As the United States engages in fierce debates over refugee resettlement, its role on the global stage and the implications of electing an anti-establishment president, similar scenes are unfolding across Europe, where populist political leaders are gaining traction and borders are tightening up.
The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, says one way to combat “a corruption of the democratic system” that he believes can accompany this strain of politics is for politicians to model their rhetoric on that of another European leader, Pope Francis.
“The biggest challenge in political leadership is not to play to people’s fear but to genuinely appeal to what is best in them and to lead from what is best, not from what is worst,” the cardinal told America.
“I think that’s what Pope Francis does, and that’s why people are so interested in what he wants to say—because he appeals to their best. They feel better when they listen to him because he seems to recognize what is best.”
“He’s not a politician,” the cardinal continued. “But if that stance, that vision, could be translated into political programs, I think that would be the best answer to the rise of what people are calling populism.”
Cardinal Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, reflected on a number of global issues and church questions during the hourlong interview with America, conducted at his London residence on March 7.
He said that Europe is at a crossroads about its future, that the British government must do more to help resettle child migrants and that Pope Francis is “absolutely right” to ignore a public challenge from a group of four cardinals over the pope’s teaching on family life.
Pope Francis is “absolutely right” to ignore a public challenge from a group of four cardinals over the pope’s teaching on family life.
One of the cardinal’s more high-profile projects in recent years has been his involvement with the Santa Marta Group, a London-based organization that, with the support of the pope, contributes to the fight against human trafficking by encouraging relationships between Catholic entities and local police forces.
The group has helped foster partnerships in about two dozen countries, which has helped provide assistance to victims in Nigeria, Ireland, Argentina, Spain and locally in London, where more than 30 victims have been given refuge at a church-affiliated residence.
One of the goals of the project is establishing trust between the police and victim advocates, who are in many cases Catholic sisters.
“In this cooperation, police forces have to be very clear that the cooperation is in order to get after the perpetrators and not the victims,” he said. “Bit by bit, that worked here.”
The program works, he said, by tapping into global Catholic networks.
“People here can pick up the phone to their fellow religious sisters or bishops in Nigeria to say, ‘We’ve got lots of Nigerian youngsters here. Can we help them to get back? Will you receive them? Will you help them when they get back?’ Those kinds of networks are right there. They’re real.”
The cardinal’s work on human trafficking led to a relationship with Theresa May, who last July became prime minister.
She, too, has been a vocal advocate in fighting human trafficking, leading to a natural alliance between the pair. But in recent months the prime minister and the cardinal have clashed over Britain’s response to the refugee crisis facing Europe, especially the plight of unaccompanied minors seeking entry into the United Kingdom.
“It is, particularly in this instance, very difficult to champion the work against human trafficking and to leave unaccompanied children vulnerable,” the cardinal said in the interview.
The United Kingdom had previously committed to receiving 3,000 unaccompanied minors who had made their way into Europe, many settling in camps in France, but that program was scrapped after just a few hundred were admitted.
On the whole, he said, Britain should be doing more to welcome migrants, thousands of whom continue seeking entry into Europe each month.
“As every country knows, this is a complex challenge. And every country has a right to be very vigilant as to potential dangers,” he said. “But the whole way that migration to Europe is tackled is very unsatisfactory. It is the most dramatic challenge that we face. What’s proving very difficult is to get a coordinated approach to it.”
He said any immigration proposals must begin with “the practical acknowledgments of the human dignity of each person,” and he lamented that the bulk of the challenge in processing migrants has been left to border countries such as Italy and Greece, where Pope Francis has visited to meet with refugees on multiple occasions.
Any immigration proposals must begin with “the practical acknowledgments of the human dignity of each person.”
He praised a U.K. program that allows faith communities to sponsor refugee families but said that “the response to that hasn’t been as great as I would hope.”
As political leaders in Britain gear up to begin the process of leaving the European Union, the cardinal said the rise in Europe and the United States of populism, often tinged with xenophobia, is attributable in part to “the distancing of the democratic system from people’s regular views.”
“When people feel that they are not being listened to, their views harden,” he said.
