St Pope John Paul II seems to have had more electoral successes than Pope Francis. This opening sentence will probably surprise many given that popes do not lead politi­cal parties and neither do they contest general elections. This is true indeed. On the other hand, what a pope says can – and sometimes does – have a political impact on voters and elections.

The electoral effect of what St Pope John Paul II did and said made, for example, a big difference in his home country.

The positive effect of his support for Solidarność is not only well known but also cast in films. Perhaps many do not know his contribution to Poland’s accession to the EU.

The ultra-conservative Catholic radio station, Radio Maria (no connection to Malta’s Radju Marija) led an aggressive anti-EU campaign endangering a ‘no’ vote. In just a few days before the referendum the Polish pope spoke twice in favour of Poland’s accession, probably making a ‘yes’ vote possible.

‘We have forgotten how to cry’

Similarly, Pope Francis does and says many things that could have political impact. His frequent speeches and prophetic actions about migration are both politically relevant and controversial. His first official trip outside Rome was to Lampedusa. He had appealed for a “reawakening of consciences” to counter the “indifference” shown to migrants as “we have lost a sense of brotherly responsibility”. Since then, he repeatedly pressured governments and challenged common citizens who “have forgotten how to cry” for migrants lost at sea.

One can be tempted to say that all this has had little or no effect. The electoral victories of the anti-immigrant parties in Italy, Hungary and Poland can be touted as proof of the inefficacy of the strivings of Pope Francis. Similar failure met his foray into the last presidential campaign in the United States.

Pope Francis had then harshly criticised Donald Trump’s electoral promise to build a wall on the US/Mexico border. “You cannot  be a Christian and be in favour of such a wall,” Francis told journalists during one of his airborne press conferences. Francis’ words, like those of St John Paul II exhorting people to “build bridges, not walls”, deterred neither Trump nor his voters.

Do these right-wing victories really mean that Pope Francis has lost the battle against the alt-right Christian sovereigntists? Should the Church restrict itself to churchy statements and stop insisting on its message of inclusivity and hospitality vis-à-vis immigrants?

And to take the argument to a particularly nasty conclusion, should the Church be taking public positions about anything that could be considered political?

Matteo Salvini with rosary beads in hand

The conservative Christian sovereigntists latch to ‘The Movement’ founded by Belgian politician Mischaël Modrikamen and currently also abetted by Steve Bannon, the former strategist of Trump. They highlight the importance of national sovereignty, stronger borders and greater limits on migration. Those who consider themselves Christians among The Movement savagely attack the Pope. They consider themselves as paladins of Christianity while affirming that the Pope’s position is undermining Christianity.

The choice we are being presented with is between a future built on mutual respect and one built on constant strife

They say they want to defend the West from an Islamic invasion, a belief shared by many Maltese as well. They claim, albeit mistakenly, that their xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia and ultra-nationalism has authentic Christian roots.

Last May, during a manifestation of the Christian sovereigntists in Milan, Italian interior Minister Matteo Salvini invoked the help of all the patron saints of Europe. He publicly showed his rosary beads and assured all listeners that the Immaculate Heart of Mary will lead them to victory.

 Last February, Hungary’s Prime Mi­nister Viktor Orban called on voters  to defend “Christian” nations against immigration, which he said led to the “virus of terrorism”.

There is nothing Christian in the position either of Salvini or of Orban, or of Trump for that matter. What they say is not inspired by the Gospel but by the belief that Catholicism, instead of being Catholic (i.e. universal), is regional (i.e. eurocentric/Western), and is a philosophical ideo­logy or moral code more than a religion.

Vitriol against the Pope

The vitriol of the right against Pope Francis knows no boundaries. Steve Bannon, in a recent interview with the conservative National Catholic Register (parts of interview were not published by that paper but were uploaded on other conservative websites), accused Francis of being “the front man for the party of Davos, going against the sovereignty movement”.  Bannon, like former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, tried to tarnish the Pope’s reputation by alleging that the sex abuse scandal is “inextricably linked” to him.

Bannon tries to ridicule Francis for being “fixated on issues like climate change”, castigated him for “cutting a secret deal with the Chinese Communist Party”, and labels him as a Marxist who doubles as a front man for the “far left” Greens party.

Only days after this rabid attack, Bannon fell out of favour with one of his greatest supporters, Cardinal Raymond Burke (the former head of the Apostolic Segnatura, who never forgave Pope Francis for removing him from that esteemed post) after it was reported that Bannon was planning a documentary about homo­sexuality in the Vatican. 

A clear choice for Catholics

Today, true Catholics have a very clear choice before them.

On one side there is the Catholicism of Pope Francis, which is based on the Gospel values of inclusivity, love for foreigners, including migrants, social justice, fair distribution of resources, unifying people and caring for our common home.

On the other side, there is the divisive Christianity of conservative sovereigntists for whom respect for the nation is more important than respect for all humans.

Their racism, intolerance and Islamophobia make them prefer echo chambers with like-minded people than dialogue with the rest of the community.

Francis, on the other hand, continuously exalts a theology of justice and dialogue. During a very important speech to a theologians’ meeting in Naples last month, Francis realistically emphasised a method of dialogue “from within” with men and their cultures, their stories, their different religious traditions”.

He knows that dialogue is not a magic formula, and consequently it should be tempered with patience.

He also pushed for a theology of hospitality instead of an exclusivist theology. Instead of Islamophobia the Pope called for a dialogue with Muslims with whom “we are called to build the future of our societies and our cities. We are called to consider them partners to build a peaceful coexistence,” say the Pope.

It could very well be that Francis’ words so far have not swayed voters to abandon the xenophobia of the far right but he has managed other more important things.

He played a pivotal role in preventing the dangerous spiral that could only lead to a clash of civilisations.

Besides, his frequent pronouncement about social justice, peace, the environment and climate change has made the Church one of the most power­ful forces for the building of a world community worthy of human dignity. The choice is not between Francis and the alt-right sovereigntists. The choice we are being presented with is between a future built on mutual respect and one built on constant strife.

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt