The bishops of Venezuela, who came last week to Rome to meet Pope Francis, trusted in the Holy See’s moral strength and its international influence. If the Pope – this is the rationale – were to speak out on the Venezuelan crisis, administrations and international institutions would understand that it is about time to intervene.
They are not the only ones employing this rationale. On the eve of US President Donald Trump’s visiet to Pope Francis, a delegation sent by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, led by Archbishop Hyginus Hee-joong Kim of Gwangji, President of the Korean Bishops’ Conference, went to Pope Francis to ask him to facilitate relations between North Korea and the United States. If North Korea gets out of its diplomatic isolation, relations in the Korean peninsula can improve, they think.
The South Korean delegation was looking back to the Holy See’s mediation for the restoration of US-Cuban relations, Pope Francis’ first true diplomatic success.
Nowadays, a possible trip to Israel by Pope Francis is rumored in order to give new traction to the peace talks in the region. The trip would also take place because although the prayer for peace in the Vatican Gardens might have generated great spiritual fruit, it bore few pragmatic results. Recently, the Pope traveled to Egypt, and reiterated that violence in the name of God is not faith.
If Pope Francis and the Holy See still enjoy international attention, the question is whether the Holy See’s diplomatic activity is still capable of prophecy.
This is not a trivial issue. The Holy See has always been used to anticipate history. Pius IX, in the midst of attacks that brought about the capture of Rome and the end of the Papal States, emphasized that “history had become a plot against truth,” and as a response he proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The dogma was common in the thought of the faithful; however, proclaiming it served to give people a rampart to halt the sense of relativism that was beginning to take possession of society.
Leo XIII started the modern social teaching of the Church by warning – and he was among the first – about the dangers of both communism and capitalism. Pius XII anticipated almost all current issues, including the atomic risk when it was still a project. The Second Vatican Council came very much before the year 1968 that revolutionized life and the way of thinking in the West. St. John Paul II sensed that only culture could tear down the wall of communism, rather than a politically inspired and frontal struggle. St. John XXIII was among the first to look at the world from a multilateral perspective. Benedict XVI brought everything back to the issue of truth, that was being taken for granted, and for this reason he was a real revolutionary.
The Church of today, though, does not seem to be as prophetic as it used to be. It seems able to provide snapshots of reality, but these snapshots seemingly show a very distant reality, as if it were the picture of a star light-years away.
Some examples. During this past week while the Venezuelan bishops asked for the Holy See’s support, Pope Francis’ visit to the seat of the Italian President, the Quirinale, was being prepared.
The Italian – Holy See relationship has always been love-hate. On the one hand, the historical fact is that the Kingdom of Italy, which later became a Republic, was born with the capture of Rome, that is with an act of war against the Papal States, in which deep-seated anti-clericalism was not hidden. Here, one is not concerned the question of whether this war was providential for the Church. Certainly, it helped the Church to transcend its historical self-referentiality, and to be less worldly. But this does not mean that the attack against the Papal States was not an act of war.
Beyond the necessary bilateral relations and the particular interest popes have generally had for Italy because they hailed from Italy themselves, Italy is just one of the States that the Holy See deals with, and its importance diminished as soon as multilateral relations developed.
With Pope Francis bilateral diplomacy seems to be in play again. This can be seen, for example, in the Fiscal Agreement which Italy and the Holy See signed. The agreement establishes a channel to exchange tax-related information. However, it must yet be seen whether the agreement will stand the test of multilateralism, since beginning in 2018 the exchange of financial information will be managed at a multilateral level.
Why, then, this step, while all the Vatican’s efforts concerning financial reforms have been directed in the opposite direction – that is, to have equally good relations between the Holy See and every other State, with no privileged partners?
Considering that bilateral agreements are in fashion once again in the Vatican, although the rest of the world is proceeding differently, it is also true that Vatican diplomacy seems to plod along when facing a brand new world, with no countermeasures set in place.
Those prophetic voices – like that of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who laments the building of a “world order without God” – are not enough. The world of today seems out of the Vatican’s reach.
During the 2017 Davos Forum, in which a priest proudly participated representing the Holy See, the Global Risks 2017 report was presented. The report also indicated as “risks” electoral outcomes like Brexit, Trump’s election in the United States and the “no” vote on constitutional reform in Italy. The report then stressed the need to “better protect information systems’ quality control”, as news on the web undermines the flow of information, creating “a fragilizing of trust among the population.”
In order to stem the factors of risk, the report proposes to build “a more inclusive society based on international cooperation.” This implies the creation of open societies, which are also willing to risk losing their cultural roots because of unmanageable immigration. The 2017 Van Thuan Report on the Social Teaching of the Church shed light on the possibility that migratory flows are artificial, created to overrun European society and to undermine European roots – roots that are in the end Christian.
This analysis was provided by an outpost of Catholic thought, indeed a very marginal one. The risk of an artificially-created need for migration is not apparently ever mentioned in the speeches delivered by Holy See diplomats, the ones who are called upon more than anyone else to raise doubts and awareness.
The economic-financial crisis is directly linked to the migration crisis. The financial crisis is above all a moral crisis, as Benedict XVI perceptively claimed. This crisis came about once financial power became more important than economic power. St. John Paul II warned of the dangers of consumerism, and his words were more prophetic than ever.
Neo-capitalism – as the Italian analyst Maurizio Blondet calls it – is based on “a leap forward with the continual creation of new wishes, always revamped, that extends to the whole planet and to the nature of the human being.”
The slogans of the ’68 revolution, like “Forbidden to forbid,” represent for Blondet the opening to consumption without limits. Pope Francis instinctively warns about the danger of wealth for its own sake. But, again, beyond highlighting the need for a poor Church, diplomatic dispatches do not seem to go into depth on this issue.
