NEW YORK — In a major address at the University of Notre Dame on Tuesday, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro argued that Pope Francis’s conception of mercy is essential to understanding the pope’s engagement in international politics — and why the pope rejects fundamentalism and advocates for an open diplomacy centered around the practice of solidarity.
Spadaro’s remarks on “The Diplomacy and Geopolitics of Mercy: The World of Pope Francis,” were delivered at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies for the annual Terrence R. Keeley Vatican lecture.
Spadaro is a close collaborator with Francis and is the editor-in-chief of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.
“For Francis mercy is not an abstract concept,” said Spadaro. “It is the action of God within the life of this world: In societies, in human groups, in families and individuals.
“This is the power of mercy: It can change the meaning of historical processes,” he added.
Spadaro used examples from Francis’s apostolic voyages over the past four and a half years to make his case.
He pointed to the pope’s visit to the war-torn Central African Republic where mercy became more than just a spiritual word, but had a political effect.
In Bangui, the nation’s capital, Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral — an act that “was meant as a sign of encouragement to look ahead, to set out anew and resume dialogue.”
Spadaro also listed the pope’s desire for diplomatic relations with China, his behind the scenes efforts to improve relations between Cuba and the United States, and his desire for peace in Colombia, capped off with a visit there last month, among the examples of how the pope pursues political engagement driven by mercy.
“The pope’s position consists not in saying who is right and who is wrong, for at the root of all conflict is a fight for power or regional dominance, or what the pope calls a ‘vain pretext,’” he argued.
In veiled reference to U.S. foreign policy under the George W. Bush administration, Spadaro added: “The pope rejects the mixing of politics, morals and religion that leads to the use of a language that divides reality between the absolute Good and the absolute Evil, between an axis of evil and an axis of good.”
The phrase “axis of evil” was first used by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address to describe collectively enemies of the United States, particularly Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.
Spadaro also made the case that Francis’s style of diplomacy — particularly in the United States — has consciously avoided identification with either major political party.
“His speeches [in the United States]…made sure that no one could identify Catholicism with any of the political categories of ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive,’ Democrat or Republican,” said Spadaro.
In July, Spadaro co-authored an article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA,” with Presbyterian pastor Marcelo Figueroa where he argued that the relationship between conservative U.S. Catholics and evangelicals was based on “an ecumenism of hate” rooted in political alliances.
The article sparked widespread debate, with critics lambasting it for a poor understanding of the U.S. Church, with others heralding it as an overdue indictment of Catholics who had sacrificed their prophetic witness for political gain.
While Spadaro did not address the controversy over the article, he echoed similar sentiments during his remarks at Notre Dame.
“Francis never gives into the temptation to identify religion with fundamentalism,” he said.
In his most direct mention of internal debates within American Christianity, Spadaro said that Francis’s view of engaging the world does not align with the “so-called ‘Benedict Option.’”
The Benedict Option is a best-selling book published by conservative commentator Rod Dreher in March 2017 that advocates for Christians to withdraw from the mainstream and promote a Christian counterculture. The book and the ideas proposed in it have been greeted with both widespread acclaim and disapproval, not dissimilar to Spadaro’s essay on ecumenism.
“Bergoglio wants to liberate pastors from the feeling of being at war…by which the Church feels enclosed by a society it must fight against,” he said.
In order to understand how Francis believes Catholics should engage in the modern world and how mercy can have a tangible political effect, Spadaro says one must look no further than the pope’s travels and the locations he has prioritized.
“Has he visited Paris, London, Berlin, or Madrid? No….He touched Europe through its wider peripheries,” said Spadaro.
He then quoted an interview with Francis from La Carvoca News in 2015.
“When we move out from the center and away from it, we discover more things, and when we look at the center from these new things we have discovered, from the new places, from these peripheries, we see that reality is different,” said Francis.
Spadaro believes Francis’s approach to diplomacy and global engagement marks a change from the past and one that challenges traditional practices and norms.
“His visionary gaze has suggested the possibility of a new global role for Catholicism,” said Spadaro.
“Ways that refuse to let conflict have the last word…in which God in his healing and hope comes alongside our hurting world.”