Reflections on Pope Francis’ interview returning from Africa

The November 25-30 papal trip to Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic—was another occasion for insight into the papal mind.

Pope Francis gestures as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Bangui

Pope Francis gestures as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Bangui, Central African Republic, to Rome Nov. 30. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This other shore is, of course, eternal life, heaven, which awaits us. Looking towards the world to come has always been a source of strength for Christians, of the poor, of the least, on their earthly pilgrimage. Eternal life is not an illusion; it is not a flight from the world. It is a powerful reality which calls out to us and challenges us to preserve in faith and love. But the more immediate other shore, which we are trying to reach, this salvation secured by the faith of which St. Paul speaks, is a reality which even now is transforming our lives and the world around us…. Those who believe receive the very life of Christ, which enables them to love God and their brothers and sisters in a new way and to bring to birth a world renewed by love.” — Pope Francis, Homily in Bangui, Central African Republic, November 30, 2015

Wars happen for ambitions. Wars, I speak of wars not for defending oneself against an unjust aggressor but wars are an industry. In history, we’ve seen so many times that in a nation, the balance sheets aren’t going well, ‘Ah, let’s fight a war’ and the offset is over. War is a business, a business of weapons. Terrorists, do they make weapons? Yeah, maybe just little ones. Who gives them to them to make war? There an entire network of interests where there is money or power behind, either imperial or joint power. But we have been at war for years and more all the time…. What do I think? I don’t know what the Vatican thinks, but what do I think? [laughter]. That wars are a sin.” — Pope Francis, In-Flight Interview, Africa to Rome, November 30, 2015.

I.

The November 25-30 papal trip to Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic—was another occasion for insight into the papal mind. On the day of the return flight to Rome, I received in the mail my copy of the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Over a report on Pope Francis’ visit to Florence on November 10 was the following headline: “I (Pope Francis) dream of a restless Church.” One can be a bit amused with this headline. One wonder what the Pope thinks he has on his hands if not a fundamentally “restless Church”! As far as I can see, we have not seen the Church this restless in ages. Indeed, much of the turmoil comes from the Pope himself who seems to delight in shaking things up.

It is interesting that the Pope used, in his Florence lecture on Christian humanism, the word “restless” to describe the Church. Obviously, that word comes from Augustine’s famous “restless” hearts not being able to rest unless they rested in the Lord; the Church was normally looked on as a place of peace that represented this divine goal. The Pope has said in several places recently that he likes Martin Luther’s notion of the Church as semper reformanda—as always being reformed. This phrase too is a “restless” image of the Church. Thus, we often find emphasis placed on corruption in the Church and its clergy. In a Church whose founder once told a leading follower to “get thee behind me, Satan” (Mt 16:23), we cannot think any present scene of human life is perfect or nearing it.

I was happy to read the Holy Father’s emphasis on “eternal life” in his homily in the Central African Republic. Though the Pope’s main emphasis (as it was here also) is usually on the problems of this world, still this is a significant passage. It cautions us against thinking that the Christian religion is about an inner-worldly version of human happiness. I found the talks in Africa to have been generally short and edifying. No doubt the language issue, as the Pope speaks only Spanish and Italian, was a factor. The scenes of the massed choirs and the music during the Liturgies were quite moving.

Papal return flights from visits in various countries have regularly produced items of interest and insight. Pope Francis’ off-handed remarks are often cited again and again. Even today, no phrase of Pope Francis has been more cited than his “Who am I to judge?” The return from Africa to Rome was no exception.

II.

The first question was from a Kenyan reporter who asked the Pope about his impressions, especially about the question of the youths “who told him their stories about excessive human greed.” The Holy Father answered by hesitating on the exact statistics but recalling that “80% of the world’s riches are in the hands of 17% of the population.” It is assumed, without further examination as to the causes of wealth and poverty, that these figures point to injustice. “Excessive greed” is the problem. The Pope adds: “There is an economic system where money is the center, the god of money.” Presumably, this is the economic system we have, that we can explain it at face value in percentage terms.

