ROME – Pope Francis today is in Hungary, where he’ll be welcomed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Given that the two leaders have several well-known differences, the encounter is a reminder of the Vatican’s longstanding diplomatic commitment to keeping channels of communication open even, perhaps especially, with one’s foes.
Last October British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who heads the Vatican’s office for relations with states, put it this way in a Crux interview about Rome’s controversial deal with China.
“If we were to walk away from the dialogue completely, we wouldn’t have any opportunity for that. I’m not saying we have very much at the moment, but as one of my bosses, Cardinal [Andrea Cordero Lanza] di Montezemolo told me years ago in Uruguay when I was a rookie diplomat, there’s a big difference between something and nothing.”
Gallagher was busy yesterday practicing what he preaches, sitting down in his Vatican office for a polite 40-minute meeting with Italian politician Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant party the Lega and a frequent skeptic about Pope Francis’s repeated calls for compassion and welcome with respect to migrants.
At the moment, Salvini is facing a criminal trial on kidnapping charges in Sicily for his handling of a standoff involving the NGO ship Open Arms, which rescues migrants and refugees at sea, while he was Italy’s Interior Minister in 2019. Salvini refused to allow the ship to dock on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which prosecutors now argue amounted to an illegal detention of the passengers, some of whom eventually jumped overboard attempting to make a desperate swim to shore.
Gallagher’s willingness to sit down even with the likes of Salvini, who presents himself as a fervent (though generally non-practicing) Catholic, drew wide commentary in the Italian media and Italian Catholic conservation. Among theologically and culturally conservative Catholics – the kinds of people more likely to get worked up over the Latin Mass, say, than immigration policy – one line of commentary was especially prominent.
“How come the pope and his guys are open to dialogue with politicians they don’t like, but not Catholics they don’t like?” the question went. “How come they’ll sit down with Salvini, but Francis still hasn’t answered the dubia?”
(The reference is to a series of critical questions, or dubia, posed to Pope Francis by four conservative cardinals in 2016 about his document Amoris Laetitia, which issued a cautious green light to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Although Francis arguably has replied indirectly, in various letters and interviews, he’s never issued a formal response and neither has he met any of the dubia cardinals.)
The situation calls to mind a basic truth about the Church, one with which it’s probably just as well Catholics of all stripes make their peace: The Vatican is, and likely always will be, much better at dialogue ad extra than ad intra.
During the St. John Paul II years, that distinction was a frequent lament of the Church’s liberal wing. Advocates of women’s ordination, or married priests, or changing teaching on birth control, or the election of bishops, or whatever the liberal cause du jour happened to be, would complain loudly that John Paul was willing to meet with atheists, communists, dictators and lightning rods of all sorts outside the church, but he wouldn’t spare five minutes to sit down with them to discuss the state of things inside the church.
Today, of course, it’s conservatives who lodge the same complaint about Pope Francis and his administration. They testily wondering why the pontiff is so eager for dialogue with people who don’t always share his views on social and cultural matters, but so allergic to it with Catholics who might challenge him on ecclesiastical and liturgical policy.
In truth, everyone knows the answer to both the liberal and conservative forms of the question, which is that no regime ever wants to dignify its in-house critics. When you’re dealing with an ad extra conversation, there’s usually an unspoken agreement that I won’t tell you how to run your shop, and you don’t tell me how to run mine. In other words, there’s no challenge to domestic control. No such rules apply to an ad intra exchange, since, by definition, the other party does want to tell you how to run your shop, because it’s also theirs.
A President of the United States, for example, is more willing to receive envoys even from hostile foreign governments than to provide a platform to his own domestic political opposition. Roger Smith, the former CEO of General Motors famously lampooned in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger & Me,” undoubtedly would have been far more eager to sit down with rival executives at Toyota or Nissan than to expose himself to the critical questions Moore was asking about GM’s plant closings in and around Flint, Michigan.
Thus it has always been: Leaders generally can handle differences in agenda and worldview from abroad, but they’re far less open at home. One can argue it shouldn’t be that way in the Church, but there’s rarely been any compelling evidence that Catholicism is somehow exempt from the laws of institutional psychology that apply everywhere else.
As it happens, the G20 Interfaith Forum is opening today in Bologna, which will bring together Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and followers of many other traditions in dialogue with political and cultural leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Slovenian President Borut Pahor, whose country currently has the rotating EU presidency. What it won’t do, however, is bring dissidents and critics from within those faiths into dialogue with their own leadership.
Perhaps this reality rankles a bit more for some Catholics in the Francis era, given that he talks a great deal about making the Church more “synodal,” a term difficult to define but which involves consultation and listening. The fact that there are certain voices clearly not being consulted or heard, therefore, may strike some as not only irritating but hypocritical.
Catholics feeling such heartburn are naturally free to voice it, as so many already do, and it makes for endless fun in the form of Twitter snark. Just don’t expect an invite to come talk things over with all the pope’s men – not under this pope, and, in all probability, not under any pope.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr