As the head of a sovereign entity with religiously affiliated members in every corner of the world, a global humanitarian actor and a moral voice, Pope Francis always carries the power to change the thinking of a wide audience. This is especially true when he addresses the ambassadors to the Vatican from capitals around the world, in what is now an annual tradition.
This year’s papal address to the diplomatic corps, on Jan. 7, had special relevance to the United States. Francis spoke in reaction to isolationist policies built around the misguided slogan “Make America Great Again,” as well as alarming indifference to the suffering of persons living inside and outside our national borders. He took on the unsettling and growing trend across the globe of political narcissism, calling this kind of political vision at odds with the vocation of international organizations “to be a setting for dialogue and encounter for all countries.”
Pope Francis also noted important anniversaries related to international efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation. He mentioned the 100th anniversary of the League of Nations, which marked the beginning of modern multilateral diplomacy and led to the creation of the United Nations in 1945; the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the 800th anniversary of the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil. All these events have one diplomatic practice in common: breaking down ideological and physical walls as a way to bridge human differences.
Francis spoke in reaction to isolationist policies built around the misguided slogan “Make America Great Again.”
The pope claimed his place not only as the universal shepherd for Catholics but as a head of state and international diplomat out of what he called “concern for the whole human family and its needs, including those of the material and social order.” He raised his clarion voice to address four areas he sees as “points of contact” between the arena of international relations and the spiritual mission of the Holy See: the primacy of justice in lawmaking; the defense of the most vulnerable; bridge-building among peoples and nations; and the need to rethink our common destiny as citizens of the world.
With respect to the primacy of justice in lawmaking, the pope critiqued the pursuit of individualistically driven national objectives and shortsighted political policies that he sees as incapable of advancing lasting world peace. Echoing his speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015, the pope argued that “a good politician should not occupy spaces but initiate processes; he or she is called to make unity prevail over conflict, based on solidarity in its deepest and most challenging sense.”
He invited world leaders to embrace a politics in which “conflicts, divisions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity.” It is hard for Americans to miss the implications his words carry, especially when the current presidential administration has abandoned international diplomatic bodies, weakened the trust of our allies, undermined our participation in international relations and pulled back from international initiatives (e.g., the Paris accord on climate change).
The pope claimed his place not only as the universal shepherd for Catholics but as a head of state and international diplomat.
Second, as might be expected from a Jesuit steeped in Latin American theology, Pope Francis has made the preferential option for the poor one of his signature teachings. In this sense, his diplomacy reflects his theology, especially his invitation to the community of nations to care for the most vulnerable, such as refugees and displaced persons from violent places like Syria. In a way that speaks to current U.S. immigration policy, he argued that human indifference has led “various governments to severely restrict the number of new entries, even those in transit.” The pope threw his support behind the recent U.N. effort to enact the nonbinding Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which the Trump administration vehemently opposed and ridiculed as being “pro-migration.”
Among those most in need of justice and care, the pope highlighted children who have suffered from clerical sexual abuse. Promising further action in his February gathering with bishops from around the world to address sexual abuse, Pope Francis condemned, in no uncertain terms, the abuse of minors as “one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable...aggravated by the abuse of power and conscience.” The pope also voiced concern about unjust working conditions throughout the world and, in particular, discrimination against women workers.
Francis calls upon Americans to denounce a cultural climate marked by “new centrifugal tendencies and the temptation to erect new curtains.”
Third, Pope Francis turned to the diplomatic practice of bridge-building among peoples and efforts to prevent armed conflict. He quoted the powerful address of St. Paul VI to the United Nations in 1965: “No more war, never again!” The pope discussed positive signs in advancing peace in places like Africa and the Korean Peninsula, while lamenting ongoing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian people and in conflict-torn areas like Venezuela. In light of these and other conflicts, the pope sees the urgent need to promote, not withdraw from, international cooperation and international relations—“all the more urgent for favoring the development of infrastructures, the growth of prospects for future generations and the emancipation of the most vulnerable sectors of society.”
Finally, in what was perhaps the most prophetic and thought-provoking aspect of his speech to the ambassadors, Pope Francis returned to one of his favorite themes: the care of our planet, our creaturely interdependence and the need to take action on behalf of our common well-being. Surely, in order to enact just laws, defend the most vulnerable and bridge differences to build lasting peace, individuals and nations will need to think of our shared humanity. And as Pope Francis’ speech cautions, the world needs to abandon its narcissistic ideologies that set one nation above another, embracing instead the reality of global interdependence that affirms our common origin, our common history and our common destiny.
Strongly condemning any return of the arms race, Pope Francis not only reiterated the church’s opposition to new and more destructive weapons but argued that because of the risk of their accidental use and their possible effects on our common home and all its creatures, even the current possession of such weapons of mass-destruction merits condemnation.
Pope Francis’ address to the diplomatic corps might be summarized with the following slogan: “Put Our Neighbors First Again.” In rejecting a culture that feeds on fear and breeds human indifference, and opting instead for global interdependence and care for the nations and persons most in need, the pope reflects not only the best that diplomatic theory and practice can offer, but also the best that religion can offer for the sake of healing and preserving our common destiny.
The pope addressed all nations, but his words carry profound relevance for our own nation because of the privileged role and responsibility we exercise within the community of nations. As pontifex maximus, the great bridge-builder, Francis calls upon Americans to denounce a cultural climate marked by “new centrifugal tendencies and the temptation to erect new curtains” that threaten to further divide us and the rest of the world on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national identity, immigration status, political affiliation and physical ability, to name but a few human markers.
Americans would do well to heed Pope Francis’ plea to the ambassadors gathered in Rome and through them to each rethink our common destiny and make a positive difference in this world, for our sake and the sake of future generations. The United States shines the most when it opts for greatness by attending to the needs of our neighbors first, especially those most in need. In an age of increasing global interdependence on all fronts, this is the right thing to do. Let us rethink our common destiny. Make America great: Put our neighbors first again.