With populism on the rise, Pope Francis calls for unity and dialogue in Europe

Union supporters in Barcelona, Spain, protest the government Oct. 3. (CNS photo/Quique Garcia, EPA) Union supporters in Barcelona, Spain, protest the government Oct. 3. (CNS photo/Quique Garcia, EPA)

“Christians are called to promote political dialogue, especially where it is threatened and where conflict seems to prevail,” Pope Francis told 350 participants at an international conference in the Vatican on the Christian contribution to the future of Europe.

“Favoring dialogue, in any form whatsoever, is a fundamental responsibility of politics,” he stated. His remarks came as the biggest political crisis in 40 years unfolded in Spain over a failure to dialogue between the central government in Madrid and the government of the once autonomous Catalonia region in Barcelona. The crisis is also a major challenge to the European Union, where populism and extreme nationalism have emerged strongly in these years.

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“Sadly,” Francis observed, “all too often we see how politics is becoming instead a forum for clashes between opposing forces. The voice of dialogue is replaced by shouted claims and demands. One often has the feeling that the primary goal is no longer the common good, and this perception is shared by more and more citizens.”

He drew attention to the fact that “extremist and populist groups are finding fertile ground in many countries; they make protest the heart of their political message, without offering the alternative of a constructive political project.” His words are particularly relevant in Europe today where this phenomenon has gained strength in several countries including Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Holland.

Francis noted that “dialogue is replaced either by a futile antagonism that can even threaten civil coexistence, or by the domination of a single political power that constrains and obstructs a true experience of democracy. In the one, bridges are burned; in the other, walls are erected. Today, Europe knows both!”

“Christians are called to promote political dialogue, especially where it is threatened and where conflict seems to prevail.”

In this situation, he said, “Christians are called to promote political dialogue, especially where it is threatened and where conflict seems to prevail.” They are also “called to restore dignity to politics and to view politics as a lofty service to the common good, not a platform for power.” But to do this, he said, there is need for a suitable formation, “since politics is not the ‘art of improvising’; instead it is a noble expression of self-sacrifice and personal dedication for the benefit of the community. To be a leader demands thoughtfulness, training, and experience.”

The conference—“(Re)Thinking Europe: A Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project”—comes at an important moment in European history as populist and extreme nationalist movements are challenging the integrity, peace and stability of the European Union, with its 28-member states and population of 511 million people. These movements are exploiting the situation of youth unemployment, fears of mass migration and Islamophobia in the EU, and eliminating the sense of solidarity that was at the origins of its founding after two terrible world wars.

Francis insisted that dialogue is a cornerstone for the building of the whole of Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Pole to the Mediterranean.” Indeed, Europe “must be first-and-foremost a place of candid and constructive dialogue, in which all participants share equal dignity.”

In this context, he drew attention to “the positive and constructive role that religion in general plays in the building up of society” and recalled “the contribution made by interreligious dialogue to greater mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims in Europe.”

He lamented however that “a certain secularist prejudice, still in vogue, is incapable of seeing the positive value of religion’s public and objective role in society, preferring to relegate it to the realm of the merely private and sentimental.” Because of this, he said, we see “the predominance of a certain groupthink” in international meetings “which sees the affirmation of religious identity as a threat to itself and its dominance and ends up promoting an ersatz conflict between the right to religious freedom and other fundamental rights.”

Though Francis comes from Latin America, he is deeply concerned about the crisis that the old continent is going through.

Though Francis comes from Latin America, like his predecessors—John Paul II and Benedict XVI—he is deeply concerned about the crisis that the old continent, which has given so much to humanity and to the church over the centuries, is going through. He told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France in November 2014 that is has become a “grandmother.” He is convinced however that if the EU returns to its roots it can become a “mother” that generates once again and can give new life, hope and peace not only to Europe but also to the world as he made clear in two subsequent talks.

The first came in May 2016, when he delivered his “I have a dream for Europe” speech in the Vatican on receiving the Charlemagne Prize. The second came in March 2017 when he addressed the prime ministers of 27 of the 28 European states (the British prime minister was absent), again in the Vatican, as they celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundation for what is today known as the EU.

Francis began this fourth major address by thanking the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community) and its president Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for sponsoring this important dialogue, which is being held in the Vatican Oct. 27-28, and which has brought together high-level church and political leaders, as well as representatives from the academic world and civil society. He also greeted Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, and thanked him for welcoming him to this wide-ranging reflection on the future of Europe.

He told them that to speak of a Christian contribution to the future of the continent means to consider “our responsibility at a time when the face of Europe is increasingly distinguished by a plurality of cultures and religions while for many people Christianity is regarded as a thing of the past, both alien and irrelevant”

Pope Francis said that “the first and greatest contribution that Christians can make to today’s Europe is to remind her that she is not a mass of statistics or institutions but is made up of people.” But he added, “sadly, we see how frequently issues get reduced to discussions about numbers. There are no citizens, only votes. There are no migrants, only quotas. There are no workers, only economic markers. There are no poor, only thresholds of poverty. The concrete reality of the human person is thus reduced to an abstract–and thus more comfortable and reassuring –principle,”, he stated in a direct critique of what is happening in the EU today“The reason for this is clear,” he said, “people have faces; they force us to assume a responsibility that is real, personal and effective. Statistics, however useful and important, are arguments; they are soulless. They offer an alibi for not getting involved, because they never touch us in the flesh.”

He recalled that Saint Benedict, the patron of Europe, was not concerned about social status, riches, or power, for him “the important thing was not functions but persons” and this too is “one of the foundational values brought by Christianity: the sense of the person created in the image of God.” Indeed, “to acknowledge that others are persons means to value what unites us to them. To be a person connects us with others; it makes us a community.”

In this context, Francis said the second major contribution that Christians can make to the future of Europe “is to help recover the sense of belonging to a community.” He reminded them that “it is not by chance that the founders of the European project chose that very word to identify the new political subject coming into being. Community is the greatest antidote to the forms of individualism typical of our times, to that widespread tendency in the West to see oneself and one’s life in isolation from others. The concept of freedom is misunderstood and seen as if it were a right to be left alone, free from all bonds. As a result, a deracinated society has grown up, lacking a sense of belonging and of its own past” and, he added, “for me this is serious!”

Pope Francis underlined that “person and community are thus the foundations of the Europe that we, as Christians, want and can contribute to building” and “the bricks of this structure are dialogue, inclusion, solidarity, development and peace.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vincent Gaglione
3 weeks 1 day ago

Francis’ words might have greater effect if some of the concepts of which he speaks, e.g. attending to the needs of real people instead of to the political rhetoric of statistics representing them, are what is said from pulpits as well.

Today’s Gospel to love God foremost and your neighbor as yourself offered opportunities for some pungent and direct commentary on what we as Christians are expected to see and do among and for our “neighbors.” Instead too often our pulpits dispense only the vague generalities that neither call nor require anyone to action. To see and do for our neighbors requires that we see them as individuals, see their needs as sometimes dependent on us, and see their lives as integrally entwined with our own. That is the warp and woof of community, of the unity that Francis speaks about. That is one of the greatest contributions of Christian life to any society.

Kevin Murphy
2 weeks 6 days ago

The Pope who won't even discuss or clarify his own writings continues to call for dialogue and listening. Ridiculous.

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