A look at the Pope’s travel plans
Where was Pope Francis between the 5th and the 8th of March 2021? On the 5th of March, he was greeted by Iraq’s Prime Minister, while being surrounded by dancers at Baghdad International Airport. On the 6th of March, he stood next to one of the most influential spiritual leaders of Iraqi Shia Muslims, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. Together, they released a joint statement against religious extremism. On the 7th of March, he visited Mosul’s Church Square, where he held a mass and prayed for fraternity between the different religions in Iraq. On the 8th of March, he returned to Baghdad, where he met with the President of Iraq for a farewell ceremony. Even though the country was plagued by interfaith conflict, and amid its highest infection rates since the start of the pandemic, he insisted on visiting. With this symbolically rich visit, the Pope hoped to nurture inter-religious dialogue.
This was not the first time the 84-year-old travelled for the sake of peace. But why? Does the Vatican have the moral obligation to do so? Likewise, should they have the position to intervene in the diplomatic community, and if they do, what should their role be?
Much more than just words
In 2016, three months of Vatican-brokered peace talks took place between two factions vying for political control over Venezuela. Eventually, the opposition coalition rejected further meditation and planned to start direct negotiations, accusing the Vatican of “only making things worse”. This intervention by the Vatican was only one example within a prolonged history of their involvement in international global affairs. More successfully, in October 2014 the Pope contributed to a historic diplomatic breakthrough, namely, the reopening of political relations between the US and Cuba. He bridged the gap between the two states by first sending letters to President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba, eventually inviting them to the Vatican, where he organised a diplomatic meeting to end decades of cold war animosity.
Four years later, he followed his duty to bring about reconciliation in a war-torn country and travelled to Colombia to support the peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). More recently, the Vatican has received significant media attention for emphasising the importance of resuming peace talks with Israel when the Pope held a private audience with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
The above-mentioned examples show the Vatican’s desire to foster peace. But, why?
Even though there are several answers to this question, the clearest answer is connected to their moral duty to foster peace and prosperity. The Church is, “an instrument of union with God and unity among humanity”. Hence, the point of Christianity is not only focused on getting individuals into heaven after death, but also to increase harmony among humans. Polarisation at the world stage has motivated religious institutions such as the Vatican, to intervene more seriously and explore the potentially constructive role that religion and its various agencies can take in the response to violent extremism. In doing so, they can foster social cohesion in places that have a history of divided societies. A religious institution, such as the Vatican, can feel the responsibility to re-inject the positive moral values in confronting the destructive dynamics of a conflict. By doing so, it checks the flow of unrestrained capital, governance, and hyper-individualism.
The power of the Church
In many parts of the world, the population adheres to one religion or another. Respective religious leaders are often viewed with admiration and trust. This creates a pool of possibilities to strengthen peace processes and gain greater support among local Catholic communities. Besides that, one should not underestimate the diplomatic power of institutions such as the Vatican. The case of Cuba exemplifies strong diplomatic advocacy. When Pope Francis was a cardinal, he visited Cuba. He built up a strong relationship with the archbishop of Havana, who has been a strategic player in accomplishing the reconciliation process. Hence, religious and peacebuilding agencies can sustain their efforts and engage wider audiences beyond their already-committed followers. Yet, many secular policymakers are reluctant to incorporate a role for religion in peacebuilding. This is mainly because most originations that are concerned with peace processes operate within a secular governance framework. This brings us to the next question: is the Vatican, a religious body, in the position to intervene in a countries’ internal politics?
The separation of Church and State
It was in 1879 that the Supreme Court first employed the term “separation of church and state”. Nonetheless, in everyday life religion and politics seem to be naturally intertwined, as religious beliefs are in general intended to inform us about how to live. Still, it is not the role of the church anymore to become chaplaincies of political actors. The role of religious leaders is to share the essential values and beliefs and guide the believers through their lives. Yet, they do not have the formal responsibility to achieve public goals. The latter is rather a competence of the state. In the case of Venezuela, the reconciliation of political actors is an appropriate concern of the state, as ensuring peace and social stability are essential functions of the governments’ authority. Likewise, given the Vatican’s rich diplomatic resources that enabled them to bring sides together, they have been very valuable. Still, as the church did not claim to have the expertise to bring about the best solution, the Venezuelan peace effort seems to fall within the parameters of appropriate clergy engagement with politics.
Painting outside a colour plate?
Although the Vatican was not directly at the negotiating table, it made a significant contribution to promoting peace. Pope Francis in particular steals the show with his involvement in peace efforts. In this way, he seems to break through the walls between religion and politics. But since religion is still so important in the lives of many people, and given that religion is one of the sources that sometimes (partly) underlies divisions within a region, as is the case in Iraq, can we really say that there is a division between religion and politics? The Pope's actions are awakening the non-secular rhetoric that is increasingly forgotten in Western secular societies. And, the Vatican continues to be a strong global institution, with its diplomatic network and social and religious grassroots that can be used to promote change. Still, we may wonder how far they can go and wonder whether they are drawing outside the box, or not?
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