The European Union, he said, “is at a bit of a crossroads,” a situation caused by several factors, including the migration crisis and what he said is a loss of “rootedness in values that clearly had an affinity with the Catholic vision of its founders.” Part of the problem, the cardinal said, is Europe’s inability to deal with diversity among its more than 740 million residents.
Sentiments in Brussels, he said of the E.U. capital, can be “pretty distant from the fears and anxieties of people in Spain and Greece, for example.”
Resistance and Reform
Turning to the church, Cardinal Nichols, who was given a red hat by Pope Francis in 2014, said his archdiocese is still considering how to implement “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s 2015 document on family life that some Catholic leaders say opens Communion to divorced and remarried believers.
“No, we haven’t got there yet,” he said in response to a question about the creation of new guidelines, such as those drafted in Malta, Argentina and Germany. “It’s obviously very interesting to see what other people do. I think some principal points are becoming pretty clear to me anyway.”
Among those points, he said, is a willingness of ministers to journey with a divorced and remarried Catholic seeking Communion and a willingness on the believer’s part to acknowledge that he or she is not living in accordance with church teaching. Both parties, he said, must have an open mind about the process.
“Try and accompany these people, whoever they might be, with the full richness of the Gospel and [try] not to enter the process with a determined outcome,” he said.
He praised the Malta guidelines, which says some divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist.
“It doesn’t start by saying, ‘What about this rule or that rule?’ It starts by saying if this is your position and you feel uneasy, you want to know where you stand, what you ought to be doing, then come and we’ll talk. But let’s be honest, let’s be open and let’s see where we go,” the cardinal said.
In the United States, not all dioceses are on the same page when it comes to implementing “Amoris.” The Diocese of San Diego, for example, said that it will adopt guidelines similar to Malta, while others, such as Philadelphia, has said no changes are forthcoming.
Cardinal Nichols said he is not sure whether a similar situation could occur in great Britain, home to 22 dioceses, but he defended the idea that responses to “Amoris” can vary from place to place.
“Creating space for a variety of pastoral responses is not decentralization,” he said. “It’s a response to the realities in which people live.”
“Creating space for a variety of pastoral responses is not decentralization. It’s a response to the realities in which people live.”
He said that the pope is correct in not responding to four cardinals who submitted a request, called a dubia, seeking further explanation on “Amoris,” saying that such a response would be tantamount to legalism, which he believes the pope is trying to avoid.
“To enter into that field is actually to step back from the very thing he wants to help us understand, that we have to respond to people and help them in their journey to God and to do so is not simply to apply a law,” he said.
Cardinal Nichols, a member of the Vatican department that helps the pope select new bishops, said he is not sure if the pope’s efforts to reform how the church handles sexual abuse by priests are at risk.
Earlier this month, the commission set up by the pope to examine those questions was rocked when Marie Collins, a survivor of sexual abuse, resigned from the advisory body, citing resistance to implementing reforms within the Vatican bureaucracy.
“What I do know is that over 20, 25 years experience in this country, is that it’s never easy, and often the most difficult bit is the most important bit, which is paying attention and trying to respond to the victims of abuse,” he said.
The cardinal sees signs of progress for the pope’s efforts at reforming the massive church bureaucracy, such as its recent financial disclosures, but he said he believes other changes could take longer because of a culture unique to the Vatican.
Vatican culture, he said, “has developed its patterns over centuries and those cultural things really need time and to be appreciated.”
So while “there will be inevitably a lot of resistance,” he said, “I don’t think he’ll be diverted from some of the things he wants to achieve.”
As Francis approaches the fourth anniversary of his election on March 13, Cardinal Nichols said what has impressed him about the pope over the years is threefold.
“His Jesuit character, his toughness and his deep spirituality, I think, make him the man he is, which is remarkable,” he said.
That toughness specifically, the cardinal said, makes him believe the pope’s reform program will ultimately be successful.
“He’s one of the toughest people I think I’ve met,” he said. “By ‘tough,’ I mean his work regime is astonishing. If he’s got something in his mind and he thinks it’s right, he’s not going to waiver this way and that. He’s immensely patient but clear. He’s clear. When he decides, he decides.”
Correction (March 10, 2017: 11:00 am): Cardinal Vincent Nichols was identified as head of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom. He is the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.