In Papal Diplomacy, Encounter Is Not Endorsement

While the governments have changed over the years, the Pope’s approach to the Church’s mission in Europe has remained consistent.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 22, 2014.
Pope Francis greets pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 22, 2014. (photo: Shutterstock)

Pope Francis, from the very start of his pontificate, has been very clear about his desire to encounter and dialogue even with those who most disagree with Church. In an Angelus address given shortly after he became Pope, for example, Francis insisted on this pastoral and non-confrontational approach, saying:

It is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.

This theme of the Pope’s approach to those with difficult relationships with the Church, which he has consistently put into practice across the fields of ecumenism, interfaith relations and international diplomacy, has perhaps been most misunderstood in the context of the Pope’s interactions with domestic political figures in various Western countries.

Despite outreach to such individuals explicitly not being intended as an endorsement from the Pope’s perspective, almost every time Francis shares a friendly meeting or platform with a senior politician from the United States or Europe, it is claimed to be tacit support for their entire political program.

While politicians themselves cynically and falsely claiming the support of the Pope might be expected, this wrong-headed assumption has become commonplace among many politically engaged Catholics of all persuasions.

This inclination has of course been seen among some politically conservative Catholics, but perhaps even more unbelievably, this idea is also promoted by many politically liberal Catholics, who somewhat dubiously claim to be Francis’ strongest supporters, even in the face of the Pope’s many explicit protestations that his dialogue is conducted without fear or favor. What Pope needs enemies, if his so-called friends falsely accuse him of engaging in dishonest dog-whistles for merely temporary political advantage?

Recent events, however, are making increasingly clear just how untenable these political visions of the Pope are, no matter how broadly they may have been shared by both supposed friends and critics alike.

Whereas early in Francis’ reign he faced a continental Europe whose major countries were ruled by mostly left-wing governments, over the last decade the secular political landscape has changed significantly, with new right-wing leaders such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni joining longer-tenured ones including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

And despite the political programs of these new leaders containing much that can be seen as inconsistent with the Church’s social doctrine, and indeed Francis’ own priorities such as the rights of immigrants, the nature of the Pope’s engagement with them as he seeks to promote the Church’s mission in Europe has remained strikingly familiar.

Just as he did with their more progressive predecessors, the Pope has sought to emphasize the common ground he shares with figures like Meloni and Orbán, and has tended to avoid directly confronting the issues where the disagreements are sharpest. This has also been accompanied by one of Francis’ trademarks, eye-catchingly warm and friendly gestures, which can be appear to be acts of public approval.

As a consequence of this shift, whereas previously Francis was perceived to be speaking more on issues like the immigration or the environment, now issues like the importance of families being open to life and the evils of gender ideology have taken more prominence.

Does this mean Francis didn’t previously believe gender ideology is a grave evil, or that now he no longer thinks the proper welcome of immigrants is a mark of a truly Christian society? Does it mean he has reassessed which of these issues should receive the greatest priority in the Church? Of course not.

It simply shows the Pope’s approach to domestic politics is, and always has been, precisely what he said it was: an attempt to focus on common ground, to build dialogue, and to use the opportunities created to evangelize.

The Pope’s consistency in seeking opportunities of encounter may continue to attract criticism from those who would prefer the Church to be a more prophetic voice, vigorously promoting a culture of life, against Francis’ preference for pastoral dialogue. And indeed future Church leaders, in their prudential wisdom, may well decide to strike a different balance in this regard.

But as reasonable as a discussion as that may be, there is one we should be to able to put behind us: a papal smile for a compromised politician doesn’t mean the Church has abandoned the Good News the Lord has commissioned us to spread.

‘Rowing Team’

The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’” (CCC 1906)