Understandably, reaction to Pope Francis’s latest airborne news conference on Aug. 18, during his return flight from South Korea to Rome, has centered on whether his comments on US airstrikes in Iraq represent an endorsement or a rebuke.
The pontiff played it down the middle, saying it’s legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor but that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping bombs and certainly not a “war of conquest,” and in any event it would be better to have a UN warrant.
Whatever one makes of the answer, everyone knew the question was coming and the pope had been prepped. His words seemed to reflect some diplomatic balance and circumspection, rather than his trademark spontaneity.
If you want the best insight from that session into who Francis really is, you need to look elsewhere.
It came at the beginning, when a Korean journalist asked the pope about his outreach during the visit with families of victims of the April 16 Sewol ferry disaster, a shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high school students.
It sparked national outrage in Korea, with families demanding a special law authorizing an independent criminal probe.
During his five days in the country, Francis wore a pin of a yellow ribbon that’s become the symbol of the disaster. In the minds of most Koreans, it not only expresses sympathy but also solidarity with the push for the special law and anger over the government’s failure to deliver.
Francis revealed that after he’d worn the pin for a half-day, someone came up and said, “It would be better to take it off . . . you’re supposed to be neutral.”
Francis said he replied, “Look, you can’t be neutral with human suffering.”
“That’s what I said,” Francis said. “And that’s what I feel.”
While slapping a pin on his cassock might not seem a terribly big deal, it’s worth underlining just how much of a departure from the norm it actually was.
Historically, popes have been extremely reluctant to embarrass host governments when they travel. If they feel the need to wag a finger, they’ll do it behind closed doors rather than in full public view.
The reason is obvious: Popes need the support of local governments to make these trips, and if politicians have to worry about being read the riot act, they might be less inclined to roll out a red carpet.
When Francis said that “someone” suggested he remove the pin, it’s not a leap to imagine it was a member of his own diplomatic team, worried that South Korean President Park Geun-hye might be irked.
At the end of the trip, there was yet another maverick moment involving a pin.
During a Mass for peace and reconciliation Monday, Francis greeted seven elderly Korean “comfort women” who had been forced into sexual servitude under Japanese occupation. They are national icons of the hardships of Japanese rule.
One of the women presented Francis with a pin of a yellow butterfly, symbolizing their suffering. The pontiff placed it on his outer vestment, called a chasuble, and wore it during Mass.
In addition to the pope’s apparent indifference to any political blowback from Japan, he was also defying usual practice for priests saying Mass. Church rules clearly discourage, though technically they don’t forbid, clergy from adding their own dashes to vestments.
As one expert on liturgy put it, “The last thing you want is Father standing up there looking like a NASCAR driver . . . this sets a dangerous precedent, however noble the cause may be.”
Yet here, too, Francis was undeterred.
While minor in themselves, the “pin cases” underline a towering irony of the Francis era.
Francis has said he wants to promote collegiality, meaning shared decision-making, rather than imposing his will. Yet the diplomatic and liturgical customs he so cheerily upended in South Korea actually represent the collective wisdom of past popes, and in a sense the whole church, about how things ought to be done.
One could argue that the truly collegial act would be to submit to these protocols until a broad consultation has been held about whether they need to change. That, however, is not Francis’s style. When his gut and his heart tell him something important is at stake, he’s willing to act unilaterally on matters both large and small.
This, to put it another way, is a pope ostensibly committed to collaboration, but whose informal anthem instead sometimes seems to be the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way.”
Theologians will have to sort out what all this means for the exercise of authority in Catholicism, but for now, Francis’s defiant comments on the pin seem to leave no doubt on one front: The wild ride under this pontiff is far from over.
In terms of what’s next, the real answer is “Who knows?” Francis might have dropped a hint, however, when he revealed during the news conference that he weighed a surprise trip to Iraq after returning from South Korea, and that he’s still open to the idea.
Almost certainly, his advisers will offer a truckload of both security and diplomatic reasons why he ought to be careful. Just as surely, that’s no guide at all to what he’ll actually do.
Overall, what the South Korea trip seemed to capture was what a truly globalized papacy, no longer conceiving of itself primarily as a Western institution, looks like in action. I unpacked that reading in a piece on the final day of the trip, which can be found here.
Support for US airstrikes in Iraq
On the subject of the use of force against the radical Islamic State group in northern Iraq, another senior Church official has offered what amounts to an endorsement.
In an Aug. 21 interview with Italian television, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, said that “now is the time . . . to make ISIS disappear” through a combination of “political and military action.”
Barbarin spoke after the decapitation of American photojournalist James Foley, whom he described as “profoundly Catholic.”
Barbarin, who’s widely seen as an influential figure in the Vatican, recently led a delegation of French bishops to Iraq. In the interview, he vigorously defended a military response.
“John Paul II explained well in a time of war in the Balkans that sometimes pacifism is opposed to the progress of peace,” Barbarin said, insisting that the Islamic State “must be stopped from spreading more terror.”
Barbarin also said that if France decides to join the US-led military action, he will “trust in the decisions of our governors.”
