Cyr column: Pope Francis’ leadership underscores global influence of Roman Catholic Church
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth …,” is a useful starting place for discussion of the influence of Pope Francis, who is proving to be a remarkably active and activist leader of the Roman Catholic Church. To modern readers, the Biblical quote (Exodus 21:24) may seem brutal, but the Old Testament sentiment actually represented revolutionary progress.
Ancient warfare involved unrestrained killing and pillaging. By contrast, this Hebrew law codified proportionality and limits. Historically and currently, the Vatican has played an important role in restraining and restricting warfare, building on this fundamental insight.
Pope Francis has just made an important statement supporting of civil unions of same-sex couples. His message is in the documentary “Francesco” which premiered Oct. 28 in Rome.
The essential Christian message emphasizes compassion, and the Catholic Church over centuries has played a vital role in relief of poverty and human misery, and in promotion of human rights. The cumulative positive impact is profound among the approximately one billion Roman Catholics currently on the planet, and well beyond.
Pope Francis’ April 2016 letter on marriage and the family should be viewed in this context. Media commentary emphasized Rome’s reiteration of commitment to traditional marriage, which is hardly news. The letter emphasizes tolerance for those who do not accept Catholic doctrine. That marks a change, important if overdue.
In 2015, Francis celebrated a Catholic mass in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Long-term Vatican efforts to change Cuba could prove to be profound. On the same trip, he also addressed the U.S. Congress.
During the Cold War, Pope John Paul II provided historic leadership in foreign policy. He supported Solidarity, the successful trade union-based reform movement in his native Poland. That in turn contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and satellite states.
Today, hunger and poverty have been overcome for the great majority in industrialized nations, and political controversies there now generally focus on other topics. Francis is with political reformers on the left regarding the environment and capital punishment.
Shocking criminal sexual abuse by priests is a principal contemporary challenge. In 2015, a Vatican tribunal was established to review and judge cases of sexual abuse. Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI publicly acknowledged the criminal behavior, met with victims and apologized.
The World Wars of the past century reconfirmed Catholic Church emphasis on restraint in war. Contemporary Catholic analysis of ethics and military strategy is spearheaded by influential scholars such as J. Bryan Hehir, a senior priest and faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
During the Cold War, Fr. Hehir guided the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ influential report on use of nuclear weapons. Hehir also bluntly criticized his church for mishandling sex abuse crimes by priests.
In April 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the memorial in Hiroshima Japan, commemorating lives lost from the 1945 atomic bomb attack. Kerry happens to be Catholic. Appropriately and understandably, he described the experience as “gut-wrenching.” War is still occurring, but global total war mercifully has been avoided.
Global human populations since World War II have experienced extraordinary positive developments; believers from earlier periods in history would consider them miraculous. Masses of humanity are moving into relatively comfortable lives. Democracy is spreading. Wealth gaps are growing, a disturbing reality rightly emphasized. However, vast global abject poverty is slowly diminishing.
Relative security for Americans encourages self-preoccupation. Francis pursues wider collective concerns.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.