ROME — Over the centuries, popes, at least theoretically, have tried to remain above politics, and most have worked hard to maintain good relationships with emperors, kings, chancellors, presidents and prime ministers of all stripes, regardless of their outlook or party affiliation.
Yet when a particular pope and politician click, history can change. The chemistry between St. John Paul II and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the struggle against European Communism is merely the most recent, but hardly the only, instance – think Pope Leo III and Charlemagne, for instance, for a more distant case in point.
Looking around the world stage today, is there a major leader with whom Pope Francis might yet forge that kind of special relationship?
For a variety of fairly clear reasons, it’s not likely to be U.S. President Donald Trump. Equally obviously, a devoted “peace pope” probably isn’t going to see Vladimir Putin of Russia as his natural ally, and, however much Francis might be open to it in principle, the cultural gap between him and China’s Xi Jinping probably impedes such a tight partnership.
Who does that leave? Well, as it happens, it leaves the figure recently dubbed the “New Leader of the Free World,” who’s coming calling on the pontiff in the Vatican on Saturday.
Pope Francis and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have met three times before, in 2013, 2015 and 2016, but never when so much about the future order of both Europe and the wider world seemed so up for grabs, or when Germany’s role in that new world order seemed so potentially robust.
As Trump pursues an “America first” foreign policy, expressed most recently in his decision to abandon the Paris climate change accord that Francis had championed, both the interest and the ability of the United States to exercise global leadership seems questionable. At the same time, the U.K. is engulfed in post-Brexit tumult and apparent political paralysis, seeming to take it off the table as a serious global force for the time being too.
Meanwhile, Merkel has wrapped the new French leader, Emmanuel Macron, in a warm loving embrace, leading many geopolitical experts to speculate on the possibilities of a Germany-France axis. Already we’ve seen movement in currency markets away from dollars towards the Euro, which would seem to suggest the idea isn’t just a pipe dream but something hard-nosed investors are willing to bet on.
Merkel will meet Pope Francis after wrapping up a successful trip to Latin America, featuring stops in both Mexico and his native Argentina, the obvious subtext to which was that Latin Americans unhappy with recent moves by the U.S. aren’t without options, either in the political or economic arenas.
On many fronts, Merkel would seem to embody an agenda more congenial to that of Pope Francis. She’s an ardent supporter of Paris and environmental protection, she’s defended a strong pro-immigrant position that saw Germany take in an estimated one million refugees and migrants in 2015 alone, and when she was in Mexico last week, she pointedly said that “putting up walls and cutting oneself off will not solve the problem.”
That almost seemed to channel Francis himself when he was in Mexico in February 2016, and said that any politician who proposes building walls is “not a Christian.” Both the pope’s and Merkel’s comments were widely taken as direct rebuttals to Trump.
Moreover, Merkel would seem just the kind of partner Francis might find appealing.
She grew up in East Germany under the Soviets, which many German observers believe helps explain her instinctive revulsion about policies limiting freedom of movement. Francis legendarily likes people who’ve experienced hardship in their lives, and because he too came of age in a period of military rule in Argentina, may feel he and Merkel have something in common.
In addition, Merkel is the daughter of a Lutheran theologian and pastor. She was originally introduced into the Christian Democratic government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1990s to provide some Protestant balance in what was seen, at the time, as a Catholic-dominated administration. Although she’s not demonstrative about her faith in public in the manner of some American politicians, she’s reportedly serious about her Christianity.
Given that Francis takes the push for Christian unity seriously, and prefers an “ecumenism of action” to formal theological dialogue as the means to get there, the idea of pursuing common interests with a Lutheran head of state might well hold some romance for him.
Finally, the fact that Merkel is an empowered woman in what’s usually a man’s world undoubtedly also adds to the tug Francis might feel.
That’s not to say, however, there are no potential complications to a Francis/Merkel alignment, or that the two have always been completely in sync.
In 2016, for instance, Francis revealed in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had received a phone call from an “angry” Merkel after describing the Old Continent during a visit to the European Parliament in November 2014 as “haggard” and “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.”
Merkel challenged him on that characterization, Francis said, leading him to reassure her that he also believes that “in the darkest moments,” Europe “has always shown itself to have unexpected resources.”
While Merkel can offer Francis real-world political support for some of his highest social priorities, Francis’s wide popularity across Europe could also mean that his implicit backing for her de facto new role as the leader of Western liberal democracies could be important, especially in Europe’s Catholic southern belt formed by Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Whether Francis and Merkel will forge a strategic partnership remains to be seen, but the mere possibility in a moment in which so much seems undecided lends their meeting on Saturday a sense of drama we haven’t seen in the precincts of the Vatican since … well, maybe, since roughly one month ago, when Trump came to Rome.