How did the Pope “feel” about this youthful question? “I spoke clearly about rights. I felt pain, I thought, how is it that people do not notice?” The Pope went to a pediatric hospital that had only “one instrument of oxygen”. In explanation, the Pope referred to Yahweh chastising the Hebrews for idolatry. “Idolatry is when a man or a woman loses their identity card for being a child of God and prefers to look for a god according to his own measure.” What needs to happen in this light? “If mankind does not change we will continue to have more miseries, tragedies, wars, children who die of hunger, of injustice. What is one to think of those who have 80% of the world’s wealth in their hands? And this is not communism. This is the truth.”

As we have learned by now, this sketch is a summation of how the Holy Father sees the world. Wars and evils come from mal-distribution; money and excessive greed are the problems. Yet, if we did somehow “redistribute” the 17% to the 80%, would everyone be better or worse off?Chances are, on this hypothesis, everyone would be poorer, including especially the poor.

The Pope assures us that he is not speaking “communism”; just what he is speaking is not clear. Is it possible that there is another explanation of wealth production and goods distribution that is not simply reduced to greed and money issues? No one, even an admittedly most greedy person, thinks that it is a good idea for hospitals in Kenya or anywhere else to lack proper equipment. But how did this equipment come into existence in the first place? What kind of economic, moral, and political system best teaches us how the 80% might best be helped? Money is but an instrument. Is it at all possible that the productivity of the 17% percent is not shared by the rest—not because of greed, but because of ideas and systems that do not foster or allow this means of poverty confrontation to take place? Is it an intellectual problem rather than just a moral issue of the vice of greed?

III.

Africa, Pope Francis responded to another question, was a “surprise” to him, as it probably would have been to anyone who had never been there before. He was impressed with the warmth and welcome of the people. He even took an Imam for a ride with him in the Pope-mobile. This ride was a “small” gesture. Some Christians evidently were concerned with this incident. It would be interesting to know if local or international Muslims saw it as a “small gesture” or as a sign of weakness before Islam as the rising force in the world.

Pope Francis next gave an interesting comment on the importance of the press. “The denunciation of corruption, of injustice, is good work, because there is corruption.” This is something the press can do. “The professional press must tell everything, without falling into the three most common sins: misinterpretation, to tell one half but not the other half, calumny, which is not professional…, and defamation, to take away the good name of the person who right now hasn’t done anything wrong to anyone, maybe it’s something from the past.” Likewise, “if a journalist, if they are truly professional, gets it wrong, he should excuse himself.” It is interesting to reflect on how much of the reporting on the Church has been from reporters who “get it wrong” regarding what the Church teaches. But sometimes they get it right.

IV.

For some time, in the liberal mind, one of the main “sins” has been something called “fundamentalism”. Roughly, this aberration means that any claim to truth is an affront to the relativist mind that controls the public space—a point noted by Cardinal Ratzinger in Truth and Tolerance, written shortly before he was elected pope. “Fundamentalism” does not just mean a literal interpretation of the Bible or Qur’an. Rather it is the truth claims of these sources themselves. Naturally, this issue brings up the question of what is and what is not allowed to be spoken in the public order. We have an ever increasing number of cases in which the Bible itself is considered to be an affront to the community; its claims cannot even be spoken in the public order lest religion causes strife.

Asked about this issue by a French reporter, the Pope responds: “’To intervene in the political field’—If that means to make politics, no. Whosoever is a priest, pastor, imam, rabbi, this is his vocation, but they make it a ‘live politics’ by preaching values. True values. And one of the greatest values is the fraternity among us.”

A passage like that always worries me because the word “value” in modern thought is so ambiguous. It usually comes from Max Weber. It means that no truth exists, so your “values” are what is arbitrarily assigned to what we want to do. Thus, a priest, pastor, imam, and rabbi could use the same word but mean something entirely different by it. A voluntarist philosophy of “values” makes the meanings of words totally volatile and equivocal.

