A Revolutionary Pope?

Francis is being hailed as a radical Pope who will transform the Vatican. The reality is that the role of the Holy See has always changed with history, argues A. Alexander Stummvoll.

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17 January, 2014
By: A. Alexander Stummvoll
Postdoctoral fellow for the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America and the Instituto de Ciencia Política at the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile

Pope Francis has been hailed as a new kind of Pope: a reformer, a radical, a man who will reshape the Vatican for the better. Francis’s personality immediately endeared him to global opinion, especially his insistence to live a simple lifestyle, avoiding luxurious cars, residing in the Vatican guesthouse rather than in the Apostolic Palace, and spontaneously calling ordinary people who write him letters.

Various proclamations since then have reinforced this. A response he gave to a journalist during his return trip from World Youth Day in Brazil made global headlines: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”. In another interview given to Jesuit magazines, the Pope asserted that “[w]e cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”

What should we make of this renewed interest in the Pontiff? Will Pope Francis “transform a place that measures change by the century” as Time magazine put it when they named him their 2013 person of the year? While any transformation will fall short of revolutionizing religious dogmas, social doctrine, or the Vatican as an institution, Francis has initiated an important role reversal Before Francis, liberal Western observers had the impression that the post-Cold War Vatican’s agenda was all about sensitive cultural hot-button topics such as abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. The newly emerging role the Vatican assumes under Pope Francis, in fact, seems to be the one of merciful comforter of the afflicted.

Roles define an actor’s set of appropriate behaviour, the scope of legitimate action, and its key priorities. They both enable and constrain an international actor to do what is expected, appropriate, and possible at a given time in the international realm. The Vatican’s own role in international relations has varied considerably over time. This change has been driven by a complex interplay of changing historical context, papal personality, and internal Church debate.

History suggests that while religious dogma remains stable, the role the Pope and the Vatican play in international relations can change rather quickly. Four different roles have shaped and shifted the Vatican’s key priorities in global politics since the end of the Second World War. Pope Pius XII cast the Vatican as a cold warrior in the early Cold War period, determined to signal resistance towards the advance of the communist East. Under Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and in the first half of the pontificate of John Paul II, the Vatican assumed the posture of an independent prophet that was increasingly critical of both East and West. With the end of the Cold War, secular relativism replaced communism as the main “Other” of the Church. Consequently, in the second half of the pontificate of John Paul II and under Benedict XVI, the Vatican began to assume the role of a cultural warrior, lamenting the West’s one-sided emphasis on freedom at the expense of truth. We are now seeing a new role shift in which comforter of the afflicted becomes the dominant role conception as mercy, social justice, and solidarity are the emerging priorities in the new pontificate of Pope Francis.

Cold Warrior: Pius XII and the Origins of the Cold War

The Catholic Church’s tense relationship with communism predates the geopolitical realities of the Cold War by more than a century. In fact, the mutual antagonism between the Left and the Church can be traced back to the French Revolution where the Left denounced the Church’s role as ally of the ancien régime and where the Church suffered from traumatic anti-clerical persecution. By the late 19th century socialist movements had lured away many workers from the Church. The Church’s own programmatic text on the plight and the rights of workers, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, was only published some 40 years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto.

Socialism’s emphasis on collectivism, atheism, and class struggle are in stark contrast to the Catholic emphasis on private property, spiritualism, and social harmony. The persecution of Catholics during the civil wars in Mexico, in Spain, and in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, transformed socialism from a rival philosophy into a strategic threat. The imposed Stalinization of Central and Eastern Europe in the post-war years confirmed the Vatican’s worst nightmares. The Soviet Union did not only annex the three Baltic states, including Catholic Lithuania, but helped to impose socialist one-party regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania. Further east, the 1949 Chinese revolution followed by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s forced the Chinese Church into the underground as well.

The Church suffered one of the worst waves of repression in its history. The Catholic Church had to deal with the imprisonment of clergy, the closure of churches, seminaries, and Catholic schools, anticlerical propaganda, and public show trials. The entire Ukrainian Catholic Church, for instance, was forcibly “reunited” with the Russian Orthodox Church and various “martyr cardinals” such as Józef Mindszenty from Hungary or Josyf Slipyj from the Ukraine were put in prison or under house arrest.