If anything, Barbarin seemed to support widening the anti-Islamic State campaign, saying it would be a mistake to dismiss the leader of the self-proclaimed caliphate as a “madman.”
“We must never underestimate this adversary,” he said. “We know that he’s well-armed and has demonstrated undeniable capacities. Don’t forget that he made Mosul fall at a time when it was guarded by the regular army in less than 24 hours!”
Barbarin also suggested that Catholics around the world should pray the “Our Father” every day until Christian refugees from Mosul are allowed to return.
Why the pope matters
Skeptics might wonder why it matters what a pope thinks about the US bombing campaign in Iraq, or any other political question. Since the pope is merely a religious leader, with no armies to deploy and little economic muscle to flex, who cares?
One snappy answer would be that if you don’t believe a pope can influence the course of history, you ought to talk to former Soviet apparatchiks across Eastern Europe who found themselves out of work partly because of the role the late John Paul II played in the collapse of Communism.
If that’s not enough, we recently got a fresh reminder that papal interventions can make a difference, this one with regard to Francis.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who served from March 2012 to September 2013, recently published a set of memoirs. Among other things, he revealed details of a September 2013 meeting of the G20 group of nations in St. Petersburg, where the Obama administration and its Western allies faced pressure not to use force to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad after charges his regime had used chemical weapons.
Prior to that meeting, Pope Francis had written to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was hosting the G20 summit, urging the nations “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.”
The letter had been released by the Vatican as part of the pope’s push against any use of force, which also included calling a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Sept. 7.
Carr reveals that during the behind-closed-doors debate, Italy’s Prime Minister at the time, Enrico Letta, said that while he’d like to support the Americans, the pope’s letter “is a big factor for me domestically.”
“We must insist that we need to find a way to sanction any intervention,” Carr quotes Letta as saying. “If everyone is convinced it was Assad, then we need UN Security Council authorization.”
With Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council, Letta knew full well that by making its approval a deal-breaker, he was effectively saying no to the use of force.
Later, Carr recounts Putin’s remarks to the other heads of state. As he tells it, Putin ended by saying “we might listen to the pope,” and then quoted from Francis’ letter about the need to avoid force.
“Bang!” Carr writes. “Cop that!”
Granted, had Francis’ position not aligned with Russia’s, Putin might not have been so eager to cite him. Granted, too, Letta’s government in Italy was in dire straits and, even without the pope, he might have shrunk from a conflict he knew would be controversial.
Still, what Carr’s memoirs illustrate is that without being physically present, Francis was nevertheless a force in that G20 meeting. It’s an object lesson in why popes matter, regardless of what one makes of their spiritual claims.
Anxiety over anti-abuse commission
Speaking of Australian VIPs, Cardinal George Pell this week testified before the country’s Royal Commission looking into sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church via a video link from Rome. He was being asked about a response plan he put into place while serving as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
Pell is today Francis’ finance czar, by consensus a powerful figure in his papacy.
The most common term used in Australian media accounts to characterize Pell’s testimony on Thursday has been “defiant.” While stating that his priority always was helping victims heal, Pell refused to give ground on three key fronts.
• He defended a compensation scheme in Melbourne that capped payouts to victims at $50,000, saying some might have received nothing if they went to court.
• He insisted that culpability for abuse should not be “foisted” on Church leaders if clergy acted without the knowledge of their superiors. He compared the Church to a trucking company, arguing that if a driver molests a woman in violation of company policy then the company isn’t at fault.
• He defended a Vatican decision not to turn over all documents in its possession regarding accused Australian clerics, arguing that it’s “neither possible nor appropriate” to expect a sovereign state to disclose internal working papers. Pell added that the Vatican would provide documents on an as-needed basis, and claimed that virtually everything the commission wants is already available in Australia.
Reaction will likely reflect one’s broader assessment of the Church’s response to the abuse scandals. For those inclined to believe the Church has bent over backwards to accommodate critics, and that it’s being held to an unfair standard, Pell’s willingness to draw lines in the sand probably will come off as reasonable and long overdue. For those who regard the response as woefully incomplete, Pell’s testimony will loom as the latest chapter in a pattern of stonewalling.
In any event, the appearance is a reminder that debates over the abuse scandals are far from resolved. While Pope Francis’ general popularity provides the Church some insulation from blowback, there’s no guarantee that will last forever.
This insight helps explain why in the Church’s reform wing vis-à-vis the abuse scandals, there’s growing concern about a perceived stall at the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, launched in December 2013 to be the cutting edge of the clean-up operation. The commission, which includes Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, was instrumental in engineering Francis’ first meeting with abuse victims on July 7.
While there’s been plenty of work behind the scenes, statutes for the commission have not been officially approved, new members representing other parts of the world have not been appointed, and decisions about where the commission will be located and what its leadership will be have not been announced. Aside from the victims’ meeting, the commission has not launched any public initiative that would provide some indication of its priorities and direction.
All this stands in contrast to the rapid pace at which the financial reform launched by Francis and spearheaded by Pell is moving.
What reformers in the Church are saying, for now just on background, is that the commission needs to do something soon to create the impression of momentum. What they don’t want is for people to draw the conclusion that while managing money matters under this pope, protecting children is a comparative afterthought.