In any case, Pope Francis continues: “We all have the same Father…. We have to make politics of unity, reconciliation. A word I don’t like but I have to use it is ‘tolerance’. But not only tolerance, co-existence, friendship. That’s how it is. Fundamentalism is a sickness that exists in all religions. We Catholics have some, not just some, so many who believe that they have the absolute truth, and they move forth with calumnies, with defamation, and they hurt (people), And I say this because it’s my Church.” Somehow, I thought that Catholics did have some “absolute truths”. In any case, “religious fundamentalism isn’t religious. Why? Because God is lacking. It’s idolatrous, as money is idolatrous.” It takes time to digest such a passage.

What is left? Here is how the Pope put it: “Making politics in the sense of convincing those people who have this tendency is a politics that we religious leaders must make, but fundamentalism that always ends up in tragedy or in crime, in a bad thing comes about in all religions a little bit.” What exactly is the Holy Father trying to say here? Are “consequences” what decide the truth or falsity of something? He seems to be saying that we should be able to state what we hold in the public order as part of our vocations.

Surely the only reason we try to make this effort is because we think what we hold is true. We are told to make it known to the nations. Evidently, if a doctrine ends up in tragedy or terror, it was caused by fundamentalism. On the issue of terror or war, for instance, it cannot have originated in what the religion teaches about itself, but only because of some wrongful fundamentalist interpretation.

V.

A reporter from Columbia asked Pope Francis about the changes taking places in Latin America, including in his own Argentina. Surprisingly, the Pope responded that he had heard of these changes on a geopolitical level but “I really don’t know what to say.” He adds: “That there are many Latin American countries in this situation of a few changes in their routes is true, but I don’t know how to explain it.” From a man who speaks so freely of such things, this comment about his own continent seems odd. It would be like saying that John Paul II knew little of Poland or Benedict little of Europe.

A German reporter—who else!—brought up the question of the hundreds of thousands of HIV cases in Africa. So should not the Church change its rules and allow condoms to solve this perplexing problem? The Pope did not bite. What Francis did was to go into the issue of moral perplexities. Should we “defend life” or are “sexual relations open to life”? An analogy is drawn to Christ’s dealing with the Pharisees on the question of observing the Sabbath. It is the global issue that counts.

I presume this means that the HIV problem is the result of a larger problem about proper sexual relationships. Another analogy seems to be to war. Don’t deal with the small things, but the “big” problem: “If the trafficking of arms continues, wars are the biggest cause of mortality. I would say not to think about whether it is lawful or not to heal on the Sabbath, I would say to humanity: ‘make justice,’ and when all are cured, when there is no more injustice, we can talk about the Sabbath.”

The logic of this response, as I see it, is that we need not make decisions about small things, like HIV, until we have a more perfect world in which there is no war or irregular marital relationships. We have here a version of Isaiah’s lamb lying down with the lion in the end times as the solution of a practical problem about what to do with an immediate issue. I think the Pope’s instincts are right to see the HIV/condom solution issue in broader terms. But I also think that this effort to change the birth control position of the Church via HIV issues can be met head on. The proposed solution does not work; the real issue is the proper family relations within a culture.

VI.

The next major question was asked by an Italian journalist who brought up the issue of the “third world war” that Pope Francis saw beginning with the Paris attacks. The papal response is the one cited above at the beginning of these reflections. This response is evidently a distillation of the Pope’s thought about war and its causes. “Wars happen for ambitions.” Yet, Francis does recall briefly the just war tradition—“defense against unjust aggression.” Whether any just defensive wars go on now or ever did is not entirely clear; Francis does not dwell on it. About ISIS, evidently the Pope thinks its impetus is caused by “fundamentalism”. Its evil is “terror” and “violence”. After some hesitation, the Vatican came around to advocate a UN force to protect the Christians and others being persecuted in the Middle East. This is probably something that will never happen.

But here, in a more general way, war is caused by ambition. One recalls the famous passage in Thucydides, the one that has been used so often to explain war. The Peloponnesian War was caused by Spartan fear of the rising power of Athens. About war, we can also recall the “walk softly but carry a big stick.” Machiavelli told us that “the distance between an armed and an unarmed man is incommensurable.” Von Clausewitz said that “War is politics under a different form.” But for Francis, “War is business, a business of weapons.” This view is a version of the thesis that guns cause killings—not those who use them for their own evil purposes.

