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Ronald Tiersky on Pope Francis and the future of Europe

5th October 2013

On the picture (Service of L'Osservatore Romano): President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz on the left, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso in the middle and Pope Francis on the right)

Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastmann Professor of Political Science at Amherst College. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Affairs and the General Editor of the Europe Today series. His editorials have appeared in Le Monde, Libération, Le Point, the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs. The following opinion piece is a revised version of a text posted on Ronald Tiersky's Huffington Post blog.

In considering Europe’s clouded future the new Pontiff, Pope Francis, is an unexpectedly promising new influence. 

It’s not implausible to think that a pope might have a significant effect on European affairs beyond oversight of the Vatican hierarchy, its theological message and the Church’s pastoral concerns. The previous two popes are examples that lead in different directions.

John Paul II’s election in October 1978 was immediately perceived as a new era for the Vatican not only inside the Church but also in cold war European political and cultural life. His Polish origin (i.e. he grew up in a Communist Stalinist regime, was Archbishop of Krakow until his ascension), his look, his demeanor and initial public appearances demonstrated that without question his intention was to be a mobilizing, charismatic personality. The least one can say is that it worked.

The 1980s were the decade of Communism’s decline and fall. John Paul played a significant role in pushing forward the process, therein fostering the liberation of eastern European countries and the unification of modern Europe when they were admitted to the European Union ten years later. His tenacious anti-Communism and fearless dealings with Moscow and Warsaw made him a great liberalizing force. His electrifying “be not afraid” speech October 22 to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square put the Church on the right side of history, a place it had not always occupied in Europe’s bloody half-century, 1914-1945. (On the other hand, inside the Church his powerful influence turned out to be surprisingly rigid, even stultifying.)

His successor, Benedict XVI, seemed the opposite of John Paul. His introverted personality made him a distant leader. His doctrinal orthodoxy, more interested in theology than in reaching the Catholic masses, has left a surprisingly meager heritage for a pope. His goal of a purer if smaller Church hardly succeeded even inside Europe itself. In debates about the future of Europe, Benedict had little influence. His 2004 book, Europe: Today and Tomorrow, published shortly before his election, had little impact and is hardly remembered.    

On his election to the papacy last March, Pope Francis —Jorge Mario Bergolio of Argentina, son of Italian immigrants—hardly seemed charismatic.  He didn’t look charismatic and behaved even less so. As contrasted with John Paul’s memorable “be not afraid,” Pope Francis ended his first appearance on the Vatican balcony by wishing the crowd a good evening.  

However, his anti-charismatic, down-to-earth aspect—deciding to live in a small Vatican apartment rather than the rich papal apartment; using a Ford Focus (on Lampedusa) and a Fiat Idea (in Rio de Janeiro) rather than the armored pope-mobile; an easy-going, informal manner among the Catholic crowds—these sorts of changes have the Vatican hierarchy buzzing and have captured international attention. 

An already much-commented interview in the September 30 issue of “America: the National Catholic Review” demonstrates that the new Pontiff’s informality shouldn’t be misread as superficiality. It’s studded with wide cultural references in secular music, literature and art, as well as practical wisdom as well as theological religious insight. His humility is evidently well-read and well-tutored. 

One passage in the interview stands out in the context here because it is a reflection on collective identity:   “Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people.” 

What does this have to do with Europe?

If a nation or people is an “imagined community,” in the famous phrase of political scientist Benedict Anderson, then so is the Church—and so must be any Europe that is marked by distinctive psychological and emotional boundaries. 

If historical Europe is to save its soul, redeem its sense of a mission, rebuild its internal cohesion, then Europeans must ultimately imagine themselves not merely as nations rooted in deep secular identities, but increasingly as a distinct continental people destined to a common fate.

Europe has to be more than a space on the world map if it is not to disintegrate into geopolitical shambles and psycho-emotional confusion.

The “idea of Europe” needs to recapture an attraction, the kind of charisma that it had during the postwar decades in Western Europe and gradually was dissipated in economic difficulties and narrowly-defined national interests.

In the magazine interview, Francis put on the Church’s agenda an ecumenical reaching out to “our Orthodox brethren.” He ought to make haste (at 76 years old) to reach out to the Jewish and Muslim communities as well. Weaving a reconciled religious tapestry would be a great achievement and an example to the world.

He could also speak out about Europe’s evolution as an historic entity, as John Paul did so effectively. Religion has always been a fount of national identity. A successful papacy that eased Europe’s religious tensions could indirectly foster Europe’s identity as a broadly coherent civilization.

All this may be grasping at straws but Europe’s friends must work with what there is. It’s too soon to say, but the new papacy is a promising beginning.

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