Pope Pius XII spoke out loudly against communism and turned the Vatican into an anti-communist cold warrior. A 1949 Vatican decree ruled that Catholics who joined or supported communist parties or even simply read communist material could not receive the sacraments and automatically were excommunicated. The Pope’s message that good Catholics had to be anti-communist made life rather difficult for Christians living under repressive communist regimes. Allowing no scope for accommodation or compromises, the Pope practically condemned them either into the underground or into martyrdom.

Even though papal rhetoric was a morale booster for the West’s struggle against communism, Peter Kent has shown in the Lonely Cold War of Pope Pius XII that the Vatican’s spiritual-ecclesiastical interests did not fully converge with the geopolitical interests of the United States. While Washington accepted the geopolitical division of Europe as a fait accompli, the Vatican’s main concern, apart from preventing a communist victory in the Italian national elections of April 1948, was to speak out and stop communist persecution of the Church. But the situation of Christians on the other side of the Iron Curtain was not a priority for the White House whose policy was containment rather than rollback. Even though Pope Pius XII increasingly recognized the dangers of the nuclear Cold War order in his later years and did not prohibit Polish and Hungarian bishops from reaching pragmatic agreements with their socialist governments, it would require a new Pope to shatter the Vatican’s image as a Cold Warrior.

Non-Aligned Actor: John XXIII and Paul VI in the Era of Détente

Like Pius XII, Pope John XXIII was a papal career diplomat. He had served as papal delegate in Bulgaria and in Turkey during the Second World War, where he famously issued forged baptism certificates to save Jews from deportation. After stints as papal nuncio in Paris and Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli was elected pope in 1958.

His decision to invoke the Second Vatican Council took both the world and the Church by surprise. In his 1962 opening speech at the Council, Pope John warned against “prophets of gloom” who only saw vices and problems in the modern world. It was the Pope’s conviction that the Church had to rethink its relationship with modernity and to lay out a positive vision of what the Church was for rather than what it was against. While the precise purpose and intentions of the Second Vatican Council remain subject to dispute between traditional and liberal Catholics to the current day it was significant that the Council Fathers refrained from expressing a condemnation against communism. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris the Pope continued his pastoral rather than confrontational tone. He committed the Church to respecting human rights and called for disarmament and development.

Diplomatically, the Pope began to reach out more actively to the communist bloc in the belief that better personal relations would ultimately benefit the situation of the Church behind the Iron Curtain. In 1961, Soviet leader Khrushchev and Pope John exchanged letters which was the first direct communication between the Vatican and the Kremlin in decades. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Pope John appealed for a de-escalation of the conflict, an intervention that was praised both by Washington and Moscow. In 1963, the Pope even granted an official papal audience to Khrushchev’s son-in-law, the journalist Alexei Adjubei.

Small yet concrete results of this rapprochement were the Kremlin’s consent to send Russian Orthodox observers to the Second Vatican Council, the release of the Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj who had spent 30 years in Soviet prisons, and the release of the imprisoned Archbishop of Prague, Monsignor Beran.

With these gestures which would have been inconceivable under Pope Pius XII, the Vatican began to disassociate itself from the Cold War logic of the blocs in order to assume the position of a non-aligned force willing to talk to both East and West.

Pope John XXIII’s successor, Paul VI, expanded and fastened the role reversal initiated under his predecessor. The Pope institutionalized dialogue and negotiations with the communist bloc through what became known as his Ostpolitik. This pragmatic and flexible approach was underpinned by a belief that the Cold War division of Europe was permanent in the foreseeable future. As no revolution was forthcoming, the Vatican believed that it had to save whatever could be saved in order to prevent moribund churches in socialist lands from dying out.

The Holy See engaged in diplomatic negotiations with Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and the Pope met up with many high-level diplomatic and political leaders including Soviet foreign minister Gromyko, Soviet President Podgorny, and Yugoslavian President Tito. Ostpolitik had limited success: New bishops were appointed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, diplomatic relations were established with Yugoslavia in 1970, and the level of mutual rhetorical attacks dropped, yet the continued repression of Christians living in socialist lands did not end.

Paul VI also emphasized the global breadth of his agenda as he increasingly focused on the arms race, peace, and development. During a visit to India in December 1964, he called upon all states to redirect expenditure for arms into a global development fund. In response, UN Secretary General U Thant invited Pope Paul to address the UN General Assembly where he cried out: “No more war, war never again.” Despite heavy lobbying on part of Washington, Pope Paul VI also refused to publicly bless the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Having initially believed in America’s good intentions at the beginning, he later became frustrated at the expansion of the war, especially the bombing of North Vietnam.

