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The Political Pope

The Political Pope
Victor Gaetan, is an award-winning writer for National Catholic Register and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.

On Friday morning, the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flag was, for the first time, hoisted over the United Nations. Other than the flag, there will be little else to mark the occasion of Pope Francis’ address to the UN General Assembly. In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office had to convince the pope’s team to accept even that honor.

The issue first came up when Palestine, the assembly’s other permanent observer, promoted a resolution to allow the two nonmember banners to stand next to 193 member flags. The Vatican pressed to have its name removed from a draft text; the Holy See signed its first bilateral accord with Palestine in May and has referred to the “State of Palestine” since Francis visited last year, but Francis still considered the motion to be unnecessarily antagonistic toward Israel and the United States, which both opposed it. In the end, even though the specific reference to the Holy See was deleted, the resolution still referred more generally to “raising the flags of nonmember observer states,” a category that includes the Vatican. The resolution passed with 119 votes in favor, including France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and Poland; eight votes against, including Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United States; and 45 abstentions, including Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic States.

The episode sums up Francis’ diplomatic style in a nutshell—promote reconciliation without offending key stakeholders. Press antagonists to encounter each other while avoiding affronting political leaders. For example, last week in Cuba, even as Francis called for a “revolution of tenderness,” he resisted pressure to meet with the island’s persecuted political dissidents. In Ecuador two months ago, the pope likewise avoided photo ops with President Rafael Correa’s critics, who mounted major street protests in the weeks leading up to the pontiff’s visit.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides down Fifth Avenue in New York, September 24, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the United States, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides down Fifth Avenue in New York, September 24, 2015.

As a religious leader, Francis is charged with upholding values that transcend politics, which is why he tries not to play in political games. At the same time, however, human dignity can hardly flourish in conditions of deprivation or destruction, which is why he and his tight-knit diplomatic team have not been afraid to advocate justice, peace, and mercy to those in power. In that way, he has had to be more actively politically engaged than previous popes, but also more careful in how he does it.

Among modern pontiffs, Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) faced extensive political challenges during and after World War II, yet even he was not expected to travel the world meeting with global leaders. Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), who dealt with a world tensely divided between the West and the Soviet Union for 13 years and a dominant United States thereafter, pushed for change but faced more intransigent world orders. Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013) left the post, in part because of the complex political demands of the office. One reason Francis was selected for the job after Benedict was an intervention he gave to the conclave in 2013, in which he criticized the Catholic Church as too self-referential. Instead, he urged, it needed to focus on bringing Christ’s message to the world—and that’s just what he is doing.

Addressing a joint session of Congress on Thursday, he described “pursuit of the common good” as the “chief aim of all politics.” He continued that “all political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.”

With that in mind, at the United Nations, the pontiff emphasized three priorities, both overtly and behind the scenes: compassion for marginalized people, especially refugees; peace and security; and a comprehensive environmental program—an agenda that reflects Francis’ style and the church’s core values stretching back to Jesus. Indeed, a popular Catholic meme portrays the last three popes as each characterizing one of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. It is Francis’ virtue, charity, that requires the most engagement with the real world—as messy as that may be.

 A popular Catholic meme portrays the last three popes—Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis—as each characterizing one of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis.


Despite his reputation for humility, Francis is comfortable playing the prophet. His first official trip outside Rome was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in 2013, where he spoke of the plight of refugees, mainly Muslims, fleeing failed states and war. Arriving on an Italian coast guard ship, he cast a wreath into the sea to honor those who had drowned. Later, he met with men from Eritrea and Somalia who made the crossing.

In an emotional homily the day of the visit, the pope said that he came “to reawaken our consciences”—to cast out indifference toward suffering born out of a “culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing.” His startling language and use of symbolism—his altar was fashioned from an old fishing boat, his chalice and staff made from wood pulled from the ocean—prompted the Italian government to form, in October, Mare Nostrum, a rescue mission that saved over 150,800 refugees and arrested 330 smugglersbefore it was replaced by a European Union initiative.

No subject is more biblical than migration and displacement: Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, an account that is also in the Koran; Joseph and Mary fled with the infant Jesus to Egypt to avoid massacre. Speaking out for refugees is thus a natural topic for any pope. The subject also has personal resonance for Francis: as a priest in Buenos Aires, he put outcasts living on socioeconomic peripheries at the center of his ministry. He has always highlighted the “preferential option for the poor,” meaning prioritizing the needs of the poor as Jesus did and viewing poverty as an injustice, not just a misfortune, an orientation in Catholic social thought that comes from the Latin American church.

