Pope Francis and the Power of Ideas

By: Nicholas Fedyk, Columnist

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” asked Joseph Stalin in 1944. Criticized for his harsh treatment of Catholic minorities, Stalin’s retort was plain: a lack of military power meant a lack of influence on the world stage. Soldiers, aircraft, tanks, battleships were the stuff of power. The Catholic Church wielded great doctrinal and ideological power over its members, but without military might, it was woefully under-equipped to challenge such dogged realpolitik.

Stalin may have won in 1944, but the last half century has witnessed a shifting of roles and an altered perception of the sources of power. The Soviet Union is no more, and the brash Stalin, who so condescendingly denounced the Pope of Rome, is dead. After the vocal, outward-looking papacies of Saint John Paul II and Francis, the Church is eagerly reasserting its role in world affairs. Defying realist calculations of power, it relies on the force of ideas, not army divisions.

Pope Francis heads one of the longest-standing institutions in history; the Church has preserved its most basic teachings and doctrines for over two millennia. The institution receives tremendous respect and attention from foreign leaders, which was evident during the Pope’s historic visit to the United States. Francis’ September 24 address to Congress had the gravity of a State of the Union, and his remarks at the United Nations the following day felt providential. It was a remarkable scene: leaders from across the globe, many embattled in their own disputes, listened intently as the Pope counseled them on disarmament, environmental degradation, and religious persecution.[i]

Why is Francis so charismatic? He knows his audience; rather than base his arguments on Catholic doctrine—which may not resonate with people of other faiths or no faith—he appeals to a shared common good: “These pillars of integral human development have a common foundation, which is the right to life and, more generally, what we could call the right to existence of human nature itself.”[ii]

Only time will tell if this appeal has a lasting effect. If it does, it can have profound consequences for the state of international security. Francis posits that nation-states, regardless of the distrust and uncertainty that pervades the international system, can rally around shared concerns for humanity. Peoples divided by religion, nationality, or access to resources ought to cooperate to safeguard their shared human dignity, a value so fundamental that it precedes, and is independent of, evaluations of military, political, or economic strength. It’s a hope that is both profound yet simple at the same time: that an idea so fundamental as human dignity can have real significance in the way that states and people interact.

In many ways, the Pope’s appeal has already gained some ground. Indeed, constructivists have argued for the power and salience of norms for decades, including the value of human dignity.[iii] Many scholars, in fact, partially attribute the fall of the communism in Eastern Europe and Latin America to the dynamic leadership of John Paul II.[iv] More support for the common good lies in the increasing push for humanitarian action, which is spelled out in numerous international treaties and has formed the basis for a number of interventions—most notably in Kosovo, Libya, and Syria. There is a solidifying norm against the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.[v] States are even making efforts to limit emissions and industrial waste. All of these examples suggest that states may share an awareness of the common good.

In addition to these positive examples, the very structure of states makes them more receptive to the Pope’s message and the furtherance of human dignity. The world is populated by many democratic states, where power is diffused across various domestic institutions and policies are influenced by the will of the people.[vi] If people naturally desire peace and abhor violence, then an appeal to the common good should be welcomed by democratic states, where leaders are held in check by their people’s desires.

Of course, it is easy to be pessimistic about Pope Francis’ chances to change the world. Are his supporters hopelessly idealistic? Peaceful conditions can be easily disrupted by ill-intentioned individuals or non-state actors who have different understandings of what is, in fact, “good.” On the state-level, we should be skeptical of whether states so deeply engaged in conflict—such as India and Pakistan or Russia and Ukraine—will be able to offer a measure of goodwill to their opponents, whom they so routinely demonize. We shouldn’t even be surprised if our own domestic political leaders, so entrenched in partisan conflict, try to hijack the Pope’s visit to further their own party line.

But the fact that there are exceptions to the norm doesn’t mean that there isn’t a norm at all. Many people agree that violence should be avoided and states should cooperate to make it so. This is the essence of the common good in international security. Pope Francis, armed not only with this appealing idea but with unmatched charisma, has the power to draw people together and, at the very least, remind them of this basic reality.

[i] Pope Francis, “Address to United Nations” (New York, New York, September 25, 2015).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See Alexander Wendt’s seminal work, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[iv] See George Weigel’s biography, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II (Image, 2010) for a thorough analysis of the Pope’s encounters with communism, Poland’s “Solidarity” movement, and the revolution of 1989. Part I, “Nemesis,” covers these pivotal years.

[v] See Nina Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo,” International Security 29:4 (Spring 2005): 5-49.

[vi] Bruce Russett, “The Fact of Democratic Peace,” and “Why Democratic Peace?” in Michael E. Brown, et al., Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 58-115.

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