With the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI brought North-South relations into the global spotlight. The Pope criticized the selfishness of colonizing nations and rejected the “imperialism of money” that presents profit and free competition as the only norms for development. In sum, at a time when tension between the United States and the Soviet Union decreased in the era of détente in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, John XXIII and Paul VI disassociated themselves from the West and pursued a more autonomous and broader international agenda.

Moral Cheerleader of the West? John Paul II and the Endgame of the Cold War

Both Soviet rhetoric and Western scholars have created a myth about the Vatican’s role in the endgame of the Cold War under Pope John Paul II. Whereas Soviet leaders portrayed the Catholic Church as a “foreign” religion and the Vatican as a religious tool of the U.S., neoconservative Western scholars reduced the Pope’s role in the Cold War to just his contribution to the internal collapse of the Eastern bloc or even insinuated that he was a moral cheerleader for the West’s struggle against communism. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, for example claimed there was a “holy alliance” between the Holy See and the Reagan administration based on their common opposition to communism and the mutual exchange of information about Poland. British political commentator John O’Sullivan stressed the anti-communist and anti-liberal parallels between Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher in their common ideological struggle against communism in the 1980s. In The United States and the Holy See (2004), Jim Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush, argued that there was a “symbiosis” between Pope John Paul II and Reagan that brought an end to Soviet communism.

These dominant narratives show the extent to which the Vatican’s role is not only the result of its own initiatives but also the consequence of friendly or rival actors’ attempts to cast it into a particular role for political reasons. It is true that Pope John Paul II’s three pastoral visits to Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987 paved the way for the emergence of Solidarity and presented Catholicism as a cultural challenge to socialism. However, the Vatican’s challenge to communism differed from the West’s challenge in reason and method. The papal concern for Poland was driven not by a revolutionary will to overcome socialism or geopolitical interest to defeat the Soviet Union but a wish to promote key principles of Catholic social teaching such as solidarity, human rights, and participation.

While Pope John Paul II rejoiced over the success of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc under the leadership of Lech Walesa, papal diplomats were concerned about the radicalization of the movement and preferred gradual change rather than destabilizing revolution. After the declaration of martial law in December 1981, the Vatican refrained from supporting the economic sanctions Washington imposed upon Poland and the Soviet Union. There was at best a temporary convergence of interest between the Reagan administration and John Paul II’s Vatican.

Moreover, John Paul II advanced a much broader and far-reaching critique of international relations that is either overlooked or blatantly marginalized by the prevailing focus on his contribution to the downfall of communism. While the Pope did challenge communism, he also offered a broader philosophy of international reform that focused on disarmament, challenged realist assumptions about security and the balance of power, and promoted more effective and authentic development in both the North and the South.

In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the Pope deplored that the East and the West were driven by an “unacceptably exaggerated concern with security” that perpetuated the “logic of blocs” and “spheres of influence”. The Pope objected to the prevailing realist idea that permanent tension was inevitable and called for a new philosophy of international relations based on the concepts of common security and dialogue. Picking up a major concern of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the Polish Pope also vehemently opposed the arms race. In a 1982 message to the UN General Assembly he had made the legitimacy of deterrence strategies contingent on progressive disarmament and called for a radical abolition of all nuclear weapons in the mid- and long-term.

With regard to development, the Pope was scandalized by the existence of millions of people living in extreme poverty without adequate access to housing or food. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the Pope made both Cold War blocs responsible for the stunted development of the global South. “Each of the two blocs”, the Pope deplored, “harbors a tendency towards imperialism…or towards forms of neo-colonialism”. Rather than genuinely promoting integral development, the Pope criticized both East and West of embroiling developing countries in their geopolitical and ideological conflict.

In sum, a more careful examination of the Pope John Paul II’s positions in the 1980s reveals that he was anything but a moral cheerleader of the West. Even though he believed that socialism was a serious anthropological, economic, and moral mistake, he presented the Vatican as a non-aligned prophetic critic that was increasingly critical of both East and West for their Cold War tensions, for their failure to disarm, and for neglecting the plight of the global South.

Cultural Warriors: John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the post-Cold War era

The Vatican’s role in global politics does not simply depend on the personality of the incumbent Pope. Sometimes, its role can dramatically change under the very same Pope due to a change in circumstances.

