The Holy See’s gambit: Catholicism, BRICS, and the liberal order

By Massimo Faggioli
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash


Under Francis, the papacy has become more representative of voices from the “global south”, but the evolution of a post-Eurocentric world order during his pontificate poses new challenges for the Vatican and the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’ trip to Mongolia (September 1-4) was one of the most fascinating of his entire pontificate. It was one of the moments in this pontificate that best revealed his anti-Eurocentric worldview, typical of the Jesuits, especially of the early period of the Society of Jesus in the 16th and 17th century. The fascination with the East made important connections between the early Jesuits and unlikely fellow travelers – from the humanism of Montaigne’s Essays (1580) to Voltaire’s An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations (1753) – in the West’s journey to the discovery of the diversity of cultures and languages in the vast world outside of Europe.

But the pontificate of the first Jesuit pope comes also at a crucial and complicated time in the Catholic Church’s discovery of its catholicity and the global world. It’s a coincidence, but also a sign of our times, that the most exotic and evocative of this pope’s trips, the one to Mongolia, took place just one week after the August 22-24 meeting in Johannesburg of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). At this meeting, the BRICS club of emerging nations invited six new countries to join: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Reshaping the international order

Noteworthy is not just those who were not invited in this expansion (for example, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia) but also the result of this expansion of the BRICS: “If all of the invitations are accepted, the group would combine 11 countries with a population of some 3.7 billion people but comprise five democracies, three authoritarian states, two autocratic monarchies and a theocracy — among them Saudi Arabia and Iran, sworn enemies until a few months ago.” But it is still not clear what will be the impact of this enlargement, also because “neither the G7 nor the BRICS (expanded or otherwise) makes much sense for tackling today’s global challenges”.

The Holy See is observing carefully these attempts to reshape the international order. Under Francis, it is no longer possible to see the Roman pope as the chaplain of the West (or NATO) but one who speaks also – or even more — for other voices in the “global south“. This fits also with the demographic outlook of Catholicism in the 21st century: there are far fewer European Catholics, more from Africa and Asia.

“Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics live outside the West, a share that will be three-quarters by mid-century,” wrote John Allen recently. “In such a world, it’s only logical that the Vatican’s geopolitical homing instincts increasingly will more closely resemble those of, say, the African Union, or India, or even the OPEC states, than those of Washington and Brussels,” he noted.

The problem is that during the decade of Francis’ pontificate, the leading countries in this post-European and post-US world order have evolved in ways that present huge uncertainties for the Holy See. Even without talking about Francis’ native Argentina or the series of recent military coups in West and Central Africa, we can limit ourselves to the countries geographically close to Mongolia.

The world order once imposed by the West is in trouble

Russia under Vladimir Putin (re-elected president for a third term in 2012 and a fourth in 2018) has embraced a Stalinist imperialist worldview, based on a mixture of ideas of Eurasianism, the “Russian world”, aggressive anti-Americanism, confrontation with the unipolar world and the “decaying” West as a whole. The invasion of Ukraine is just the ultimate evidence of it. The Russian Orthodox Church has become a mouthpiece for the Kremlin and a pariah in ecumenical circles.

In ten years under president Xi Jinping (secretary general of the Chinese Communist party since 2012 and President of the People’s Republic of China since 2013), China has gone through a process of political ossification and ideological hardening, with less and less space for civil society: independent intellectuals driven underground, university and research centers increasingly cut off from their international counterparts.

In India under Narendra Modi (prime minister since 2014), the ideology of hindusattva, a nationalistic creed centered on an exclusionary view of Hinduism, has produced a deviation from the early foundations of a multi-religious post-colonial India. In these countries, the situation of Catholics has become more difficult: the fact that we don’t hear much about it does not mean that there are no problems.

The world order once imposed by the West is in trouble. There are those inside the Catholic Church, as well as outside of it, that are eagerly waiting for the Vatican to be part of a new alliance upending the existing international order. The reasons are more than understandable: the liberal world order is identified with our polycrisis – migrants and refugees, economic inequality, climate change, and war.

The Vatican and the new global chessboard

The fact is that the Vatican and Catholics in their local churches around the world need important aspects of the international liberal order to be preserved. It’s indicative that Pope Francis, in his very first speech to open his historic visit to Mongolia, praised the country’s tradition of religious freedom dating to the times of its founder, Genghis Khan.

The Catholic Church has only had a sanctioned presence in Mongolia since 1992, after the country abandoned its Soviet-allied communist government and enshrined religious freedom in its Constitution. This is not something that can be said for the other giants in Asia and neighboring countries: Russia, China, and India.

The game that the Vatican and the Catholic Church have to play on the global chessboard now is made of two different and opposite kinds of moves.

On the one hand, it must operate in and work for a more multilateral world, with the Holy See less tied politically and culturally to the West – especially Europe and the US. On the other hand, Catholicism, which “is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system” as the Vatican II constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965) said, needs a constitutional and political order that is respectful of religious liberty and of the rights of minorities in order to survive in those countries (included in the “enlarged BRICS”).

There is nothing to fear from the Church

During the inflight press conference back to Rome from Mongolia on September 4, Francis emphasized the “religious aspect” of the Holy See’s relationship with China, so that “Chinese citizens do not think that the Church does not accept their cultures and their values and that the Church does not represent another foreign power.”

In his address to Mongolia’s bishops, priests, missionaries and pastoral workers, Francis said “Governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization, for she has no political agenda to advance, but is sustained by the quiet power of God’s grace and a message of mercy and truth.”

The problem is that, in fact, in the global world of today many governments have a lot to fear from the Church’s work – and in non-Western countries this is expressed in policies that are often oppressive and violent.

Whether the rights to religious liberty and of minorities are a genuine product of the Western civilization or only a byproduct of globalization, which political leaders can get rid of without interfering with the economic system, it is undeniable that it’s in the non-European and non-Western world that religious liberty and of the rights of minorities have been rolled back in recent years. This is something that we never hear from the (mostly US-based) Catholic ideologues of the “anti-liberal revolution”. The fate of Catholic minorities in non-Western countries is not always at the center of their very domestic, culture-war concerns.

The Holy See’s gambit implies sacrificing some of its ties with the West for the sake of a more global Catholic Church. It’s a necessary move, not just diplomatically but also culturally and theologically – whether or not the BRICS countries outperform or underperform in the global and political economic system. But it is a move that has to be played on a very complicated chessboard, with many players that are less predictable than those in the post-Christendom, secularized world.

Thanks to La Croix International.


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