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The Meaning of Francis’ International Politics

José Luis Narvaja, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Apr 4th 2023

The Meaning of Francis’ International Politics
In order to trace the pope’s political map of the world and grasp the roots of his international politics, we must avoid simplification and find the right keys to interpretation.[1] It is useful to start from his biographical and cultural roots, but it is also necessary to go beyond this. In any case, we must always bear in mind that the pope’s agenda is open and that this openness is a specific characteristic of his politics.

We may distinguish four aspects of the pontiff’s politics: their kerygmatic nature, their orientation towards wholeness and unity, their origin in discernment, and the direct connection he draws between politics and charity.

Kerygmatic politics, not ideology

Francis’ politics are kerygmatic. The term kerygma indicates the announcement of the message of Christ, the Gospel.[2] For Francis, the announcement of the Gospel becomes political; political commitment emanates from the Gospel, and not from an ideology.[3]

We know that for the Greeks – who invented the term – politics is the art of building the polis, the city in its entirety. It creates order in internal relations through internal policy, and at the same time security in external relations through foreign policy.[4]

The modern view of politics differs from this ancient framework. Today, politics is often understood as the “art of the possible,” which becomes the “art of factions” – the art of partiality, whether in support of a person, a party or a state. Politics is thus at risk of becoming the art employed by some biased people to assert their own interests.

The pope’s vision is starkly different from this calculating, manipulative idea of politics. In an article published in 1987, Jorge Bergoglio said a given fact has “political value” – is authentically political – when it carries a message, a relevant meaning for the people of God.[5] Francis’ political message has kerygmatic value: it is an announcement of the Gospel and not of an ideology. Therefore, it is of value to all the people of God, and not just to a faction or a party representing a particular set of interests.

Inclusive politics, not window–dressing

The second characteristic of Francis’ politics emerges on the basis of the above: when we talk about politics in line with the pope’s vision, we must think of the polis as the world in its entirety. According to the pope, every policy is home policy. He sees the world as a single city, requiring a unified politics. This vision is rooted in his reflections on the relationship between the whole and the part, which maintains the tension of living beings.[6]

As we know, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) Pope Francis outlined four principles for achieving The common good and peace in society (EG 217-237): Time is greater than space (EG 222-225), Unity prevails over conflict (EG 226-230), Realities are more important than ideas (EG 231-233), and The whole is greater than the part (234-237).

Firstly, The whole is greater than the part. The common good and peace in the polis are connected to the whole, and not just to a part – not to any one of the parts, but to all of them. The pope’s message speaks to all the people of God because it is inclusive. We know that tension between the whole and the parts creates conflict, which threatens unity when we favor one of the parts. When conflicts emerge, the intention of political actions should be tested, allowing us to ascertain whether they are aimed at the common good or only at the good of one part.

The pope states that every conflict must be resolved at a higher level that respects the unity that is the whole. In this sense, Unity prevails over conflict. A solution to conflict that respects reality seeks to maintain unity without denying diversity. As Francis always says, Realities are more important than ideas. We will not find solutions in the abstract, by suppressing differences: this is just a form of window-dressing, pure linguistic and terminological adaptation to an ideal solution that is unworkable, however, because it does not get to the bottom of the existential conflict.

For this to occur, we must allow the time it requires. The good must be desired; it cannot be imposed. Therefore, we need time: time for the truth to shine and affirm itself without violence; time for God to act in the life of people and of the city. This is why Time is greater than space. Respect for the passage of time means openness to growth, to dialogue, to reflection, to conversion and to the action of the Spirit.

These four principles must be held together. Otherwise, we create distorted relations with the world. The culture of disposability is the result of a failure to respect time and allow room for process. In this sense, we must avoid both the rhetoric of the elect and that of the pure. Any form of political rhetoric promoting forms of elitist ethics – tied for example to a leader or a specific group – constitutes a risk of deception.

On the basis of these considerations, we recognize Francis’ politics as an authentically Christian politics. It is a politics that promotes the harmonizing of parts in mutual acceptance, without destroying individuality, but also without prioritizing difference, practicing dialogue and mutual enrichment based on this difference, and building a stronger unity.

