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ROME – Once upon a time, journalists informally dubbed Pope Pius XII the “chaplain of NATO” for his fervent anti-Communism, and his consequent support of the Western alliance in the early days of the Cold War.
Those days, famously, are long gone under Pope Francis.
History’s first pope from the global south might more credibly be branded the “chaplain of BRICS,” meaning the budding economic and strategic alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, especially given how his line on Ukraine and that of Brasilia, New Delhi and Beijing all broadly align.
Except, just as with Pius XII, such phraseology may have obvious media cachet, but it conceals at least as much as it reveals.
As far as Pius XII goes, yes, he was anti-Communist, but he was also the last native Roman to be elected pope and harbored the same ambivalence about the United States that many of his fellow Italian clerics felt. The U.S., after all, is a traditionally Protestant culture, strongly influenced by Calvinism, and many Catholic thinkers of Pius XII’s generation regarded it as hostile terrain for the church’s social doctrine.
During the Korean War, President Harry Truman worked hard to get Pius XII’s blessing, but the pontiff remained aloof, even issuing radio messages with veiled criticisms of the “so-called free world.”
Pope Francis, of course, as a Latin American, brings his own baggage with regard to the United States to the papacy. At first blush, that might seem yet another reason why he’d be eager to bless the geopolitical initiative of his fellow Latin American and fellow progressive, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the driving force behind the BRICS initiative.
Yet there are three compelling reasons why the affinity between Francis and the BRICS bloc is, at best, a marriage of convenience rather than a true alliance.
First, there’s the inherent instability of the BRICS coalition. For one thing, China and Russia are hardly natural allies, a point Henry Kissinger recently underlined in a lengthy interview with The Economist.
“I’ve never met a Chinese leader who said anything good about Russia, they are sort of treated with contempt,” Kissinger said. “Even when Putin is in China, he is not shown the kind of courtesies that they showed to Macron, [who] came to a special place that is tied to the history of the Chinese leader, and they don’t do that for the Russians.”
Much the same thing could be said of China and India, whose superpower rivalry in Asia is crystal clear.
Moreover, Brazil is the animator of the BRICS coalition only so long as the left is in power. During the Bolsonaro years, the BRICS project was cited by the government roughly as often as the prospect of colliding with another planet, which is to say, not much.
Second, there’s the traditional neutrality of the Vatican.
It’s deep in the diplomatic DNA of the Holy See never to become overly identified with one great power or power bloc, because while they may be in the ascendant today, you never know what tomorrow may bring – and if you want to blame the game for the long haul, then you don’t want your fortunes tied to anyone else’s.
Defending the neutrality of the Holy See was a major part of the reason why Pius XII resisted becoming overly tied to the Americans in the 1950s, and it remains a compelling reason today why Pope Francis has resisted Western demands to join the chorus of condemnations of Putin and Russia being conducted by the White House.
Third and finally, there’s Francis’s own prevailing concern – critics might almost call it paranoia – about ever being enlisted as part of someone else’s political agenda.
Famously, the fear of political manipulation is why the Argentine pope has never returned to his home nation after more than 10 years in power, repeatedly citing concerns over one Argentine government or another seeking to take political advantage of his presence.
In an interview last month with the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Pope Francis declared that he hopes to visit his home country next year, meaning 2024, but it’s important to note that his language was phrased in the conditional. In the same interview, Francis pleaded with the journalist at the end not to associate him with any particular political party or cause.
In related fashion, many analysts believe the pope’s stubbornness about Putin, including referring to him in that La Nación interview as a cultured individual with whom he once passed a pleasant conversation discussing literature, isn’t because Francis is in denial about the Russian leader’s brutality, but because he doesn’t want to be seen as a mouthpiece for anyone else’s point of view.
In that vein, Francis may well feel more natural affinity for the position of the BRICS nations on Ukraine right now that he does for the Biden administration or the other NATO powers. Experience suggests, however, that the moment someone suggests Francis part of the BRICS initiative will also be the moment in which Francis finds a way to demonstrate his independence.
So, here’s the bottom line.
If the question is whether Pope Francis right now, this minute, is favorable to the diplomatic initiatives of Lula and the BRICS nations on Ukraine, the answer is yes.
If the question is whether Francis will be a reliable source of support for the BRICS alliance going forward, however … well, Lula probably would be well advised not to bet the farm on it.