The man in the window, and the world beyond

Pope Francis is going to Dubai next month to attend COP28, the latest of a long string of annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences that first began in 1995.

Nov 19, 2023

By Robert Mickens
Pope Francis is going to Dubai next month to attend COP28, the latest of a long string of annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences that first began in 1995.The Vatican confirmed recently that the papal trip to the United Arab Emirates’ largest city will take place December 1-3. It is the first time ever that a Pope will attend a COP (conference of the parties), which is the supreme governing body of an international convention, a legally-binding treaty.

Francis has been one of the most impassioned global figures on the urgency to take concrete and immediate steps to protect the environment, also through new laws and treaties. He has spoken and written extensively ? including through two major documents, a papal encyclical and an apostolic exhortation ? on the duty human beings have to “care for our common home”, as he frames the issue. Obviously, as a religious leader, he has made his arguments and appeals from a Christian point of view. And he has tried to show ? quite convincingly, in fact ? that the Christian view is also an imminently humanitarian and non-sectarian one.

Has the Pope failed to make the case?
But has the Pope succeeded in changing the minds of many climate change deniers (among them some of his fellow Catholics) and others who believe concerns about environmental destruction are over exaggerated? The fact that, at his age (he’ll be 87 on December 17) and with his diminishing health (he is mostly confined to a wheelchair), he’s willing to sit in a plane for over five hours and make a nearly 3,000-mile journey to address leaders at COP28 in person suggests he has not succeeded. It also shows a deep concern over his failure, up to now, to be able to significantly influence the climate change talks.

Francis’ allies and admirers would disagree that he’s been a failure. In fact, they believe he is actually the one moving the dial, as slow as that may be. The trip to Dubai, however, gets to the heart of another matter: how much influence does this Pope ? and the Roman papacy as an institution ? actually have today in global affairs? Despite the image a favourable press often portrays of him, the Jesuit pope is hardly a major “player” on the world stage. Yes, he is unique among all global figures in that he is the last absolute monarch in the West. Once he was also the leader of the largest religious denomination in the world. But that ship sailed long ago. Muslims are now Number 1. They overtook Catholics in terms of numbers at least fifteen years ago and the gap is growing.

An NGO like the Red Cross
There was a time, even after losing its temporal power, when the Roman papacy (the Holy See) could make a serious difference in the halls of earthly power. But that is no longer the case, at least not as it once was. Look at the war in Ukraine. Despite Pope Francis’ almost daily appeals for peace, his stated willingness and determination to “do whatever I can to end the war”, he ? and the people he has deputed to act in his name ? have basically been able to do nothing more than an NGO like the Red Cross. And then there is the horror show in Nicaragua, where a brutal dictatorship is expelling and imprisoning Catholic priests, bishops and vowed religious. The Argentine pope has been unable to do anything to stop or mitigate this blatant persecution of the Church in the very region ? Latin America ? from which he hails. The diplomats of the Holy See, who seem to be working in parallel rather than in sync with Francis, have had little more success in Nicaragua. And the list goes on.

A blessing from the Vicar of Christ
Every week ? in fact, usually twice each week ? the Pope uses his bully pulpit to appeal for peace and weigh-in on issues that are of concern to him. Each Sunday at noon he stands at a window of the Apostolic Palace and prays the Angelus with (usually) thousands of people gathered below in St Peter’s Square. He first offers a short reflection on the Gospel of the day and then gives a blessing. Afterwards, he makes his peace appeals and sometimes comments on world affairs. He often does something similar on Wednesday mornings at the end of his weekly gathering with thousands of pilgrims and visitors.

International political and civic leaders, heads of state and dignitaries ? even many others who are considered the world’s movers and shakers ? line up at the doors of the Apostolic Palace for a private meeting with His Holiness, the Sovereign of Vatican City State and head of the Roman Catholic Church. There are surely some who go to seek his advice. But most go to share their own concerns and points of view on every imaginable issue, usually with the aim of gaining his and the Vatican’s support. Although the papacy no longer has the political clout or influence it once had, it’s never a bad look for a world leader to have the blessing of a religious figure who still has, as his most eminent title, the Vicar of Christ.

And maybe that’s the real point of it all: the influence that Jesus the Christ had on the rulers and dignitaries of His day was even less than that which most of his 266 “vicars” have had at various times in history. In this sense, any failure that Francis or a future pope might experience on the global political stage might actually be reframed as something very different ? perhaps even a victory in the Gospel logic where losing is winning and death means new life. -- LCI (https://

*Bully pulpit - a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an opportunity to speak out on any issue. This term was coined by United States President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to his office as a “bully pulpit”, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda

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