Discerning politics, not Hollywood

Politics requires a process that occurs in time through dialogue and discernment. In order to understand each other and seek out paths to unity, we need time. The Christian committed to politics knows we need a dialogue with history to uncover signs of the times, and at the same time a dialogue with God because it is He who guides people’s hearts and the course of history. This is why we must be attentive to “discerning the spirits” – as Saint Ignatius of Loyola would say – that determine relations and actions. This is the third characteristic of Pope Francis’ politics.

If world politics are home policy, we might describe foreign policy – the art of attempting to defend the city against external interests – in the words of Saint Paul: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against […] the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

The conflicts that threaten the city are subtle attacks upon its unity. In order to understand this, we need only to recall the characteristics of Saint Augustine’s two cities: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”[7]

The common good and peace in society are threatened by the love of self – by the selfishness that would deny the good of all, using the other or others to satisfy the love of self. Politics is a battle, but not a battle of flesh against flesh, or much less a battle between people; rather, it is a spiritual battle, and its weapon is discernment.

The body is either entirely healthy or else unwell. It is delusional to claim that only one part is unwell, only one part is vulnerable, while the rest enjoys good health. When we fail to seek ways to defend unity and instead favor one part, the rest – the less privileged parts – lose the right to be included in the whole, and are forced to abandon the playing field as if they no longer exist.

Thus the city starts to face enemies in the flesh, who in some way appear impure to the group that has maintained the rights and status of purity. Thus – in true Hollywood style – the political battle becomes a battle between the pure and the impure. The political opponent becomes a receptacle for every problem. This is partisan politics, a partiality that becomes exclusive and exclusionary. In this situation, dialogue between the parts loses meaning. These threats to the unity of the city may be very subtle, and a penetrating gaze – discernment, in fact – is required in order to identify them.

Charity as a higher form of politics

Fourthly, Pope Francis’ political vision reminds us of something disconcertingly simple: love is at the center of Christ’s message (see John 13:34), and this love is manifested in service (see John 13:14). In the general congregation of March 9, 2013 – four days before he was elected pontiff – Cardinal Bergoglio gave a speech describing the characteristics of the future pope: “[A] man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church go out to the existential peripheries, helps Her be the fruitful mother who gains life from ‘the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing’.”

What he suggested as cardinal, he now delivers as pope. Human relations are illuminated by this personal relationship with Christ, by constant dialogue with the Lord of hearts and of history. Prayer, or dialogue with the Lord, is prophetic because it speaks of people to God, and brings to us the political, relevant, saving message of the Lord. This is why the pope’s journeys, his meetings, his movements, his telephone calls and his silences are always the result of an attentiveness to people’s situations. His heart overflowing with the image of faces encountered, the pope listens to the voice of the Spirit.

Austrian historian Friedrich Heer (1916-1983) said the weakness of the Church and its loss of meaning to the world were due to the fact that it no longer taught love – that people within the Church were no longer taught to love.[8] This statement is simple and it resonates loud and clear. From this premise, Pope Francis has made love the center of his teaching, through his actions, his exhortations and his silences. His political message is kerygmatic in that it tells us Love is living and love is possible.

This dynamism in relating to others starts from marriage, from the spousal relationship.[9] The ways in which we face life, the world and the other are rooted in the intimate life of husband and wife, in the wife’s role within the family, in the space we create for the female and for the maternal. This is why the first synod convened by Pope Francis was the Synod on the Family, and this is why the pope’s political, inclusive perspective is discernible in the Synod’s dynamics. Patient apprenticeship starts from below, from the family; from there, we build increasingly broad units. It is within the family that we learn to overcome conflicts in love, because otherwise we face the failure of separation; it is within the family that we learn to respect processes and differences, because otherwise we risk building a disposable society, an “only child” society, badly raised and egocentric.

Thus the family and its relationships determine the city’s relationships and the way it practices the political arts. The pope’s preoccupation with the family, with taking care of its wounds, is easily understood in this context. We must take care of those wounds in order to enable a process of healing and conversion, so that families are not condemned to endure the pain of stigmatization, as well as the pain of their wounds. We learn and we teach that a journey of personal and familial conversion will always be a journey of social conversion that leads us – with a little patience – to transform the city, by which we mean the world.

