The Hard Edge of the Pope’s Moral Power

The pontiff’s Middle Eastern diplomacy may seem superficial, but it could make a huge practical impact.

Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile on his way to attend the Via Crucis on Copacabana Beach during World Youth Day celebrations on July 26, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro.
Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile on his way to attend the Via Crucis on Copacabana Beach during World Youth Day celebrations on July 26, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro. Buda Mendes/Getty Images

By the most superficial measures of Vatican diplomacy, Pope Francis’s recent visit to Iraq was an outstanding success. He bolstered the country’s remaining Christian population and advanced his efforts to bring the Abrahamic faiths together by meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as giving an address at Ur—the site of Abraham’s birth. The trip put Iraq back in the headlines for something other than the Islamic State, rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy, Iran, refugees, or the host of other problems that have convulsed the country since the U.S. invasion in 2003. And there was no doubt that the pope seemed to be getting his mojo back; like everyone else, he seemed to be very happy to step out of his house for the first time in a year.

The only controversy came at the meeting in Ur, where there were no Jewish representatives—either because there are so few, and thus hard to find, in Iraq or Iraqi officials did not invite them. Still, the pope’s Iraqi sojourn was awash in positive symbolism and undeniably moving.

The question is, now what? The pontiff—a word derived from the Latin for “bridge builder”—is now back in Rome, and in time, the posters and murals that welcomed Francis will fade. Iraq’s problems will remain. That’s why analysts tend to treat these kinds of visits as sideshows. They are nice in the moment, but that’s about it. Sure, in a previous visit to the Middle East, Francis and the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed what was called the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” but there has not been a lot of fraternity and peace in the Middle East over the two years since.

This may be excessively cynical, however. There are reasons to think sustained Vatican attention to the Middle East will do some practical diplomatic good there.

On arriving in Iraq on March 5, the pope gave an address during which he stated: “How much we have prayed in these years for peace in Iraq! St. John Paul II spared no initiatives and above all offered his prayers and sufferings for this intention.” The reference to St. John Paul II toward the end of the speech was noteworthy. St. John Paul II was, of course, Pope John Paul II, who led the world’s Catholics from 1978 until his death in 2005. He had wanted to visit Iraq in 2000, but the Vatican could not come to an agreement with the Iraqi government. Perhaps Saddam Hussein and his advisors were suspicious of John Paul. I am willing to bet that Iraq’s deputy prime minister at the time, Tariq Aziz—a Chaldean Catholic—was aware of the extraordinary role the pope played in the great foreign-policy issues of his day.

John Paul was a critical moral force who encouraged Poland’s Solidarity movement to confront the communist government, which helped catalyze the end of the Cold War. He also supported the reunification of Europe, lent his prestige to the fight against apartheid, and opposed both Operation Desert Storm and the U.S. invasion of Iraq 12 years later. More generally, John Paul spoke out for freedom of expression and human rights in ways that gave those who worked toward these goals political and moral cover to pursue their agendas. When he succumbed to complications from the flu after a 27-year tenure, people of all faiths mourned his passing.

Carrying the torch is Francis who, in his own way, has followed John Paul by lending his singular voice to the Middle East. The region is wracked with suffering, and its leaders—as well as those of external powers—are unable, unwilling, or complicit in the conflicts that have killed, wounded, and displaced too many people. It seems there is a role for Francis to play in finding a way forward in the region, not necessarily to delineate and advance the religious basis for peace or in some Vatican-led diplomatic initiative, though there may be room for that. It seems that the power of the pontiff may very well be that he does not need a “deliverable,” as they say in Washington. Rather Francis’s influence is in the power of his voice to encourage change, imbue those who seek peace with courage, and shame those who employ violence to advance their agendas.

In some ways, the pope does this already just by being the pope and showing up. But if Francis’s power is derived from the esteem his audience holds him in, the genuinely warm welcome he received across Iraq suggests he has an especially strong opportunity to make a diplomatic difference in the Middle East.

No one should expect the pope to solve the problems of the region, but if he spoke out forcefully on specific issues, he might be able to make a difference in both small and big ways. Take, for example, Lebanon, a country with an important Christian population and that is on the brink of collapse. If Francis addressed the Lebanese people on the issue of corruption, it might help those who have been working both in the streets and elsewhere to loosen the grip of a notoriously craven political class. Again, the pope’s prestige and the moral force that he brings to any issue are what is important. By speaking out on behalf of those who want to live in a more just society by rooting out corruption, Francis empowers them. Syria may also be a place where Francis can do some good. If he spoke out forcefully about the way the regime and its supporters in Moscow and Tehran have targeted hospitals and indiscriminately bombed civilians, perhaps it would force them to think twice about these tactics.

Maybe I am naive. Corrupt politicians will continue to grift, and Bashar al-Assad is beyond redemption, but it seems that the moral authority of the pope can—as John Paul’s experience made clear—have a dynamic effect on politics, diplomacy, and the international environment. Imagine if Francis spoke out directly, forcefully, and consistently about the treatment of Kurdish politicians in Turkey and human rights abuses in Egypt. His words could provide political and diplomatic openings to address where there were none before, if only because Turkish and Egyptian officials would know that the pope’s gaze is on them. The leaders of these countries are shameless and cruel, but it is hard to defy the pope.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons for Francis not to do much more than what he has already done in the Middle East. After all, there is a lot of suffering in the world that demands his attention; the investment of his prestige, which is his only currency, may not produce returns; and the Vatican risks being pulled into regional politics. Yet, during his trip to Iraq, people of all faiths seemed to derive inspiration from Francis’s words and attention. He is an interlocutor who has far less baggage and far more gravitas than any American, Russian, European, or U.N. officials. They have all failed. Maybe the pope won’t.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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