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Bill McCormick, S.J.March 07, 2024
Pope Francis and the president of Argentina, Javier Milei, talk during a private audience at the Vatican Feb. 12, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The public reconciliation between Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei in February was an all-too-rare moment of ostensible enemies meeting peacefully and even joyfully.

Mr. Milei, who was elected president of the pope’s home country in December, had harshly criticized the Holy Father several times in the course of his campaign, calling him among other things “a malignant presence on earth” and a “filthy leftist” with “an affinity for murderous communists.”

Yet Pope Francis welcomed Mr. Milei’s hug during the president’s visit to the Vatican in February, favoring him with an unusually long private audience after the president attended the canonization of the first Argentine-born saint, María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa. As America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell writes, all of this “augurs well for their future relationship.”

As we head into what is sure to be a rancorous general election in the United States, what might we learn from the relationship between the pope and president?

1. Don’t escalate.

Despite Mr. Milei’s comments about the pope, Francis chose not to retaliate. Instead, he brushed the comments aside as election propaganda. This is not politics as usual.

When a politician is attacked, there are many reasons why he or she would choose to fight back, including the free publicity and the appearance of being strong and confident. Mudslinging can look like a mutually beneficial arrangement for politicians whose instinct is to tear each other down.

Christians pondering these realities—and disinclined to discount the value of the Gospel for public life—might wonder what space there is in this environment for Christians to turn the other cheek. Who can stand above the fray instead of insulting her opponents?

But there are costs to the invective. At a minimum, participating in the exchange of abuse means politicians contribute to the debasement of the political culture, ensuring that they will be caught in the dynamic again. And someday, one of these shootouts might prove fatal to their political careers.

Meanwhile, criticism of a politician might even strengthen their support among their base, as happens on a near-daily basis with former President Donald J. Trump.

Pope Francis offers a better way. Despite the harshness of Mr. Milei’s insults, Pope Francis did not respond in kind. Indeed, his response was measured and thoughtful: “It is important to distinguish between what a politician says on the campaign trail and what he or she will actually do afterward.”

His words also redirect the conversation toward the vital task at hand. Pope Francis is not going to get bogged down in frivolous theatrics. Rather, he wants to know what the substance of his relationship with Mr. Milei is going to be.

At one level, Pope Francis seems to be modeling the strategic position that, at least under some conditions, there is more to be gained from charity than from rancor. That is certainly true, and Francis possesses a moral realism that is neither surprised by nor deterred by, the dirtiness of politics as usual.

Even Niccolò Machiavelli counseled princes to remain open to the utility of virtue—or better the utility of the appearance of virtue. But isn’t Pope Francis offering something even more than that?

Indeed, more profoundly, his example reminds us of Jesus’ message to turn the other cheek and gives us some hope that we can live it out. And that is more than a strategy.

2. Stick to your deepest principle: spreading the Gospel.

So what do you do instead of joining the fray? Stay the course.

Pope Francis has exhorted the church to missionary joy and evangelical zeal, and his response to Mr. Melei was a demonstration of both. Rather than being preoccupied with his own reputation, the pope has sought to protect and guide the church in its mission, not least in Argentina.

Christians know we often do the thing that we do not want to do, and often at a fundamental level: hating our neighbor instead of loving her, cursing our enemy instead of praying for him. Even though we know that our fundamental identity is as the beloved of God and that the love of God is not something we have to compete for with other Christians, somehow we find ourselves in conflict with other faithful persons. The question for Christians, then, is how we will break the cycle of conflict.

At the very least, we can take time to give thanks for and reflect upon counterexamples. Pope Francis’ magnanimous and prudent openness to Mr. Milei can nourish us in our journey to feed our deeper desires for the good, not the superficial desires for sin and violence that run amok in our political landscape.

Lest we misunderstand the challenge of turning the other cheek, however, breaking the cycle of recrimination cannot exclude those with whom we are in profound disagreement.

For many commentators, Mr. Milei’s right-wing politics are an important part of the story. Mr. Milei’s brand of economic justice does not square easily with the Holy Father’s teachings on public life, and so it is easy to cast their relationship in “culture war” narratives. But Pope Francis has navigated difficult relationships with public figures of many political stripes.

Again and again, Pope Francis refuses to be drawn into power politics with any group, and he is willing to talk to people he’s not supposed to like. Francis is no doubt aware that Mr. Milei’s attitude toward him could change in the future; politics is a fickle sport. But the pope, for all his prudence and realism, is guided more fundamentally by the Gospel.

3. Be open to opportunities for reconciliation.

For Elise Ann Allen, a reporter for Crux, it was nothing short of a “miracle” that the encounter between Pope Francis and Mr. Milei turned out so positively. Perhaps it is not too much to say that the Holy Father was waiting for just such a miracle.

The thawing began in December when Pope Francis called Mr. Milei to congratulate him on his electoral victory. Another opening for reconciliation came with the public celebrations in Rome of the canonization of María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa. The pope did not waste that opportunity.

If public figures want to model a better way for civil relations, they probably should not wait for other figures to take the lead. They should follow Pope Francis in taking the initiative.

Taking such an initiative also puts the people back into geopolitics. International relations scholars and commentators like to think of world politics in terms of gigantic systems and phenomena, and there is great value in such analysis. But countries are after all led by humans, and the relationships between those humans matter. Thinking of politics exclusively in terms of systems can suggest a fatalism, a belief that human relations don’t matter or, more commonly, that they must be cynical and instrumental.

Pope Francis has a challenge for those people. There are countless international forums where world leaders have the opportunity to forge positive, hopeful relationships.

4. Take the long view

Ultimately, the desire to introduce a Christian leavening in politics depends on seeing the benefits of eschewing short-term gains in favor of something more lasting. To be able to see those benefits, political figures are going to have to be psychologically and spiritually mature enough to become aware of themselves as a product of a time and place but also above such realities.

The church is a partisan for peace, as the Holy Father has made clear countless times. In a world in which conflict and division can seem almost “natural,” Pope Francis reminds us that a better way is possible.

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