Overcoming the paradox of Christian politics

A politics seeking peace and the common good considers the whole, respects it and seeks to welcome and protect it, in all its differences and different dimensions. This is why it is rooted in discernment, in attentive listening to the voice of the Spirit, which scrutinizes God’s depths and relays to the Church – the bride of Christ – the will of Her husband (see 1 Corinthians 2:10). This is why the pope’s agenda is an open agenda: it is open to being guided by the Spirit who acts freely.

Francis’ politics is an inclusive politics, constructed not only in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, but also, on a deeper level, as the politics of God, eternal Spirit (see John 4:24) who mixed with us, taking on the flesh of time to become a “God among us.” This politics is not afraid of the flesh and does not deny the reality of temptation. Those who have been tempted and those who have fallen must also be included, because they are part of the whole. In this inclusion, we must never lose hope that God may act upon those who have been tempted or have fallen, and we must encourage, exhort and accompany them in the process of opening up to the grace of God.

It is an inclusive politics that rejects all personal privilege – like Jesus, who died outside the walls of the holy city (see Heb 13:12) among the condemned and seemingly deprived of His alliance with God. It is a politics which invites us to experience God as we might in a new city, so that we may achieve maturity of faith. It is the politics of the Lamb who, in wondrous exchange, takes our sin upon Himself to give us His holiness. It is the politics which stands apart from the ethics of Hollywood – from the distinction between us, the “goodies”, and the others, the “baddies”, the impure who cannot be saved.

Thus Pope Francis overcomes the paradox of a Christian politics, because he does not pursue a politics of partiality that in effect contradicts the fundamental meaning of politics.[10] Instead his is a politics of wholeness for the city of humanity, within which he promotes all things human, so that the grace of God may take hold of them. This means promoting the life of all people so that it will be God who makes everything new (see Revelation 21:5). For Pope Francis, politics is the highest expression of love; and a love that is not political is simply the love of self.

[1].See A. Spadaro, “La diplomazia di Francesco. La misericordia come processo politico”, in Civ. Catt. 2016 I 209-226. A conference entitled “L’atlante di papa Francesco” ( was held at our offices on May 20 and preceded by a seminar with journalists and experts, including the author.

[2].See H. Rahner, Teologia e kerygma, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1958, 18-23.

[3].D. J. Fares, “L’antropologia politica di Papa Francesco”, in Civ. Catt. 2014 I 345-360; id., “Papa Francesco e la politica”, in Civ. Catt. 2016 I 373-385.

[4].See E. Przywara, L’idea d’Europa. La “crisi” di ogni politica “cristiana”, Trapani, Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2013, 83. See also J. L. Narvaja, “La crisi di ogni politica cristiana. Erich Przywara e la ‘idea di Europa’”, in Civ. Catt. 2016 I 437-448.

[5].See J. Bergoglio, “Una canonizacio?n con significado poli?tico?”, in Revista del V Centenario del descubrimiento y de la Evangelizacio?n de Ame?rica, Buenos Aires, Universidad del Salvador, 1992, 47-49.

[6].See R. Guardini, L’opposizione polare. Saggio per una filosofia del concreto vivente, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1997.

[7].Saint Augustine, The City of God, XIV, 28.

[8].Heer’s words were uncompromising and prophetic: “We have not learned love – neither love nor to love – and therefore we do not create spaces for irradiation, spaces or moments of freedom. We are caught in the vortex of those who are frightened and those who frighten; we are used by managers and salesmen of horror. And we forget that a renewed world will belong to those who give it happiness and teach it to love and to live” (F. Heer, Ehe in der Welt, Nu?rnberg, Glock und Lutz, 1955, 8ff).

[9].See ibid., 15.

[10].See J. L. Narvaja, “La crisi di ogni politica cristiana. Erich Przywara e l’‘idea di Europa’”, in Civ. Catt. 2016 I 437-448.

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