And so Francis has encouraged the church to be more active on behalf of refugees and migrants, which typically leads to more political engagement.Francis’ response to the refugee crisis is also unique. Before flying to Cuba, he met with a Syrian refugee family now living in a Vatican-owned apartment. The family of four, members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, arrived in Italy the day Francis asked all Catholic communities across Europe to accommodate at least one refugee family. Humanitarian service, as opposed to political action, has been the Catholic Church’s standard response to cataclysm. For Francis, though, the church should take a more proactive geopolitical role. With priests and religious leaders being kidnapped and murdered, while thousands of believers are forced to flee ancient communities in the cradle of Christianity, Vatican engagement is not optional.

And so Francis has encouraged the church to be more active on behalf of refugees and migrants, which typically leads to more political engagement. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made immigration reform a high priority and lobbies constantly for progressive legislation. The bishops didn’t need to be pressured to do so: the vast majority of immigrants from Latin America are Catholic. To be sure, Francis does not want political engagement to become an excuse for “politicizing” the church by picking government favorites. For example, he recently chastised the Ukrainian bishops for being too close, or seeming to be too supportive, of the regime in Kiev. And there is a general sense that to maintain its purity, the church should carefully guard its independence. That said, the needs of the suffering, in this case refugees, reign supreme for Francis and the church, and so they have no choice but to engage in political lobbying and to take political positions.


The refugee crisis ties back to the war in Syria. The Vatican is involved in numerous peace efforts, from the Central African Republic to Venezuela, but none is as important as Syria. In August 2013, soon after the U.S. government accused the Bashar al-Assad regime of killing civilians in a chemical weapons attack, Francis went into action to dissuade the United States from escalating the crisis. In a letter sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2013, the pope appealed to the G-20, then meeting in St. Petersburg, to find a nonmilitary solution in Syria. Francis also called for a day of fasting and prayer on September 7, 2013. Pope John Paul II made a similar appeal on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Vatican adamantly opposed. In 2003, the United States ignored the Holy See. In 2013, however, U.S. President Barack Obama backed down from his threat to bomb Syria.

Mark Perez wears a button bearing the image of Pope Francis while waiting for him to arrive for a visit to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, September 24, 2015.

Mark Perez wears a button bearing the image of Pope Francis while waiting for him to arrive for a visit to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, September 24, 2015.

At the UN, Francis called war “the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment,” renewing “repeated appeals” to end conflict in the Middle East. More important than the speech, though, will be the ongoing work behind the scenes. According to Vatican sources, Francis is using capital amassed in recent years to encourage Iran, the United States, and Russia to participate in negotiations on Syria.

The Catholic Church has had formal, uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Iran since 1954; friendly correspondence between popes and Persian shahs dates back to the sixteenth century. Of the 180 countries with which the Holy See enjoys diplomatic relations, Iran maintains one of the largest delegations, which meets monthly with Vatican advisers. Encouraged by these connections, in March 2014, three U.S. bishops met with four leading ayatollahs in Iran. They were hosted by the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom, Iran’s spiritual center. With backing from the Holy See and a blessing from the U.S. State Department, the participants used the four-day session to establish a dialogue on nuclear weapons and the role of religious leaders in diplomatic engagement.

Francis is neither an idealistic peacenik nor a Machiavellian. He’s an audacious Jesuit who plunges into social trenches and is comfortable with conflict. In the end, they worked to create an alternate channel of communication for use when political negotiation breaks down, something Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was one of the attendees, has publicly proposed and previously put into action. In 2011, he helped gain the release of two American hikers after negotiating with Iranian clerics who intervened with then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now Iran will be sending a delegation to Philadelphia to participate in the Catholic Church’s World Meeting of Families, which is taking place over the weekend and is the pope’s main reason for visiting the United States. Iran’s vice president for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, requested that her country be included while she was in Rome last February meeting with high-ranking Vatican officials, including Francis. Afterward, she said that she “thanked him for all his efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East at the regional and global levels,” noting that “the pope has the ability to bring nations closer together, and through this, perhaps he can influence governments.” Certainly, that’s what Francis aims to do.

