pope. The cardinals appointed by John Paul II were 57% Europeans, 11% from North America, 11% from South America, 10% from Africa, 7% from Asia, and 4% from Central America. Those appointed by Benedict XVI were 57% European, 13% Asian, 12% North American, 10% South American and 8% African, (with no one from Central America). With Bergoglio (almost) everything has changed: the European cardinals have dropped to 37%, those from South America have risen to 17%, those from Asia and Africa to 14% and those from North America have dropped to 6%.

If we then look at Bergoglio’s travels, his focus on outlying peoples becomes even more obvious. From Brazil which he visited in 2013 to Turkey, South Korea and Albania in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Bosnia Herzegovina and Cuba in 2015 Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan in 2016, up to the recent trip to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Figures at hand, we can then understand what cardinal Pietro Parolin, appointed Secretary of State by Bergoglio after an extensive career in Vatican diplomacy, said in the lectio magistralis he held in 2015 at the Theological College of the Triveneto in 2015: “We are faced with an approach that can be applied equally to geopolitics and theology”.

Pope Francis, in other words, has taken immediate action to sever the privileged bonds with the liberal and capitalist West which, despite reservations and critical considerations, were in any case central to his two predecessors: saint John Paul II, the standard bearer of the war of liberation from Communism, and Benedict XVI, in the front line in the cultural battle in defence of values, even in relation to the Islamic and Islamist revival.

However, Pope Francis doesn’t criticise the West “from the left” but “from above”. “The model”, the pope has written, “is not the sphere… where every point is equidistant from the centre and there are no differences between them. The model is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness”.

But how can this model be achieved? Bergoglio provides an explanation in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Pope’s true foreign affairs manual whose ideal Church is not one that restricts itself to articulating precious moral principles, but is instead prepared to mess with reality. He prefers to err in trying rather than stay pure by observing. Withfour general rules. The first: “time is greater than space”. In other words: in political action such as evangelization, one must be “open to suitable processes”. Because one has to act. The second: “Unity prevails over conflict”. Meaning: one must not ignore conflicts nor be overwhelmed by them, but resolve them without demonising anyone. The third: “Realities are greater than ideas”. “No to idealisms and nominalisms”, the Pope writes, better put things in practice. The fourth: “The whole is greater than the part”. That is to say, “We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good”, without being held back by short term perspectives or our vested interests.

This explains some of Bergoglio’s insights which, often enough, have raised more than one eyebrow even within the Catholic Church but which, when put to the test, have proven to be convincing and often prophetic. We need only recall the recent developments in the Korean peninsula, the role played by the US and Donald Trump and the meetings between the South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-un. And then think back to Pope Francis’ words during his visit in 2014 and his insistence on the fact that the reconciliation and reunification of the two Koreas was not a forlorn dream. And then there’s the idea of the “Piecemeal Third World War” that the Pope broached during his return flight and which since then has perfectly summed up our contemporary world.

During that trip, pope Francis shocked many by saying that IS had to be fought (“it is licit to fight the unjust aggressor”), just as it shocked many Eastern Christians, who had suffered so much at the hands of the Islamic militias, calling for an end to the massacres in the Syrian region still in the hands of the rebels and jihadists. Bergoglio doesn’t change his mind, he is the very same pope who in September 2013 stepped in to stop Barack Obama bombing Syria where chemical weapons were being used.

But the Pope who wants a Church that is prepared to take the field with realism (“No to idealisms and nominalisms”) is a Pope who doesn’t “support” anyone but never wants anyone to be demonised (“Unity shall prevail over conflict”) and to seek a collective good (“The whole is greater than the part”), that is broader than the victory of this or that front.

These are the same principles that have inspired the recent agreement between the Vatican and the Chinese People’s Republic, which has been described as a “historic turning point” or a “surrender”. Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a leading figure in the resistance of the Catholics faithful to Rome against the repression of the Beijing regime, has described the agreement as a “masterpiece of creativity in saying nothing in many words”. Others have pointed out that the Chinese bishops will be chosen by the representatives of the dioceses but the Chinese government must express its approval, perhaps the only instance of political tutelage over an ecclesiastic choice.

But can these parts, albeit important, be considered greater than a “whole” which, even within a “pastoral agreement” (as the Holy See has termed it), now contemplates the possibility of both a political and diplomatic thawing of relations between China and the Vatican? The agreement sets the stage for the creation of a single Catholic Church in a country where for decades Catholics faithful to Rome were persecuted while the “patriotic” church, with bishops appointed by Beijing’s ministries, enjoyed all the privileges. In spite of the restrictions detailed above, doesn’t the agreement amount to an impressive settlement of the conflict by enhancing mutual differences? And if the Church risks, as some say, being subjugated by the regime, it’s also true that for the first time the regime has recognised the pastoral influence of the papacy in China.

Pope Francis’ geopolitics, therefore, must travels down a very narrow path which, instead of separating vision from caution and realism from insight, tries to unite them. What’s certain is that there have been plenty of surprises, and more are in store.

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