Strange, considering that the Holy See published back in 1986 a brief document entitled At the Service of Human Community: An Ethical Approach to International Debt. The document states that “in order to avoid a return to crisis situations with over-abrupt changes in the international environment, a reform of the financial and monetary institutions also needs to be studied and fostered.”
That document must be read in order to understand how much the Holy See could identify the key perspective to the future. The Holy See already forecast the effects of the economic crisis. The economy – Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, wrote in the introduction – had become too rooted in financial institutions with the 1974 and 1979 “oil shocks.”
The document emphasized the problem of the growing interdependence that “in order to comply with equity” is called to “give rise to new enlarged forms of solidarity that respect the equal dignity of every people”, rather than “leading to the domination of the strongest, to the countries’ selfishness, to inequalities and injustices.”
It is noteworthy that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation is quoted many times in the footnotes. The Instruction is one of the CDF’s two documents on Liberation Theology. Among many issues, the Instruction also foretells that “grave economic problems now at stake will be solved only by creating new frontlines of solidarity: solidarity of poor people among themselves, solidarity of rich people with the poor, solidarity of workers with workers. Institutions and social organizations, at different levels, as well as States, are called upon to participate in a general movement of solidarity.”
To some extent, the Holy See has stuck to that perspective, and in fact the globalization of solidarity is one of the Pope Francis’s battle cries – but the slogan had already been used by John Paul II in a 2003 message to Caritas Internationalis. And this is more than right. However, there is a wider issue to face, and it deals with democracy.
The Holy See for long time has been supporting democracy. During the so called “Arab spring,” the Holy See diplomatic position was that of “nurturing people toward democracy.”
But is there a democracy if those who pull the strings are not elected people who commit themselves to politics, but instead people who actually determine political policies while they are shielded from public view behind foundations and NGO’s? In the end, the people’s will and popular elections take second place. Foundations and NGO’s maneuver behind the curtains.
The United Nations recognizes 1,300 NGO’s, and all of them lobby the United Nations about how to think. This is how we find ourselves in a world paradoxically free and at the same time dominated by the accusation of hate speech, one that imposes on everyone – for example – the diktat not to criticize the LGBT world in order not to be denounced as homophobic.
There is a whole world, artificially constructed, that wants to impose the concept of unrestricted immigration, the abortion and contraception agenda, and other issues like euthanasia and now medically assisted suicide.
The Holy See has been noting for a long time that power now lies beyond national sovereignty. Already St John XXIII asked for a world authority with universal competences, in order to control this phenomenon that de facto brought forward a new world disorder. St. John XXIII looked beyond. He understood that an exasperated individualism was going to play in favor of those who want to control the world. This is the reason why, in his encyclical Pacem In Terris, he linked rights and duties to divine revelation.
Nowadays, the Holy See seems instead to adopt the NGO’s vocabulary, trying to make that vocabulary its own in order to highlight the themes of solidarity and mercy. The adoption of this different vocabulary represents a great risk for the Church, as it opens up the possibility that the Church will not be understood on its own terms. It is a big risk, since the Holy See sets aside major topics, such as abortion, the family, and euthanasia, in exchange for playing a marginal role in society. No one in the secular world blames the Church as long as it is seen as expressing its commitment to global solidarity, but everyone criticizes it if it speaks about moral principles.
It is as if the Holy See has detached itself from the concept of divine revelation and no longer remembers that the Church has a moral authority only because of this revelation. When Pope Francis went to visit the European institutions in Strasbourg on November 25, 2014, no prayer meeting was part of the schedule. This omission gave points to the secularist argument that the Pope is only a Head of State like any other.
Is this change on the part of the Holy See a lack of vision or a strategy? While the question is left unanswered, it is noteworthy that even good occasions to speak to the secular world are sometimes missed. Pope Francis was asked to address to the TED Talks, a worldwide network of conferences spread all over the world. The theme of this year’s TED was “The future you.”
It is a crucial issue. Who is the man of the future? Media outlets have begun to publish optimistic pieces about “cyborg employees” whose badge can be replaced with a chip placed under the skin. This chip is the maximum of possible control over the human being. However, the chip is presented as something good. Not considering that chips are used for animals, the verichip was designed for human beings.
While the conference was being prepared, cinemas were airing The Circle, a blockbuster film inspired by a novel with the same name that tells about the control of private life of the employees in a certain industry. In the end, cinema-aired movies like Silence that show Christians resigned to apostasy, and like The Circle that endorse the total dependence of man to industries, are always used as an outpost to create public opinion.
There are no traces of any of these issues in Pope Francis’s TED Talk. The Pope instead asked that “fraternity must not be reduced to social assistance”, and spoke – as another headline emphasized – about “tenderness and humility.” TED gave an interesting title to the Pope’s talk: “Why the only future worthy of us will have to include everyone.”
So, while the Papacy is now more popular than ever and the encyclical Laudato Si is spoken about widely, the Vatican workshop where ideas are prepared seems to lack the prophetic element. The discussion seems to be stalled on issues like economy, relations with States, and risks of technocracy. Yet the Holy See published in 2002 a comprehensive document on the Internet, and there have been many Magisterial teaching documents against techno-science, e.g. Dignitatis Personae and Caritas in Veritate.
Above all, one thing is missing from the current discussion, and needs urgently to be proclaimed: the Church proposes a free man, untied to any power because under God, oriented to the common good because men are brothers. This simple concept leaves no space for sociological terms like “inclusion”, “social assistance”, “cooperation”, “and sustainable development.” These are, however, the terms used today, even by people within the Church.
The crisis is demonstrated when a change of vocabulary takes place. This is the reason why it is important now more than ever to ask whether the Church is still capable of prophecy. If it is not, the Church is called upon to recover its ability to look into the future.