The Audacity of Pope

Posted November 6, 2013

Categories: Articles, Featured

In 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Poland. It was an official visit, the invitation extended by the Communist government. The pope—once known as Karol Wojtyla, an actor-turned-priest from a small village outside Krakow—managed to pull off the impossible. He gave speeches about economic justice that one of my Polish friends told me were more socialist than anything you’d hear from a Communist government in those days. And yet he also buoyed the hopes of the opposition movement. One year later, workers in Gdansk created the Solidarity trade union, a movement also devoted to economic justice, and Communism in Eastern Europe was suddenly living on borrowed time.

Questioned about his repressive policies against Catholics, Stalin once quipped, “The Pope? How many divisions does he have?” Modern popes of course don’t command any military forces. But as John Paul II’s example suggests, their influence over foreign policy by way of soft power should not be underestimated. After all, how many divisions does the Soviet Union still command?

And now we have a very different pope in Rome, one who has immediately challenged the orthodox style that John Paul II favored and that Benedict XVI further elevated. From Argentina, the new pope has brought the Franciscan ethos of humility into the magnificent halls of the Vatican. Indeed, Pope Francis signaled his new style by eschewing the richly appointed papal apartment in favor of the Saint Marta hotel. That’s a four-star accommodation, but it’s still a step down from where his predecessors bunked. It allows the new pope to maintain some distance from the flatteries and intrigues of the Vatican, what he has called “the leprosy of the papacy.”

The new pope has made his mark so far with his view that the Church should be, frankly, more catholic in its embrace of others: gays, atheists, those who use contraception, those overcome with doubt. He has even gone so far as to call proselytism “solemn nonsense.” Some of his non-judgmental attitude can be glimpsed in his pre-papal remarks, for instance in his published conversation with the Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka. But now it seems as though he was simply biding his time until he could be in a position to speak more freely.

When I was back in Poland this August, many interviewees mentioned to me that the Church there doesn’t really know what to do about these unorthodox views. There’s no tradition of “liberation theology” in Poland. There’s not even much of a tradition of liberal Catholicism. Church officials in Poland are scrambling to square the pope’s pronouncements with clerical convention. Good luck.

Will the new pope not only challenge the social status quo but also, like John Paul II, the world order as well? Here are three areas where the new pope could seriously rock the boat, based on some of his utterances so far.

Immigration – In September, the new pope emphatically stood with the vulnerable with his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” he wrote. “They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” Earlier in the summer, he took his first trip outside Rome to, of all places, the tiny island of Lampedusa, a transit point for African immigrants to Europe. He has even declared that the Church should provide its unused buildings for asylum-seekers.

To do: Perhaps a visit by Pope Francis to key House districts in the United States could provide the push the Obama administration needs to get comprehensive immigration reform, which the Senate passed over the summer, through Congress.

Economic justice – Modern popes have frequently taken a critical attitude toward concentrations of wealth and the growing divide between rich and poor. John Paul II worried that globalization was becoming a new form of colonialism. “In reality, the wealth produced often remains in the hands of only a few, with a consequent further loss of sovereignty of national States, already rather weak in the area of development,” he wrote. Even the more business-friendly Benedict worried about growing inequality.

Pope Francis has gone further. After all, he adopted his name to honor the legacy of Francis of Assisi, who abandoned his wealth to live practically as a beggar, ministering to the poor, the lepers, and even the animals. Last month, Francis decried the “globalization of indifference” and urged world leaders to break down “the barriers of individualism and the slavery of profit at all cost.” He has not been afraid to point fingers. Growing inequality has resulted “from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are charged with providing for the common good.” Pope Francis the Keynesian!

To do: Pope Francis has already met with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to talk about ways to alleviate extreme poverty. Perhaps he could next meet with the IMF’s Christine Lagarde to roll back the austerity mindset that dominates thinking about the global economy.

Islam – Pope Benedict caused a stir in 2006 when he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s unflattering description of Mohammed’s legacy as “evil and inhuman.” He subsequently apologized, but his views of Islam remained rather medieval. Pope Francis, by contrast, has immediately sought to repair ties with the world of Islam. As Akbar Ahmed and Craig Considine have written in The Washington Post, “Before an audience of ambassadors from 180 countries, he explained how he wanted to work for peace and bridge-building between peoples. Muslims and Catholics, he claimed, needed to intensify their dialogue. Positive shockwaves were sent into Muslim-Catholic circles, and Muslim scholars and religious institutions around the world welcomed Pope Francis’s election.”

Pope Francis has sent letters to major Muslim figures, such as the top imam of the University of Al-Azhar, as well as a message to all Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan. In 1076, Pope Gregory VII sent a similar message to the emir of Mauretania that emphasized the common roots of Islam and Christianity. Twenty years later, that same pope provided the ideological underpinning of the First Crusade.

To do: Pope Francis could prove similarly pivotal with his messages, but this time in helping the world move from the heightened tensions of the post-9/11 era into an era of mutual understanding. Maybe it’s time for another major address in Cairo, with a new and more pointed message about the need to cooperate across confessional boundaries.

Over the last five years, we’ve had a chance to evaluate the “audacity of hope.” There has been stirring rhetoric about nuclear disarmament and building bridges to the Muslim world combined with disappointing policies on drone wars, climate change, and human rights in places like Bahrain. In less than a year, Pope Francis has offered similarly stirring rhetoric. If this “audacity of pope” not only shakes up the Catholic Church (Vatican III, anyone?) but also help to reframe globalization and geopolitics (a tall order indeed), then the Nobel committee might start thinking about awarding its first peace prize to a pontiff.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 6, 2013


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