Pope Francis and the Power of Ideas

By: Nicholas Fedyk

“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: this was 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’ 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.   

Only time will tell if this appeal has a lasting effect. If it does, it can have profound consequences for 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, including religious freedom. 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 based on the ideal of a shared common good, which he expressed at the United Nations: “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.” 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.   

But is it too optimistic? Recent history suggests that it is not. Constructivists have argued for the power and salience of norms for decades, including the value of human dignity. 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. 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. 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.   

Religious freedom is also being incorporated into this common good, and Pope Francis dedicated an entire speech to it before the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Though there are still many questions about how to promote this right and how to balance it with competing rights claims, an international consensus on the right to worship is beginning to emerge. Traumatic events abroad are bringing us closer together. Brutal images of the Islamic State and stories of desperate Christian and Muslim refugees crossing the Mediterranean have evoked a common response. The conclusion is obvious: There is a wrong occurring in the world. Religious freedom is at peril. Evil is being committed against these vulnerable religious minorities.   

Of course, there are always exceptions and detractors. The US is wrestling with its own religious freedom issues, and Kim Davis, the HHS mandate, and other controversial rights battles continue to make headlines. But the fact that there are exceptions to the norm doesn’t mean that there isn’t a norm at all. Most people agree that violence committed between and within states should be avoided, and states should cooperate to make it so. This is the essence of the common good in international security, and it can have profound implications for religious freedom. 

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. 

Nicholas Fedyk joined the Berkley Center in June 2014 as a project associate with the Religious Freedom Project. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this piece originally appeared in the Georgetown Security Studies ReviewIt was later republished on October 26, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/19/pope-francis-and-the-power-of-ideas