Why New World Pope Francis blasted Europe

Pope Francis' strong exhortation of unity and welcome to Europe comes as the continent's leaders wonder whether the crisis-ridden European Union can be saved.

Angelo Carconi/AP
Pope Francis (c.) attends the Vatican ceremony where he was awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen on Friday, May 6.

Pope Francis is an unusual pontiff in many ways. For one thing, he is not European.

That has not stopped the pope from inserting his papal pulpit into Old World politics, and on Friday he made a strong but diplomatic foray into the divisive issue of European unity and values, the National Catholic Reporter wrote. 

"What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?" Pope Francis asked in a speech at the Vatican. "What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters?" 

In a speech at the Vatican accepting Europe's prestigious Charlemagne Prize, which European leaders have awarded since 1950 to "the most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community," the pontiff praised Europe's past generations for establishing ideals of unity – and criticized the present. 

"What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?" he asked.

He embraced the chance to remind secular Europe of its past, exhorting the continent to return to its post-World War II values and unity, says Andrew Chesnut, chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a specialist in Latin America.

"Assuming the role of Francis, the prophet, the charismatic Argentine articulated his romantic dream of a compassionate, egalitarian and inclusive continent that welcomes the stranger in its midst, Syrian refugees, and revalues the family, youth and the elderly," Dr. Chesnut tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. 

The audience for the speech included the European Union's top officials and leaders from three EU nations, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The pope's strong words would have surprised none of these officials, as Europe's leaders are speaking openly about the blows to continental unity from the Greek debt crisis, the floods of refugees and migrants to the continent, and Britain's current referendum on splitting from the European Union. 

Although the Catholic Church's influence has long declined in Europe, the pope's political position and personal popularity likely ensures his words a welcome with most of Europe, especially as he offered no real political prescriptions, says Anthony Pagden, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and editor of "The Idea of Europe." 

The spirited papal speech, Dr. Pagden says, was precisely what the beleaguered European Union needs in order to survive.

"Unless you believe in the European Union, unless you believe in [its values], then it's obviously going to collapse, as it was already a very difficult experiment to begin with," Pagden tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "If you believe in the future of the European Union... then he's basically endorsing that."

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz explained why they selected a tough critic and a non-European – an unusual, but not unheard-of decision – for the continent's prestigious award, the Agence France-Press reported.

"Some will joke that the European Union must be in a bad way if it is in need of papal assistance," they wrote in a column for France's Le Monde. "Perhaps we needed an Argentinian to turn his outsider's gaze on the innermost values which bind us Europeans together, to remind us of our strengths."

The pope criticized nations that grow weary of dialogue, distinguish between asylum-seekers and migrants as a way to keep them out, and look to rebuild fences, The Guardian reported. He spent no time praising any current accomplishments, asking instead for a reworked economy to "create dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people."

Despite the possible irony of an Argentine pope telling European leaders who to let in, the pontiff spoke with a hint of nostalgia for a history that is only somewhat his.

"Like a son who rediscovers in Mother Europe his roots of life and faith, I dream of a new European humanism," he told the group.

The first-ever New World pope spoke as "a son of Europe" who, from his vantage point on this side of the Atlantic, grew up seeing Europe as the origin of his family, his culture, and his religion, Chesnut says.

"His disillusion with the current state of affairs in Europe partly stems from his youthful vision of the Old World as the cradle of world civilization, especially for Catholic Argentina," he says.

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