A Latin American pope takes his own approach to Europe's problems

A Latin American pope takes his own approach to Europe's problems

In some ways, Pope Francis’ visit to the European Parliament this week evoked similar encounters by his predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. There were Big Speeches (no doubt written with input from the Vatican's Secretariat of State), a defense of religious and spiritual values, and a call for cooperation on the European continent. In a passage quoting Pope Benedict, Francis reminded European leaders of the continent’s “religious roots” and warned of the risk of “forgetfulness of God.”

               Pope Francis addresses the European Parliament

Yet there were a few distinctive differences about this visit, too. One thing that struck me was that Pope Francis did not dwell so much on the past. For John Paul II and Benedict, Europe was the continent where for centuries Europe had shaped the culture, and now that culture was rejecting its Christian identity. Both popes denounced the “de-Christianization” of Europe and blamed an overreaching secularism. They launched “re-evangelization” of the continent’s Christians as a remedy. They strongly supported European unity, as long as Christian values was a key ingredient in the glue that held it together.

Pope Francis seemed less interested in fighting theoretical battles with secularism, or in trying to restore the church’s lost cultural and political influence in Europe. Nor did he present Christians as victims of discrimination by secularists. Pope Benedict had critiqued what he called modern hostility and prejudice against Christianity in Europe, framing it as a religious freedom issue. Pope Francis did not go down that road. He spoke about religion and society being called to “enlighten and support one another.” His language was far less accusatory.

Pope Francis certainly did not go easy in outlining problems in Europe. But these issues were generally immediate and concrete ones – like youth unemployment, the hardships of immigrants and the loneliness of the elderly – and not philosophical arguments. As Pope Francis often does, he zeroed in on economics as the determining factor in the day-to-day difficulties of modern life. He sees the consumerist “throwaway culture” as one of the greatest threats to human dignity, and spoke about it to European leaders. This is something he believes people can relate to more easily than intellectual arguments about secularism.

I think Pope Francis is more focused on building bridges than winning philosophical arguments. A poll earlier this year said Europeans gave Francis a remarkable 89 percent approval rating. If nothing else, that tells the pope that he has a large potential audience on the continent.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. Jerry Filteau wrote:
John, I think you're right on target, as usual. Pope Francis seems to be trying to take us away from the "culture wars" mentality of church conflict with current society that was so pronounced under John Paul II (cf. his "culture of death" denunciations) and Benedict XVI, into an era of more constructive church dialogue with contemporary culture(s).

The big question in the U.S. is when (or whether) the predominant field of culture-wars bishops named or promoted by JP2 and B16 will be able to shift gears, both in theory and in practice, from their current unproductive mode of conflict into a more constructive mode of dialogue and engagement, which Francis seems to be holding out as the better model for the much-needed new evangelization.

Wed, November 26, 2014 @ 5:02 PM

2. Kevin wrote:
Something to remember about culture wars: they may begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.

While we can adapt certain rhetoric in the culture, there's little denying that these philosophical arguments are important, and they might be why it's so hard to build bridges.

Wed, November 26, 2014 @ 9:15 PM

3. Shane R wrote:
Benedict XVI is the pope I most respect in the modern era. Many believe that he retired largely because he suspected his conservatism could not gain traction in the multi-national Catholic church. Certainly he was several steps to the right of the likes of Cardinal Kaspar. The truth is, the Catholic church is battling to be distinctive in a climate in which Anglicanism or Lutheranism could and does absorb many adherents. Francis might be the most ecumenical voice, as is Bartholomew for Orthodoxy - but many Orthodox despise Bartholomew and many Catholics are unsure of Francis' aims.

Thu, November 27, 2014 @ 2:22 AM

4. Johnson wrote:
What in the world is "theoretical" about the corrosive effect of secularism on society in Europe? It certainly is not hard for anyone who experiences the rampant pornography, sexualization of the young, constant low brow TV and movies, etc to understand that growing secularism is eating the heart out of Europe. Europe is increasingly irrelevant. precisely because it has chosen to turn in on itself in a sort of selfish self-focus that is encouraged by secularism.

This notion that the Pope of all people should never speak bluntly and directly, but must soft pedal ideas and try to be Mr. Rogers is quite silly. Apparently that appeals to some, but to others it is a big turn off. What's a Pope for if not to speak out against immorality and the secularization of society? John Paul II was a hugely successful and popular Pope precisely because he was willing to stand up and speak plainly to a secular society that was running off the path.

Thu, November 27, 2014 @ 6:03 AM

5. Antoinette wrote:
We have been fortunate to have such good teachers as our popes in modern times. Each brought to the church (read people) a message for their time. Certainly each pope had a different approach. What is even more worthy of our attention is and was their willingness to engage people of other faiths and views. I don't like labels so I don't view others as "liberal, "conservative" or whatever u chose to attach to a viewpoint. Pope Francis is speaking for the time we are in. Poverty, war, immorality may not be what our leaders want to hear let alone address when meeting the Pope but he does not shy away from the issues. Be open to the Holy Spirit and see where it will lead us.

Sat, November 29, 2014 @ 6:16 PM

6. Tessa W wrote:
Mr. Thavis, I just reread the Vatican Diaries. I sure hope you are planning a follow up book about the changes being brought about by the papacy of Francis.

Tue, December 2, 2014 @ 9:00 PM

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