Vatican geopolitical role

In 1991 a French political scientist and Islam specialist, Gilles Kepel, wrote La revanche de Dieu. Chrétiens, juifs et musulmans à la reconquête du monde (The Revenge of God: the Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World), a long seller for many years. The thesis was that since the early ‘70s, and especially with the Islamic fundamentalist revival revealed to the West by the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Sunni fundamentalist victory against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the election of a charismatic Pope as John Paul II and the fall of communism beginning from his native Poland, the birth of the new and aggressive religious right in the US and the growth of religious parties in Israel, a new era seems to have been born in which secularisation no longer was the ineluctable direction history would take. A year later, Samuel Huntington largely adapted Kepel’s theory and used it as a cornerstone of his first idea of the “clash of civilisation,” later expanded in an article on foreign affairs, and finally in his famous 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order: cultural identities, mostly shaped by religious traditions, will become the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.

Creative Commons photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr.

After more than twenty years, and as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, especially in Europe, is it still a plausible interpretation of our present global scenario? It does not seem the case.

Pope John Paul II had indeed allowed his fellow Polish citizens to see for themselves, and become even more aware than they already were of how strong and generalised the opposition to the communist regime had grown, of how strong civil society already was. Not being able to refuse him the permission to visit his native country, the regime was forced to tolerate gigantic demonstrations – the first free ones for more than thirty years in the Soviet bloc – where the vast majority of the population took the opportunity to show all its estrangement from the political establishment. And that was a huge boost for all the civil societies in all countries of the Warsaw pact, beginning with Poland itself and its Solidarity movement. But, unlike what the usual apologetic narrative has been repeating for a quarter of a century, in my humble opinion communism did not collapse because of Pope John Paul II, and not even because of Thatcher’s or Reagan’s policies. Simply, it was no longer able to compete with the new Western economy based on new digital technologies, as the large scale introduction of these technologies was plainly incompatible with a totalitarian control over their population. As it often happens in history, the collapse of communism was probably a totally unintentional consequence of the entrepreneurial achievements of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, rather than of any political strategy or of any religious revival.

The popularity and, even more, the charismatic personality of religious leaders can sometimes be linked to a religious revival already prepared by societal developments, and can certainly boost a rejection of authoritarian impositions, as it was probably the case of Khomeini in the Iranian revolution (even if the ayatollahs regime has proved to be even much more authoritarian than that of the Shah). But it is unlikely that it can be so decisive in pluralistic societies, where religious practice has never been hampered.

In all the established democratic Western societies, the very popular and charismatic pontificate of Pope John Paul II did not interrupt, or even slow down, the pace of the secularisation process. On the contrary, the ever stronger pluralistic nature of Western societies in recent decades has strengthened the already centuries long process that never ceased to grow. This had been particularly obvious in the country where the Catholic Church has its headquarters.

In 1974 the result of the Italian referendum on the abrogation of the newly passed divorce law, which was required, almost openly and officially, by the Catholic Church itself, was a surprise to a very short-sighted political and media establishment. But the 59% majority that decided to uphold the divorce law, at a time when the Catholic Church was governed by the very colourless personality of Pope Paul VI, was largely overrun in 1981 by the 68 % majority of the Italian electors who also decided to uphold the abortion law: a much more demanding question on paper, which was largely viewed by the Catholic establishment as a possible “return match” after the unforeseen defeat suffered seven years before. The alleged Catholic revival embodied by the new Pope, and given for certain by most of the media, had no political consequences at all, even despite the great emotion sparked off by the assassination attempt and by the severe wounding suffered by the Pope himself in St. Peter square just a few days before the vote took place. Months later, the Italian Episcopal Conference stated that Italy could no longer be considered a Christian nation, but a “land of mission” – like Africa a century before; and actually, thirty years later, a turnover among priests in Italy is very frequently only possible thanks to foreign priests, very often African ones.

Developments were not different in what had been believed for decades to be the most unshakable bastion of Catholicism in Western Europe, Spain. The only openly Christian Democratic party taking part in the first democratic elections in 1977 miserably failed even to enter Parliament, to the dismay of its European counterparts, and, although the role was largely inherited by what had been considered at the beginning the successor party to the Franco movement, the developments following in the latest decades showed that even in Spain – and, less spectacularly, in Portugal, too – political and economic modernisation proceeded alongside the societal one.

John Paul II’s successor was much more realistic than him in appreciating the actual state of his church. A Western German, he grew much more acutely aware of the real situation. The triumph of ’89 had not been a religious one. Yes, the oppressed populations had taken the opportunity offered by the help, among others, of churches, especially the Catholic Church, and yes, they were probably still largely grateful for that help. In former communist countries, believers are free to practise and to reveal their religious opinions much more than before. Hence, an outward improvement. But in the older European democracies, the wave did not change its direction. On the contrary. His native Germany gave him ample evidence of that. An ever growing number of citizens required their names to be crossed out of the churches registers, in order not to be compelled to pay the church tax. And that was just the final step of a long-lasting detachment process.

All the serious studies on the secularisation of Western European societies come to the same conclusion: a “silent schism” has been going on for decades. People no longer obey the traditional church teaching and are no longer worried by it. This does not necessarily mean that people have no beliefs in the supernatural. On the contrary, the most generic and vague beliefs do proliferate. But all the traditional religious practises and all the behaviours consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church that are measurable, because they are subject to objective statistical record, are undisputedly and steadily declining.

