Pope Francis, the new holder of the title Pontifex Maximus—the great bridge-builder—faces the difficult task of bridging the divide that exists today among persons and nations of diverse human experiences, and between the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief. During his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the present moment as a crossroads marked by increased interdependence among persons and nations, yet paradoxically also characterized by polarization, conflict and divisions. The speech he delivered at Westminster Hall in London in 2010, considered among his most important speeches with respect to foreign policy, underscored how the church and society needed to enter “into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.” As the shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as a world religious leader and as the sovereign head of the Holy See, the new pope will inherit this global context and challenge.
Now that the white smoke has cleared the top of the Sistine Chapel, the newly elected pope will need to strike the right balance with respect to pastoral, diplomatic and managerial responsibilities. As a pastor, he will need to step out of Vatican City in acts of solidarity toward persons marked by great pain and suffering. The new pope will need to redouble the Holy See’s efforts to reach out to the victims of sexual abuse and attend to the cries of the poor, immigrants, those suffering in conflict and war-torn areas, and others who experience marginalization and rejection within the church and society as a result of gender, sexual orientation, physical disabilities or other human conditions. As a diplomat, the pope will need to cultivate deep listening skills to engage the increased diversity of opinions and the complex, hybrid and fluid nature of human identity that defines the signs of our time. As a manager, he will be well served by justly, inclusively and wisely administering the financial and human resources available within his papal household and throughout the global church.
Gathering around himself a diverse and competent group of leaders and entrusting them with responsibilities related to the governance of the church might be the keys to success for a leader with such an extensive network of relations and a multilateral agenda. Choosing good collaborators would also be a first step in restoring international confidence in Vatican diplomacy, which in recent years has suffered from poor administration. Although the pope will continue to govern from the eternal city, he will need to look less to the past and ancient Roman rulers and more to the present and future as sharing and cooperation increasingly become the model for our world’s servant leaders.
A Community of Nations
The new pope will also need to work closely with the community of nations in sustaining and promoting stable democracies and defending the fundamental human rights enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Partnering with other nations on specific foreign policy objectives will require great diplomatic skill on the part of the Holy See, given manifold and often contrasting cultural, social, political, religious and economic interests. Notwithstanding this challenge, I was often reminded during my tenure as ambassador that popes have been engaged in some form of diplomatic activity with foreign leaders since the Council of Nicaea in 325. With the weight of history and tradition behind him, with practical wisdom at his side and with competent persons within the Secretariat of State empowered to make prudential judgments, the new pope can secure a place at the table in five crucial areas related to foreign policy: 1) the defense of human dignity and fundamental human rights, 2) development and humanitarian assistance, 3) the global experience of migrations, 4) conflict resolution and 5) environmental protection.
The defense of human dignity and fundamental human rights. The Holy See’s insistence on the universality and indivisibility of human rights and its objection to what it terms “new rights” will require deepening its diplomatic engagement. In pursuing conversations relative to the fundamental question of whether human rights are universal because a majority of countries recognize them or because of an ethical claim that lies prior to their recognition by states, the new pope will face some stormy waters. Navigating between its strong and venerable tradition of defending the fundamental dignity of all human persons and what the Holy See characterizes as “new rights,” especially related to gender and human sexuality, will not come easily.
Ongoing conversation with the community of nations has been indispensable to confronting human suffering, advancing the cause of justice and defending and protecting the fundamental dignity of numerous marginalized persons. On one hand this conversation continues to express the Holy See’s concern to enshrine the “right to excess” (an escalation of demands that becomes unlimited and indiscriminate) and, on the other hand, respects and takes into account the increasing number of human rights advocates within this community that would argue that explicitly and intentionally promoting these so-called “new rights” might open new possibilities to bridge existing policy differences. Beyond these concerns, many will expect the new pope to continue the work of his predecessor and raise his voice in defense of religious freedom throughout the world, the dignity of human life at various stages and under various social, economic, cultural and political threats, and the protection of vulnerable persons against human trafficking.
Development and humanitarian assistance. A wide range of global challenges loom large on the horizon: the global economic crisis, war and conflict, global health and the likelihood of confronting more natural disasters. With its global network of educators, humanitarian agencies and health care providers, the church is strategically situated to partner to address the contemporary needs of the human family. Through organizations like Caritas Internationalis, Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities and numerous lay-led communities, the new pope can multiply his capacity to listen to the needs of the human family and respond to future natural and human-caused disasters.
The global experience of migrations. This age has been described as the age of migrations. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are about 214 million migrants today; one of out of every 33 persons in the world is a migrant. Through its pontifical councils, especially those that address the care of migrants and engage in cultural activities and interreligious dialogue, the new pope will have valuable resources for understanding the diversity encountered in every corner of our world, which all too often has been associated with violence and confrontation. At a time when cultural, religious and other human differences have become walls separating communities rather than bridges of opportunities for encountering others and their distinctive otherness, the new pope will need to devote much effort to foster oneness out of the catholicity that characterizes the church and society.
Conflict resolution. An endless cycle of conflict and violence prevails in many parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, South America and North America. In particular, violence against women and girls has reached epidemic proportions. Studies estimate that up to 70 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence from men during their lifetime. Women and girls are also more likely to be victims of human trafficking, homicide and genital mutilation. Strengthening the Holy See’s advocacy on behalf of women and girls and supporting more policies that promote their dignity, participation and leadership within church and society would certainly draw immediate international praise.
In addition, the church is justifiably concerned about the future of Christian minorities in the Middle East. The new pope faces unresolved tensions in Syria and several countries in Africa, the possibility of the world confronting a nuclear Iran and failure so far to promote lasting peace in the Middle East through an Israeli-Palestinian accord. Redoubling efforts to engage in interreligious dialogue and fostering authentic relationships among Christians, Muslims and Jews for the sake of advancing peace and the common good should be a primary foreign policy objective of the new pope.
Environmental protection. Dealing with the global environmental crisis should make the top of the list for the new pope. As Pope Benedict XVI argued in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, cultivating peace and protecting creation go hand in hand. The Vatican has consistently raised concerns about climate change, the need for sustainable energy sources, shortage of potable water, deforestation and desertification. Reaching consensus on regulations necessary to protect the environment has not been easy due to competing socio-political and economic interests. If the new pope uses the power of the papacy through networks of Catholic institutions and appeals to other religious leaders to leverage international legislation on behalf of the environment, significant progress might occur in this area.
With the strong increase in the Catholic population of in sub-Saharan Africa, steady growth in both Asia-Pacific and North America (especially among Latino and Latinas in the United States) and with Latin America overtaking Europe as the most Catholic region of the world, the man who has stepped into the shoes of St. Peter will need to exceed his predecessors’ and the Roman Curia’s engagement with the global south. Issues of social justice, especially the ongoing discrepancy between richer and poorer peoples and nations, will need to be addressed. The exercise of power, privilege and the disproportionate influence of some interest groups in the church will also need his critical examination.
Exercising the Petrine ministry in the image of the triune God who rules with, through and in others would be music to the ears of so many people around the world who have become disillusioned with the failure of ecclesial and political leaders to thoughtfully, constructively, inclusively and creatively govern the institutions entrusted to their care.