In 2016, Francis may be a pope in search of a partner

In 2016, Francis may be a pope in search of a partner

Pope Francis addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in September. Will any of the world leaders who listened to the pontiff help him implement his ambitious diplomatic agenda?

[Obama in 2106, then Hillary ever after; or UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon through it all?]

By John L. Allen Jr.
January 3, 2016

ROME – When a strong pope with a clear social agenda intersects with a world leader who shares the same basic outlook, and one who’s willing to put elbow grease behind it, sometimes history can change.

With the support of King Philip II of Spain, for instance, St. Pius V promoted a “Holy League” that turned back a possible Ottoman Muslim conquest of Europe at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Four centuries later, St. John Paul II and US President Ronald Reagan joined forces in a successful effort to bring down Soviet Communism.

Though with a different set of priorities, Pope Francis has a similar ambition to shape history. He wants to steer it away from what he’s called the “globalization of indifference” to the poor, refugees, and other victims of a “throw-away culture”, and he wants to end a Third World War he believes is being fought today in “piece-meal” fashion.

The question facing Francis in 2016 is: Who’s the political partner who could help him move the ball? In truth, it’s not easy to answer.

For centuries, the Vatican instinctively looked to the great Catholic powers of Europe as its natural allies. Today, that logic no longer holds.

In Western Europe, traditionally Catholic nations such as France and Spain are mired in domestic difficulties, and their strongly secular ethos is suspicious of ecclesiastical leadership in politics. In the East, the most staunchly Catholic nation, Poland, is currently led by a nationalist government hostile to Francis’ priorities on several fronts, from the treatment of refugees to the use of fossil fuels.

(The political climate in Poland should make Francis’ scheduled visit in late July to lead the Church’s World Youth Day highly interesting.)

More recently the Vatican has tended to rely on the United States, but that too seems a dicey proposition going forward.

Obama and Francis did come together in the historic reopening of relations with Cuba, but veteran Italian journalist Piero Schiavazzi recently made the interesting observation that Francis could be in for the same disappointment today that befell John Paul II after the collapse of Communism.

John Paul wanted to bring Eastern and Western Europe back together, hoping the East would revive the spiritually moribund West, only to watch Western consumerism and secularism triumph. Likewise, Schiavazzi suggests Francis has helped reunify the Americas but he may be unhappy with the aftermath, as a conservative political wave away from his preferred brand of social democracy seems to be building in Latin America, including his native Argentina, and the United States could well be on the brink of electing Donald Trump.

Even if Hillary Clinton prevails in 2016, that’s not necessary a forecast for an era of good feelings. During the last Clinton administration, the Vatican and the White House fought titanic battles over population control and abortion during United Nations conferences in Cairo and Beijing.

Who does that leave?

One option would be Vladimir Putin, recently crowned by Forbes as the most powerful person in the world, and Francis and the Russian leader have done business on several fronts. In September 2013 they aligned to resist calls for Western military intervention in Syria, and Putin’s pledge to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East is something Francis values.

On the other hand, Francis also has repeatedly criticized Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and in any event a marriage between the “Pope of Mercy” and, arguably, the least merciful public figure on the planet, doesn’t quite seem a match made in heaven.

Francis could look to China, the world’s emerging superpower, under Xi Jinping. (The pontiff and the Chinese premier finished fourth and fifth on the Forbes power countdown.)

Yet the two men didn’t meet when they were both in the United States at the same time in September, suggesting that a long-standing chill between Beijing and Rome has yet to thaw, and until China rethinks its policies on religious freedom, a partnership could only go so far.

One might think a “Pope of the Peripheries” would naturally look to the developing world for strategic partnerships, and there are promising options. What I’ve called the PINS nations – the Philippines, India, Nigeria, and South Korea – all have dynamic, growing Catholic communities, and they all are countries positioned for leadership.

Yet for various reasons, each has its drawbacks as a potential partner. India, for example, is ruled by a Hindu nationalist government hostile to the country’s Christian minority, while Nigeria is engulfed by internal woes, chiefly Boko Haram. The Philippines is facing its own election cycle in 2016, and South Korean foreign policy often begins and ends with its neighbor to the north.

Perhaps the answer for Pope Francis is that there simply is no Philip II or Ronald Reagan awaiting him in 2016, meaning a single world leader with vision and clout whose interests align neatly with his own.

Instead, if Francis is correct that a Third World War is being fought piece-meal, perhaps the only response may be an equally piece-meal brand of diplomacy, crafting short-term alliances with various figures on specific issues but refraining from putting all his eggs in one basket.

So far, the piece-meal war denounced by Francis seems to be doing just fine without any overarching leadership. It remains to be seen if a similarly ad-hoc kind of peacemaking, inspired by the pontiff but without a clear dancing partner, can be equally effective in resolving it.

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