Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate World Youth Day. (Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES )
While much of the public is still trying to digest Pope Francis’ message about new church priorities revealed in his recent interview, we should not close our eyes to how papal charisma impacts upon world peace.
The United Nations opens its sessions in September 2013 amid the echo of the exhortations of Pope Francis to end violence and achieve peace. Two days after the universal church heeded the pontiff’s call to prayer and fasting on September 7th for a peaceful solution in Syria, the proposal to destroy these weapons appeared. Five days later, professed atheist, Vladimir Putin, who leads the formerly atheistic state known today as Russia, cited the pope in an op-ed published in the New York Times and announced plans to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons. Eleven days later, Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected president of Iran rejected nuclear arms for his country and invited a reset with the United States. Not only has the warmth of the charisma of this new bishop of Rome melted icy legalisms within the church; it has also allowed the sun to shine upon long-frustrated peace efforts in dark parts of the world.
It might be argued that these efforts at peace would have happened without this pope’s call for prayers world-wide or without his demonstrations of humble service to the Gospel. However, the Catholic teaching on prayer has never required that God answer us only with miracles: rather, that prayer sets forth our hopes for a best outcome and our cry for help in accepting the worst outcome. This pope has reinserted his prestige into world affairs as a compassionate and non-partisan authority for humanity’s best interests. As said in the September 7th proclamation: “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.”
Popes have called upon the United Nations for peace since the embrace of that organization by Blessed John XXIII in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris. The issue, however, has always been whether the world’s leaders would pay attention. Although recent overtures remain far from resolution, the speed with which the peace panorama has changed is stunning. If this pope gets the credit he deserves, perhaps papal leadership can summon the world community to craft new modes of collectively addressing terrorism rather than only stale logic about the “just war.”
For much of history, war was waged between and among nation-states. International law was framed around rights of national sovereignty, but these rules leaned against intervention in internal affairs. Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons in a civil war and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, therefore, fall outside the established boundaries for international action. Possessing illicit weapons and nuclear arms does not itself merit the declaration of war. But unfortunately, traditional respect for national boundaries allows increase of non-state terrorism armed with such weapons.
In its most charitable interpretation, President Obama’s “red line” was about moral authority rather than about war in the Middle East, much as he reasoned when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize: “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” But as the president also admitted in Stockholm, his logic seeks peace through violence, in direct contradiction of non-violence from leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Pope Francis’s words pose the issue more succinctly: “We bring about the rebirth of Cain in every act of violence and in every war.”
Historically, in medieval Christendom the popes had a moral weapon that was neither war nor violence. Excommunication was decreed against injustices within a sovereign’s realm. Papal action had powerful economic and political effects since subjects were no longer bound to obey the ruler or pay taxes. Monarchs were often quick to repent under such sanctions. In today’s pluralistic and secular world, the bishop of Rome has no such power. However, Pope Francis’s call to moral leadership has been heard by a world that has fallen in love with his charisma. He has asked: “Does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?” Amazingly, the world seems to be listening.