With the demise of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, the Vatican’s key “Other” disappeared, even though it lingered on in other parts of the world. Throughout the Cold War, the shared opposition to communism overshadowed differences and tensions between the Catholic tradition and Western liberal-capitalism. In the post-Cold War era, these differences erupted ever more forcefully. The very same tradition which propelled Pope John Paul II to criticize socialism during the Cold War pushed him towards articulating strong concerns about unbridled capitalism and Western liberalism in the post-Cold War era. Rather than joining the Western choir, led by Francis Fukuyama, that liberal-capitalism represented the “end of history”, Pope John Paul II deplored the West’s focus on freedom at the expense of truth and morality. Secular relativism quickly replaced socialism as the Vatican’s “Other” in global politics. The structural change caused by the end of the Cold War led the Vatican to seek new coalitions and transformed its role in global politics from that of non-aligned force to a counter-cultural warrior.

In 1991 Pope John Paul II issued his social encyclical Centesimus Annus to reflect on and intervene into contemporary social-economic debates. While the Pope praised free business and personal initiative, he warned that it was “unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization”. While the “Marxist solution has failed…the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world.”

In his own social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009) Pope Benedict XVI later added that “the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak”. Mere technological development is not sufficient but must be accompanied by greater fraternity and solidarity among the human family. The Vatican’s critical evaluation of capitalism was in line with the interests of progressive political actors such as the Jubilee 2000 anti-debt campaign which Pope John Paul II supported by receiving its spokesperson Bono for an audience and committing Church organizations around the world to lobby for debt relief, if not cancellation, for the world’s poorest nations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On the issues of abortion and family values, however, the interests of the Vatican and those of Western society visibly clashed due to an increasing disconnect between Western liberal culture and Catholic teaching. In his 1995 encyclical Evangeliae Vitae, the Pope painted a dichotomy between an emerging “culture of death” that endorses abortion and euthanasia and a Christian “culture of life” based on natural law and the Gospel. The Pope tolerated no diverging opinions inside the Church and actively promoted Church teaching at the United Nations.

In the lead-up to the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, a coalition of the Clinton administration and pro-choice feminists worked hard towards liberalizing the UN’s position on abortion by enshrining a right to abortion or at the very least to make sure that abortion remains safe, legal, and rare. The Holy See, on its part, collaborated with governments from Latin America and the Muslim world to lobby successfully against the consideration of abortion as a means of family planning. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing the Holy See stressed the values of motherhood and family, opposed the notion of “sexual rights”, and, against gender theories, insisted on the complementary distinctiveness of women and men.

The hostile backlash of the Western media and public opinion as well as internal liberal Catholic disappointment casted the Vatican in a conservative counter-cultural role from which the Vatican found it very difficult to disentangle itself. It was only in the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq when John Paul II presided over a sustained diplomatic and pastoral campaign to prevent the war that the Vatican’s role was in flux again. The Vatican predicted that the war’s consequences for the civilian population would be disastrous and sent papal envoys to both George Bush and to Saddam Hussein to encourage negotiations.

John Paul II was unsuccessful to prevent the war but his stance showed that there was a surprising convergence of interests with the global anti-war movement. However, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, struggled to control the Vatican’s international message. His own “internal” priorities to strengthen Catholic identity and to reinvigorate evangelization together with a hostile reception by the Western who nailed him down on the issues of contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and the pedophilia scandal, marginalized his “external” priorities such as international solidarity, protecting the environment, and promoting religious freedom.

Comforter of the Afflicted: The emerging role of Francis

And now there is Pope Francis.

At his speech given during the cardinals´ consultations before the papal election, Cardinal Bergoglio had stressed that the Church cannot become self-referential but needs to go to the “existential peripheries” of material and spiritual misery with missionary zeal.

In a programmatic decision, Pope Francis´s first trip outside of Rome took him to Lampedusa, an Italian island in the southern Mediterranean and a major point of entry into Europe for undocumented migrants from Africa who die in thousands on the dangerous boat passage. Lampedusa has become synonymous for Europe´s failure to implement a more humane asylum policy instead of creating a fortress and Europe´s leading politicians generally avoid the island unless there is a major accident.

At Lampedusa Pope Francis threw a wreath into the sea and celebrated a penitential mass. During his sermon he asked: “Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters?” His response was: “Nobody!…It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me.” The Pope denounced the prevailing “culture of comfort” and the “globalization of indifference” in which we have become too used to the suffering of others.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis came back to his special concern about migrants and urged “all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis.”

