The Vatican's Awkward Place in Europe

by Ken Briggs

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Pope Francis is perhaps the best ambassador the Catholic Church has ever had. Most popes didn't practice much outside Rome and John Paul II was no slouch as he successfully barnstormed the world. But Francis has the blend of glad-handing and gravitas that may set the record. He could teach Dale Carnegie a thing or two about how to make friends and influence people.

His gregariousness and charm were fully on display when he appeared before the parliament of the European Union in Strasbourg, France, on November 25. He wasn't there to conduct a love feast, but a session of truth telling, more interested in saying something than basking in the glow of the astonishing approval that has attached itself to his papacy.

In essence, the pope told them to shape up. A vibrant European culture had grown stale and insensitive to human needs, he insisted. "The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well" he implored them. The grand aspirations had given way to technological expediency and selfishness that robbed the continent of the vision of a dignified humanity that the church had, by inference, provided. The citizenry had grown distrustful of government, lost interest in the grand vision and suffered from the "bureaucratic technicalities" that now controlled its institutions.

Adroit as it was, the speech was delivered as if the pope represented an entity outside Europe. He used "we" once or twice to indicate a connection, but didn't expand on what he meant by it. The Vatican's image of itself as the center of a universal church accounts for much of that. But that little plot of ground called Vatican City belongs to Europe and was established only after a long period of strife with the rest of Italy and, by association, the wrangles among all the Continent's major players. And for most of its history it either dominated Europe or was entangled with it politically at every juncture. John Paul II went to France pleading with that "Daughter of the Church" to come home.

If Europe is moribund, therefore, the Vatican might be supposed to have had a part in bringing about that demise. That seems very possible, given the corruption at the Vatican Bank, the shattering scandal of child abuse by priests and conflicts over feminism and gay rights that have had dispiriting ripple effects across Europe. The climate of failure and gloom has many causes, not least of which is usually its religious character at any particular time.

The pope spoke to vital issues. His censure of certain negative trends could have been even more powerful if he had acknowledged the role the church has played in this larger drama beyond claiming that it had done its part by delivering the right spiritual and moral lessons which were being ignored at the cost of malaise. He might have conceded that the church has made mistakes that needed correction and forgiveness. Francis has an instinct for holding the church accountable but stands in a long period of history in which the church has spoken as the insulated, elevated outsider to a world that needed its correction, not vice versa. Does Francis perpetuate this presumption? Maybe. 


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