ROME — When a strong pope with a clear social agenda intersects with a world leader who shares the same basic outlook, and is willing to put some muscle behind it, sometimes history can change.
With the support of King Philip II of Spain, for instance, St. Pius V promoted a “Holy League” that turned back a possible Ottoman Muslim conquest of Europe at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Four centuries later, St. John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan joined forces in a successful effort to bring down Soviet Communism (with a major assist from Mikhail Gorbachev).
Though with a different set of priorities, Pope Francis has a similar ambition to shape history. He wants to steer it away from what he has called the “globalization of indifference” to the poor, refugees, and other victims of a “throw-away culture,” and he wants to end a Third World War that he believes is being fought today in “piecemeal’’ fashion.
The question facing Francis in 2016 is: Who’s the political partner who could help him in this big quest? In truth, it’s not easy to answer.
For centuries, the Vatican instinctively looked to the great Catholic powers of Europe as its natural allies. Today, that logic no longer holds.
In Western Europe, traditionally Catholic nations such as France and Spain are mired in domestic difficulties, and their strongly secular ethos is suspicious of ecclesiastical leadership in politics. In the East, Poland, the most staunchly Catholic nation, is currently led by a nationalist government hostile to Francis’ priorities on several fronts, from the treatment of refugees to the use of fossil fuels.
(The political climate in Poland should make Francis’ scheduled visit in late July to lead the Church’s World Youth Day highly interesting.)
More recently the Vatican has tended to rely on the United States, but that too seems a dicey proposition going forward.
President Obama and Francis did come together in the historic reopening of relations with Cuba, but Italian journalist Pierro Schiavazzi recently made the interesting observation that Francis could be in for the same disappointment today that befell John Paul II after the collapse of Communism.
John Paul wanted to bring Eastern and Western Europe back together, hoping the East would revive the spiritually moribund West, only to watch Western consumerism and secularism triumph.
Likewise, Schiavazzi suggests, Francis has helped reunify the Americas but may be unhappy with the aftermath, as a conservative political wave away from his preferred brand of social democracy seems to be building in Latin America, including his native Argentina, and in the United States, there is the possibility of a President Donald Trump.
But even if Hillary Clinton prevails in 2016, that’s not necessary a forecast for an era of good feelings. During the last Clinton administration, the Vatican and the White House fought titanic battles over population control and abortion during UN conferences in Cairo and Beijing.
Who does that leave?
One option would be Vladimir Putin, recently crowned by Forbes the most powerful person in the world. Francis and the Russian leader have done business on several fronts. In September 2013, they aligned to resist calls for Western military intervention in Syria, and Putin’s pledge to defend persecuted Christians in the Middle East is something Francis values.
On the other hand, Francis also has repeatedly criticized Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and in any event a marriage between the “Pope of Mercy” and, arguably, the least merciful public figure on the planet, doesn’t quite seem a match made in heaven.
Francis could look to China, the world’s emerging superpower, under Xi Jinping. (The pontiff and the Chinese premier finished fourth and fifth on the Forbes power countdown.)
Yet the two men didn’t meet when they were both in the United States at the same time in September, suggesting that a longstanding chill between Beijing and Rome has yet to thaw, and until China rethinks its policies on religious freedom, such a partnership could only go so far.
One might think a “Pope of the Peripheries” would naturally look to the developing world for strategic partnerships, and there are promising options. What I’ve called the PINS nations — Philippines, India, Nigeria, and South Korea — all have dynamic, growing Catholic communities, and all are countries positioned for leadership. Yet for various reasons, each has its drawbacks as a potential partner.
India, for example, is ruled by a Hindu nationalist government hostile to the country’s Christian minority, while Nigeria is engulfed by internal woes, chiefly Boko Haram, the indigenous, bloodthirsty terrorist force.
The Philippines is facing its own election cycle in 2016, and South Korean foreign policy often begins and ends with its neighbor to the north.
Perhaps the answer for Pope Francis is that there simply is no Philip II or Ronald Reagan awaiting him in 2016, meaning a single world leader with vision and clout whose interests align neatly with his own.
Instead, if Francis is correct that a Third World War is being fought piecemeal, perhaps the only response may be an equally piecemeal brand of diplomacy, crafting short-term alliances with various figures on specific issues but refraining from putting all his eggs in one basket.
So far, the war on many fronts denounced by Francis seems to be doing just fine without any overarching leadership. It remains to be seen if a similarly ad-hoc kind of peacemaking, inspired by the pontiff but without a partner among the world’s powers, can be equally effective in resolving it.