The tragic and complex civil war in Syria constitutes another diplomatic challenge for Pope Francis. The Christian communities in Syria which represent 10 percent of the country’s 22.5m population are caught in between Assad’s army, supported by Hezbollah, and the Sunni rebels, supported by al-Qaida terrorists. Whereas Syrian Christians enjoyed a relatively high degree of religious freedom under Assad, they now fear for their lives due to the imported rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Iraq-style chaos.

Convinced that the specter of a Western intervention threatened to further internationalize, prolong, and worsen the conflict, the Holy See launched a diplomatic and public campaign. In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host of the September 2013 G20 summit, Pope Francis appealed to the world’s leaders “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution”. Pope Francis also declared Saturday, September 7, 2013 a day of prayer and fasting for Syria and personally presided over a four hour prayer vigil at St. Peter’s Square. At a time when the Western superpowers tried to find a justification for military intervention, the Vatican, even though it did not hesitate to unequivocally condemn Assad’s use of chemical weapons, helped shift the debate towards the question of how to best find a political and diplomatic solution.

In addition to those who are afflicted by the miseries of the world, the Pope also has been paying close attention to those who feel unwelcomed or discriminated by the Church, as illustrated by his non-judgmental comment on gays or his insistence that priests cannot refuse to baptize the babies of unwed mothers.

While Pope Francis does not question the validity of Church dogma on issues such as protection of life, marriage, and traditional family values, he is concerned about the detrimental effects of a one-sided focus on culture war issues at the expense of reaching out to the poor, the vulnerable, and those at the peripheries of Church life.

Faced with the vast variety of new family configurations, Pope Francis has also initiated a global reflection process in which the Catholic Church currently debates on how it can best provide pastoral care for divorced, remarried, cohabiting, and single-sex couples. This process will culminate in two bishop synods in the Vatican in late 2014 and 2015. A questionnaire which the Vatican distributed world-wide to initiate the process has already caused some furore as its methodology focused on finding out what Catholics actually do believe on this topic rather than on what they should believe.

In sum, while there is no evidence that Pope Francis aims for doctrinal changes, he has certainly initiated a new tone of dialogue, poverty, and outreach which has been well received.


The Vatican’s role in international relations has changed from a Cold Warrior posture in the early Cold War period to the role of a non-aligned actor in the middle and later stages of the Cold War. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Vatican took up the role of a cultural warrior. Currently, under Pope Francis, we are experiencing a trend away from the culture wars towards a broader focus on the plight of the poor, the suffering, and the excluded.

By definition, these roles have a reductionist effect and, as such, do not represent the entirety of the Vatican’s agenda during a specific historical period. As a transnational and transcultural actor, the Vatican has a very broad agenda that does not only include the full range of Catholic social issues such as the family, war and peace, justice, or the environment but also specific regional and bilateral problems such as the difficult situation of Christians in the Middle East or religious freedom in China. While every Pope has the responsibility to work across the whole range of issue-areas, individual incumbents with their different biographies and backgrounds nevertheless tend to implement a new style, set new priorities, and react to changing geopolitical and normative landscapes. Role changes capture these transformations in priorities and styles even as Church doctrine remains constant.

An in-depth historical and contemporary understanding of the dynamic and evolving roles the Vatican plays in global politics leads to a more sober analysis of the potentials and limitations of the relations between the Vatican on the one side and national governments, international organizations, and NGOs on the other side. Pigeon-holing the Vatican’s agenda as either “liberal” or “conservative” is very unhelpful as it overlooks how its broader agenda transcends this divide. In fact, the Holy See pursues not only “conservative” commitments such as a pro-life stance and the defense of traditional family values but also “liberal” interests such as justice and peace issues, support for international organizations and international law, and criticism of unregulated capitalism.

Bilateral relationships with the Vatican are thus unlikely to ever fully converge on all issue-areas. While states and NGOs may disagree with the Vatican on some issue-areas, there could be the potential for collaboration on other issue-areas. Skillful foreign ambassadors to the Holy See play up shared interests and projects and down-play conflicts and tensions. While it is impossible to force the Vatican to act against its own religious beliefs or change its doctrine, history suggests it is quite possible and natural that the Vatican tends to change its priorities, style, and coalitions over time.

The research for this essay has been made possible by the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America (NS100014), sponsored by the Chilean Ministry of Economy, Development, and Tourism and hosted in the Instituto de Ciencia Politica of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

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