Terrorists, Francis adds, do not make weapons, or only “small ones” perhaps. This is an interesting comment. If there is any military genius to the ISIS type theoreticians, and this goes back into earlier theses of war, it is the realization that small weapons are as effective in many ways as weapons of mass destruction. The Muslim operatives did not use an atom bomb to destroy the World Trade Center, though they might have if they had one; they used a passenger plane.

When we look at the armored divisions of ISIS, they consist of pickups and sedans. Knives are weapons of choice in beheadings. But their real weapon is simply “terror” or “violence”. Terrorism and violence are not separate, independent “movements” somehow undetached to Islam. They are primary weapons of war themselves. They can close down Brussels for a week any time they want. They are put into effect by men with small arms who are willing to be killed in the process. Their motivations have nothing to do with poverty or greed. Aristotle had long ago observed that if someone did not care about being killed, he could kill most anybody. This is what we see in the Middle East and in the streets of Paris.

So, “War is a sin.” Now, this is what the Church has always taught, but it distinguished between the sin of war and the virtue of protecting against this sin. The Pope touched on this, as I mentioned above: “Wars don’t come from God.” Many a Muslim theorist, basing himself on Qur’anic texts and Muslim history, think that Allah does approve war to make the world Muslim.

Such a passage makes one wonder what the Pope thinks when he reads the Old Testament, but that may be “fundamentalism”. Whether Christ “abolished” war or recognized that wars and rumors of war would remain with us can be debated. He seems to have had no trouble with Roman centurions.

To an American lady, the Pope remarked: “We can’t cancel out a religious (motivation) because there are some, or even many, fundamentalist groups at a certain point in history. It’s true; wars between religions have always been there throughout history, always.” Whether these historic wars were also caused by greed or the business of weapons is probably best left at that.

VII.

Finally, we had the inevitable environmental warnings in the wake of the Paris conference. Pope Francis follows the politicians and the scientists who claim that this is the world’s number one problem and the source of all others. “We have reached the limit. We are on the verge of suicide, to use a strong word. And I’m sure that nearly the entirety of all of those in Paris for the COP21 have the awareness and want to do something. The other day, I read that in Greenland, the glaciers have lost thousands of tons.”

It is difficult to tell whether war or earth warming is the greater problem, unless perhaps one holds that earth warming causes wars. (I am not sure how this approach would work with the Peloponnesian War.) Again, the “science” that gives us “certainty” about these upcoming disasters is but one more hypothesis subject to correction on more evidence. Much other evidence is already available that makes much of this panic questionable.

Some writers think that the whole environmental issue is a scheme to redistribute world wealth. Others posit that, if implemented, everyone will become poorer and more subject to state control. Still others think most of the issues can be best explained by natural causes. As far as I know, Pope Francis has no truck with any such considerations.

VIII.

Pope Francis’ concluding remarks on his trip are these: “Africa is a victim. Africa has always been exploited by other powers. From Africa they came to America, sold as slaves. There are powers that only seek to take the great wealth of Africa, possibly the richest continent. But they don’t think about helping to grow the nation, that they work, that all may have work. Exploitation. Africa is a martyr, a martyr of exploitation.” So this is how Pope Francis sees the issue. Africa itself has nothing to do with its problems. Everything is in apocalyptic mode—war, ecology, poverty, restlessness. It is through these lenses that Pope Francis sees the world which he visits.

The Holy Father is said to have read Robert Hugh Benson’s novel the Lord of the World several times. In this novel, the world definitely ends. The world is organized under a charismatic leader on premises directly opposed to the norms of reason and revelation that the Church is commissioned to keep in the world. The description of the this-worldly ideology that opposes the last Pope, Sylvester, is pretty much like reading John Paul II’s and Benedict’s description of the intellectual forces of modernity.

These apocalyptic issues leave us with the question of what are we saving the world for. Is it that men might reach “eternal life” or is it to keep some few of us alive down the ages provided we reconstitute man on principles that violate reason and revelation? The datur tertium, I suppose, would be Augustine’s “restless hearts” who understood that the Kingdom of God was not in this world. Pope Francis’ “restless Church” certainly leaves with us no choice but to sort these alternatives out.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.