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Wielding clout — with restraint

12 January 2018

There is purpose behind the Pope’s careful diplomacy, says Jonathan Luxmoore


Pope Francis meets a Rohingya refugee at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month, after criticism from human-rights groups

Pope Francis meets a Rohingya refugee at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month, after criticism from human-rights groups

WHEN Pope Francis visited Myanmar in November, his failure to name its persecuted Rohingyas disappointed human-rights groups (News, 28 November). Yet the restrained approach, characteristic of Vatican diplomacy, should not be mistaken for a lack of will.

He made good the omission anyway by meeting Rohingya refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh, recounting later how he had held hands and wept with them.

In reality, he will have left no doubt how his Church views the unfolding outrage, and may well have set in train developments that bring those responsible to account.

While media coverage of Francis’s pontificate often focuses on controversy over his pastoral reforms, the Vatican’s international outreach has been growing on his watch, as the first pope from the global South, and should be followed closely by Anglicans concerned for world development and peace.

The Holy See has a permanent presence in some 40 international organisations, from the United Nations and its agencies to the Council of Europe and the Arab League. Meanwhile, the world’s Roman Catholic population has doubled in three decades to 1.3 billion, and is expanding by 12.5 million baptisms annually, helped by 5100 bishops, 410,000 priests, and 800,000 nuns.

Even in countries with small Roman Catholic minorities, such as Myanmar, the Church wields considerable clout, as the world’s largest non-governmental provider of education (140,000 schools and 1360 universities) and health care (50,000 hospitals, clinics, care homes, and orphanages).

As the nerve-centre of this highly organised network, the Vatican is also expanding its diplomatic activity. When Myanmar established relations last May, it was the 193rd country to do so.


ACADEMICS and journalists routinely ignore the Vatican’s function, since it cannot be quantified by normal criteria or the usual interplay of state interests. But that function has increased exponentially since the Vatican became part of the international system in the post-war years.

During the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, Rome was awash with agents from regimes and governments eager to know where the Church would turn its attention. They were right to be interested.

Having become the first pope to leave Italy since 1809, Paul VI went on to visit 20 countries, whereas his successor John Paul II visited 129 — some on multiple occasions.

The Polish pope was instrumental in the fall of dictatorships from the Philippines to Peru and Paraguay. He also intervened in numerous disputes, opposing the post-9/11 doctrine of pre-emption, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and the invasion of Iraq, and pioneering interfaith contacts.

John Paul II’s greatest political feat — helping to bring down Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — is still widely ignored by those unwilling or unable to acknowledge the place of religion in world events.

But it was recognised as crucial by Communist bosses themselves, including Mikhail Gorbachev, who praised the Pope in 1997 as “the world’s most left-wing leader”, citing his stand against poverty and injustice.

John Paul II had seen how spiritual loyalties could have practical consequences. In an era of globalisation and mass communication, he also sensed that the power of governments was diminishing. The fighters, tanks, and missiles of the superpowers could easily destroy the world. But without people to fly, drive, and launch them, they were useless chunks of metal. It was, then, with people, and with public opinion, that the Church’s power lay.


AFTER an eight-year hiatus under the dour Benedict XVI, the Vatican’s influence is on the rise again, as Pope Francis speaks out against the death penalty, nuclear weapons, discrimination, and corruption, and demands firmer action, alongside the UN, on behalf of migrants and refugees.

In less than five years, the Argentinian pope has visited 31 countries, including Israel and the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Cuba, Egypt, and the Central African Republic, and has trips lined up to 36 others, including South Sudan.

Meanwhile, Vatican representatives have been vocal on the international stage, and are involved in peace negotiations in countries such as Venezuela and Colombia.

As for Myanmar, the Pope was well aware that he had caused disappointment by not naming the Rohingyas: he told journalists on his flight home that “the door would have closed” if he had. But he had “said everything” in meetings with government officials, and had told Myanmar’s bishops to raise their voices “for the dignity and rights of all, especially the most vulnerable”.

When wounds are “both visible and invisible”, a stern search for common ground can help more than angry headlines.

Anglicans should follow the Pope’s initiatives, identifying with them where appropriate and possible. They forcefully show how religion can still provide an orientation for effective action — and how self-confident church leaders can still make a real contribution to participation, dialogue, and reconciliation.


Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of Communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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