His annual address to diplomats may not be the best place to hear the pope’s new thinking, but it is a great vantage-point from which to view the current state of the world — the closest we come, in fact, to a God’s-eye view.
Sure enough, Francis’s address yesterday promoted a recipe for peace that contained familiar ingredients. Above all, he called for more space for good religion (forgiveness, unity in diversity, and the society-building values that come with faith having the freedom to serve) while combating fundamentalism and extremism, which Francis identified as a spiritual poverty linked to social poverty.
While this wasn’t exactly new, Francis offered a novel frame for meeting the challenge of both religious and secularist fundamentalism, as a two-fold uniting of what is too often split.
On the one hand, religious leaders were called to promote “religious values that do not separate fear of God from love of neighbor” while political leaders needed to understand there was “no opposition between social belonging … and the spiritual dimension of life.”
In Francis’s view, the myth that these are concepts in contradiction — as religious fundamentalists and secularists believe — is a classic temptation of the diabolos, the great divider, which he sees in his role as pope to call out.
But the striking thing about the speech was the historical moment it identified. When Francis puts his ear to the ground, it seems he hears the far-off rumblings of a world sliding into war.
The somber note was struck right at the start, as Francis recalled how, a hundred years ago, much of the world was embroiled in the “useless slaughter” of the Great War, from whose horrors emerged the new totalitarianisms that would divide the world and plunge it into a second conflagration only a generation later.
True, Francis never said the same thing was happening again. But he painted a picture of a world showing signs of descending down that route: the multiple bloody conflicts across the world, the horrors of religiously-inspired terrorism, the rise of new extremist ideologies, the crisis of supra-national institutions as well as an alarming nuclear escalation and the spread of weapons.
The climate of apprehension and uncertainty provoked by these developments is what led him, he said, to focus his message on how to build peace.
Striking a very Paul VI note — and recalling the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace his predecessor established — Francis said peace came about not when each nation focused on beefing up its own security, but when they demonstrated an active commitment to justice and development, combating poverty and inequality, protecting the family, and investing in education and culture.
He summed this up by invoking the concept of a “culture of mercy,” one that does not turn away from the suffering of others, but which works for justice and forgiveness.
The keystone issue, as ever, is migration, which Francis sees as the place where the rubber of Christian values hits the road of today’s world. So important does he consider this challenge that he has created a special Migrants and Refugees Section within the new Vatican mega-body known as the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, and placed himself at its head.
(Yesterday, coincidentally, the Section’s under-secretary, the Canadian Jesuit Michael Czerny, told journalists that it was now operative, “under the direct guidance of the Holy Father.”)
Francis used a number of paragraphs to spell out his conviction that only societies that welcome refugees and migrants can be internally secure and at peace — a counter-factual belief that clashes directly with the anti-immigrant, pro-security discourse of the new populism on both sides of the Atlantic.
He makes clear this is not a naïve, open-borders immigration policy, calling for “evaluating, with wisdom and foresight” each country’s capacity to assimilate foreigners. He also says migrants must respect the laws and traditions of their hosts.
But in praising Germany, Italy, Sweden and Greece for their “generous welcome to those in need” Francis was defending governments that have come under heavy fire over this issue, and implicitly shaming other European nations such as the UK, France, Poland and Spain for succumbing to the new populism by stiffening their borders.
Barely a week away from the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president, it was also significant that Francis chose to recall his Mexico visit, and the closeness he felt to “the thousands of migrants from Central America who, in their attempt to find a better future, endure terrible injustices and dangers.” By adopting the viewpoint of the Spanish-speaking emigré, it was clear which side of Trump’s threatened wall Francis is looking from.
There was much else in the speech that was designed to put down red lines for the incoming Trump administration, making clear where the Vatican stands on four issues where Rome and Washington are set to clash: nuclear weapons and the arms trade, climate change, Israel/Palestine and Cuba.
Sounding the alarm over nuclear escalation while deploring the escalation of the small-arms trade (in which the United States leads the world), Francis called for the implementation of the December 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, about which Trump is known to be sceptical. He also spoke warmly of “the efforts made in the last two years for rapprochement between Cuba and the United States” — one that Trump has suggested he will reverse unless the island democratizes.
But arguably the issue over which he was most emphatic was Israel/Palestine. Barely a month since Trump announced his new ambassador to Tel Aviv — a hardline opponent of the two-state solution who opposes any ban on Israel building settlements on the West Bank — Francis made an “urgent appeal” for both sides to resume discussions leading to a two-state solution.
Given that most of the ambassadors present in the Sala Regia would understand that the fate of Palestine is key to regional peace, Francis’s plea left no one in any doubt where the Holy See stood. “Israelis and Palestinians need peace,” he said emphatically. “The whole Middle East urgently needs peace!”
But Francis will not have had only Trump in mind when he identified “new ideologies” that exploit social unrest in order to foment hate and contempt for others. The far-right movements now sprouting across the western world are the obvious candidates for the pope’s SOS.
“Under the guise of promising great benefits, they instead leave a trail of poverty, division, social tensions, suffering and, not infrequently, death,” he warned. “Peace, on the other hand, triumphs through solidarity. It generates the desire for dialogue and cooperation which finds an essential instrument in diplomacy.”
In his conclusion, Francis recommitted the Catholic Church to that path of diplomacy and dialogue, pledging “to cooperate with those committed to ending current conflicts and to offer support and hope to all who suffer.”
It was nothing new. But in the context of a somber speech delivered under gathering global clouds, it had a poignancy about it — as if Francis was telling the world that, however dark it gets going forward, the Church will be there to hold its hand.