Updated: Feb 19, 2020
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.”
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.