Obviously, this silent schism does not lead to the formation of significant rival churches. Competition does exist, especially in South America and Africa, where more radical, dynamic, vibrant, emotional movements and sects can also be perceived as dangerous rivals. By the way, their Catholic counterpart is the fundamentalist and militant movements that always appear when the mainstream and well established organisation is in crisis. But the greatest threat does not come from religious competitors.

As cardinal Ratzinger said in the sermon he gave just before entering the conclave that would elect him Pope – a sermon that can be considered the programme of his pontificate – the enemies of his church were and are others. He enumerated them: “Marxism” – parce sepultis, even if that was the first enemy he duly mentioned – but, more seriously, and in this order: “liberalism, libertinism, collectivism, radical individualism, atheism, a vague religious mysticism, agnosticism, syncretism”. That is the result of the inexorable enfeeblement of the Church, of the ever growing weakening and dilution of beliefs, rather than of the organized assault of an identifiable and solid enemy, like those of the past.

Pope Benedict’s attempt to resist by restoring the ancient compactness and cohesion of a Tridentine, or ideologically anti-modernist, Church obviously failed. It would be too easy to ascribe the failure to simply secular or accidental reasons, such as the paedophilia related or financial scandals in many countries. These reproachable behaviours of many ministers are not the cause, but just a consequence of a deeper crisis.

The new Pope Francis is obviously a very popular public figure. He will certainly try, by every possible means, to curb corruption, restore reliability and reduce the ostentation of a worldly power and material wealth that is simply no longer compatible with the present cultural sensitivity and common sense, especially given the more marginal position of every established faith in an inherently plural global society.

However successful he can finally be, or appear, in this endeavour, this will certainly not produce, per se, a renewed empowerment of the Catholic Church as a public institution, capable of influencing world affairs and most national political arenas.

The most obvious future political role of the Vatican can therefore only be that of a powerful pressure group, of an international lobby.

Not a totally new situation indeed. The difference is that, so far, operating as a pressure group has been for organised Catholicism a marginal activity, whereas it is bound to become the only possible way of influencing decision makers in the foreseeable future.

Important rehearsals have already taken place in recent years. Under Pope John Paul II, during the 1994 UN Cairo conference on “Population and Development”, the Vatican struck a de facto alliance with the majority of the Muslim countries (and with the republicans-led American Senate) against the European countries and the Clinton administration, in order to oppose a resolution on “reproductive health” that did not mention abortion, but did not rule it out either, thus defeating any serious attempt to grant the developing world women any freedom to opt for safe birth control strategies.

More systematically, a real lobbying activity by the Vatican has been taking place for years in the European institutions – the European Union and the Council of Europe – in order to involve also the Orthodox and the (on average) more liberal and more self-restrained European protestant churches, in the name of ecumenical correctness. This role has even been institutionalised by article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, as modified by the Lisbon treaty, concerning the role of «churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States» and of «philosophical and non-confessional organisations» alike: «Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations». Churches – namely the Roman Catholic Church – obviously have more resources to invest in this new opportunity than the weaker “philosophical and non-confessional organisations,” such as the European Humanist Federation, so far largely neglected by the Commission, as recognized by the European ombudsman.

An even more systematic contribution has been visible at the national level. In Italy, for example, the former president of the Episcopal Conference, cardinal Ruini, has established a very powerful and successful lobbying agency, the “Cultural Project of the Italian Church” (Progetto culturale della Chiesa italiana), with the explicit aim of «marking its own presence in the cultural life of the country», i.e. in the political arena: a role the cardinal triumphantly exercised during the years marked by the political venture of Silvio Berlusconi. Despite the results of all opinion polls, and thanks to these efforts, the Italian law does not recognize any legal value to living wills, no legal recognition is granted to gay couples, gays do not enjoy – unlike the other minorities at risk – any special protection from hate crimes, stem cells research is strictly forbidden, in vitro insemination almost impossible, Catholic schools are funded at the expense of the public ones, the Catholic church and its institutions are funded with tax-payers money, and, despite the results of the above mentioned popular referendum of 1981, abortion is almost impossible today in some regions due to the organised “conscientious objection,” strongly “recommended” by medical and paramedical organisations and institutions.

On a global scale, the most interesting developments will concern the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy towards the Islamic world, and especially its more radical (though not openly violent) versions. The aforementioned Cairo conference was just one of the most obvious attempts by the Catholic hierarchy to take profit of the global role of rather fundamentalist tendencies in the Islamic world in order to use them as allies against our individualistic, relativistic, secular liberal democracy. A clear choice has not been made so far. Pope John Paul II was obviously tempted by this possibility, to the point of largely downplaying the seriousness of the new persecutions against Christians arising in some Islamic countries – at least as long as it was possible. On the contrary, Benedict, a much less politically shrewd leader than John Paul, clumsily gave the (probably false) impression, especially in his notorious Regensburg University lecture, of even leaning towards the positions of the American religious right. It is likely that Francis, much less naive and ingenuous than he likes to appear, will try to resume John Paul II’s course.