Pope Francis made a seven-hour visit to Hungary over the weekend to preside over the concluding Mass at the International Eucharistic Congress. He also met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban for almost 40 minutes – more time than had been scheduled and a meeting that had earlier appeared would not take place. The pope and many leaders of the European Union (EU) have sharply criticized Orban – the word “fascist” sometimes surfaces among the politicos – for his defense of traditional values and intention of preserving Hungarian culture and the nation’s Christian character by refusing EU directives about accepting Muslim refugees and economic migrants.
After a 2016 trip to Mexico, Pope Francis made headlines for a comment about then-candidate Donald Trump’s intention of building a wall at the Mexican border. Walls are bad, he said; Christians need to build bridges. Many at the time argued that bridges can be good, in some circumstances. But America and any nation must control its borders unless it wants to invite chaos and conflict. That’s precisely what we’ve been seeing in recent months as hordes of people stream north, believing that the border is open and overwhelming the very refugee services wanting to help them.
So, it was not a surprise that the pope both mentioned a bridge in his Budapest homily and suggested a connection to immigration:
This is what I wish for you: that the cross be your bridge between the past and the future. Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots. Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone. . . .The cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness, to draw from the wellsprings, opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time.
Francis is a strong advocate for people seeking to enter Europe. The first trip of his pontificate was to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to the Tunisian coast than Cuba is to Florida, where he denounced the world’s “indifference” to the mostly economic migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean.
He’s also said – less often and, therefore, with less press coverage – that each country has to determine how much immigration it can handle and then must “integrate” those it admits. That’s easier said than done, which is why many countries – including America, which has a long history of welcoming immigrants – currently find themselves grappling with social problems driven by immigration, legal and not.
And it ought to be stated, just as a matter of truth, that large waves of Muslim immigration present particular problems.
France, for instance, has chosen to admit large numbers from its former North African colonies (in addition to harboring many illegals) and despite efforts has had little success at integration. Resistance comes on both sides: societies have a hard time including numbers of people with very different ways; and immigrants who find their new host countries strange – even threatening to long-held values – resist integration.
The French Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent has noted that France can’t seem to resolve the tension between its commitment to being a secular nation open to receiving everyone of whatever religious background on secular terms, and immigrants who don’t accept secular terms. It’s a problem that’s “not supposed to happen,” on the usual secular view.
We may learn more about the exchanges between Pope Francis and Prime Minister Orban in coming weeks. But it’s clear that Orban, as a head of state, has drawn a distinction that the pope, in his idealism and universalism, has not. Christ’s Cross “extends its arms to everyone.” No nation on earth, however, can do that. What Orban has been attempting in Hungary, for all its debatable aspects, is not mere “defensiveness.” It’s a recognition that problems that are “not supposed to happen,” according to liberal democratic nostrums, do happen.
There’s a reason why the Visegrad countries – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic – whose cultures were suppressed under the Soviets, are the very nations (even the highly secular Czechs) who resist the woke efforts of the European Union and worry about cultural influences coming from America. Ironically, those peoples were the most pro-American Europeans following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The pope has moved on to Slovakia, where he will spend not only a few hours but a few days. Slovaks themselves have been wondering why this special attention to their small nation. Journalists speculate it’s a not-so-subtle message to the Hungarians.
As I’ve written here before, we’ve been running a Summer Seminar on the Free Society for graduate students and young professionals in Bratislava and central Slovakia for over twenty years, the brainchild of one of The Catholic Thing’s founders, Michael Novak. Slovakia is a country two-thirds Catholic in a relatively easy-going way. Our students are comfortable speaking about religion and generally assume – as most people did until recently – that culture and religion play a significant role in public life.
Slovakia has a problem in the East with its Roma people (“gypsies” in common parlance). Pope Francis will be visiting those communities to support them. But here too the problem is not merely “defensiveness” on the part of the majority against a minority. Slovakia has long run many government programs for the Roma, especially Roma children in the East. But the Roma are not just a neglected minority. They are a people with their own history and ways – ways that they cling to and – as relief workers have told me – prefer to the mores of the mainstream.
It would be helpful at this juncture if instead of abstract moral crusades about “accepting” everyone, world leaders began debating how really to respect various cultures, even as digital technologies make it seem that we all inhabit a uniform international order. Assuming everyone ought to operate within current liberal/internationalist forms is perhaps the largest unacknowledged prejudice in the world today.
*Image: Pope Francis attends a multi-religious service for the victims of 9/11 at the memorial in New York on Sept. 25, 2015. [AFP photo]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Oversteps the Papal Office
Eduardo Echeverria’s The Idiosyncratic Pope Francis