Visiting with various people in Rome this week, I’ve been struck by the fact that they all understand that religion still matters. Who knew? Almost everyone in the world outside the Western media bubble, of course, which typically regards the religious impulse of the human race as something of a colorful holdover from the past when it crops up, preferably in distant cultures. Closer to home, it’s taken to be a dangerous delusion, the realm of “bitter clingers” and a whole “basket of deplorables,” when traditional Christians and others act as if faith has consequences not only for themselves, but the public realm.
Then a major conflict such we are witnessing in Ukraine arises and, at least briefly, it’s clear that, like it or not, the world of faith makes a world of difference.
And there’s perhaps an even greater surprise: anyone who follows even our parochial Western media in these days of Russian “holy wars” and the Western and Christian response to them can see that the pope also still matters. He’s playing a significant and conspicuous role in pursuit of an end to the fighting. Even a secular media largely stone-blind when it comes to the spiritual aspirations of the human race can’t help but notice that the Pope of Rome is very much in the middle of the most significant civilizational question of our time.
That truth may come as a surprise to Catholics of a more traditional bent who worry about the ways that Francis sometimes seems to diminish the papal office (with which he’s always seemed a bit uncomfortable) – ways that have also created multiple uncertainties about what the Church teaches at a time when all truths and authorities have come under heavy suspicion. But even when the Pope of Rome sounds an uncertain trumpet, he’s – despite all appearances – still a global presence. Witness: Ukraine.
The pope has largely played a positive role in responding to an aggression that does not easily admit of quick solutions. There’s been a fair amount of questioning in the public square about the fact that, though the pope’s solidarity with the Ukrainians is clear, he has not yet named Putin or much identified Russia in the many heartfelt appeals he’s made to end the fighting. You can debate that approach, of course, and personally I’m sometimes frustrated that he can’t just name the malefactors.
And yet, historically, naming names has not always produced desired results. When the Dutch bishops issued a letter criticizing Nazi atrocities during World War II, Catholics were rounded up, among them converts from Judaism like Edith Stein, who were then sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. Francis and his advisers are doubtless aware of such historical precedents, and are probably right to remain a little cagey, while deploring the carnage and destruction perpetrated by the Russians.
Francis has an odd understanding of the causes of war, however, and at times, this leads him to make remarks that are – to say the least – unhelpful. On the plane that was carrying him and the press back from the visit to Malta last weekend, for example, he repeated his claim that all wars stem from “injustice.” And that it’s not part of the “pattern of peace” when nations invest in buying even defensive weapons. But where would Ukraine be without them?
He connected all this, as he did at the end of Fratelli Tutti, with Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gandhi was turned into a mythical figure advocating absolute non-violence. In fact, that was more a seventies thing than the real Gandhi, who admitted that sometimes “war may have to be resorted to as a necessary evil.”
The utopianism of Fratelli Tutti, like the myth of Gandhi the pacifist, can’t really survive the first encounter with the violence and other evils we often confront in our fallen world. Which is why the Church throughout history has sought to specify the conditions of just war as opposed to unjust war. Just-war principles are not a cynical permission slip; they’re a limitation on what has often otherwise been the war of all against all – a realistic recognition of the troubling nature of our fallen world, which will not go away, least of all through utopian schemes, until the Second Coming.
The pope occasionally hits other sour notes, as he did the other day when on the plane he remarked, “War is always a cruelty, an inhumane thing that goes against the human spirit – I don’t say Christian, human.” As if “human” were a more universal category than Christian or Catholic? This sort of thing, too, has a 1970s feel , when the universal Church, founded by Christ and present on every continent, seemed to some Catholics close to being “sectarian,” while “the world” – meaning an abstract progressive vision after World War II – was destined to bring about a global harmonization of humanity.
It hasn’t. And can’t. And it’s puzzling why a successor to Peter has been trying to bring back that illusion. There’s a human nature common to us all, to be sure. But that nature can only be properly understood from the truths God has revealed. As recent popes and Christian thinkers have said, after seeing the several shipwrecks of the world over the past century and more, humanism fails when it excludes God. Unless you know who God is, you won’t know who human beings are either.
It’s been a common complaint since the election of Pope Francis that he’s brought confusion and conflict into the Church. And indeed that’s another way in which the pope still matters, even when he’s basically doing a good job in very difficult circumstances, such as at present. I’ve been struck these past days in Rome by how many people feel that confusion now about both the pope and our world – many more than in the quite recent past. And many also feel quite helpless because they can’t see what – other than a massive outpouring of divine grace – can remedy our situation.
*Image: Pope Francis kisses a Ukrainian flag [Associated Press photo]