One of the bishops involved in the Iran dialogue on religion and nuclear arms, McCarrick, also played a role in negotiations to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. He sat by the pontiff’s side during the first Mass in Havana earlier this week. The Vatican’s engagement on Cuba and Iran helped the pope build a personal relationship with Obama and so much political capital in Washington that he was invited to address a joint session of Congress—a first for a pope. This is all the more remarkable considering that 34 years ago, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, it was controversial—so controversial, in fact, that a legal challenge brought by a diverse coalition of religious groups went all the way to the Supreme Court. The White House won. These days, the Vatican is frustrated by U.S. activities in the Middle East, but it hopes that the goodwill it has built up in the United States can lead to more collaboration, possibly including on Syria.

Sources in Rome say the pope considers it a very positive sign that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently described Syrian peace negotiations as a “process.” After talks with the British foreign minister last week, Kerry noted that “we need to get to the negotiation. That is what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, and any other countries with influence, will help.” He continued, “For the last year and a half we have said Assad has to go, but how long and what the modality is . . . there is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”

“Process” is a key term for Francis. In a long interview coordinated by Jesuit journalists in 2013, he explained, “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.”

One relationship Francis has patiently cultivated is with Putin. The Vatican has earned its bona fides in Moscow by exercising restraint with regard to Ukraine. Instead of siding with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which has a strong anti-Russian streak, having been persecuted by the Soviet Union), the pope counseled its leaders to avoid politicizing the church. The Vatican recently relocated to Switzerland its American-born nuncio to Kiev, Thomas Gullickson, allegedly because Moscow complained that he was biased against Russia. What is notable is that, in Pope Francis’ view, not only are dissidents expendable in the interests of a larger process but so are church members and employees.

Francis is neither an idealistic peacenik nor a Machiavellian. He’s an audacious Jesuit who plunges into social trenches and is comfortable with conflict. When you portray your church as a field hospital for the wounded, as Francis vividly did in 2013, then you and your clerical officers better be comfortable on the field of political battle.


The pope is neither outdoorsman nor naturalist. Yet soon after he became pope, he dedicated himself to producing an encyclical on the many immediate threats to the planet’s health. Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) was released in late May to inform the lead-up to COP21, the UN’s December conference on climate change. Superficially, it seems that Francis assumed a bond with nature when he selected St. Francis of Assisi as his spiritual progenitor. St. Francis was famous for communing with animals and plants and serves as the saint of ecology. In the early thirteenth century, he wrote the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon,portraying God’s beauty in all living things.

It is not capitalism or market economics that Francis objects to, but the fetishization of money and utilitarian attitudes toward human worth.But some of the key points in Laudato si’ can be found in the 2007 Aparecida(Brazil) document, which Francis drafted for the fifth Latin American Episcopal Conference when he was still known as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio. Aparecidaobserves that Latin America “is affected by the warming of the earth and climate change caused primarily by the unsustainable way of life of industrialized countries.” In Laudato si’, Francis deepens the critique, pointing out that the destruction of the environment has its roots in contemporary society’s orientation toward short-term financial gain, a cult of consumerism, and a technocratic paradigm that dominates political and economic life. At the same time, he reminds readers of the Christian principle that all people possess inherent dignity, which contrasts with the “culture of relativism” that “sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves ones own immediate interests.”

Two things are clear in Laudato si’. First, it is not capitalism or market economics that he objects to, but the fetishization of money and utilitarian attitudes toward human worth. Second, moneyed interests aren’t the only barriers to change: the pope calls out “globalized indifference” as protecting the status quo. To fix the problem, Francis urges transparent dialogue on environmental policy at every level of decision-making. He considers inequality and poverty to be intrinsically connected to environmental damage, so he calls for policies that eliminate poverty while also, for example, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing sources of renewable energy. And more broadly, he demands greater social solidarity. What’s especially compelling is the pope’s vivid language and presentation and his prophetic conviction that the ecological crisis is urgent—a stance he wants the UN to adopt. Indeed, in Laudato si’, Francis addresses “every person living on this planet,” not just Catholics or even just Christians.

It’s an understatement to say that Francis is ambitious. He is leading the church into the world, as he pledged to his peers that he would do. No other pope has written a stand-alone document on the environment, probably because it requires so much simultaneous engagement in international and local politics, public policy, science, and education. His fearlessness and willingness to go there has contributed to his popularity. But global popularity has a downside: besides creating unrealistic expectations, there’s a risk that the multiplication of goals obscures the spiritual heart of his enterprise. Can a pope be a man for all people? Who knows. But Pope Francis is willing to try, and the world seems willing to let him.

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