Since 1945, successive popes have plunged headlong into European politics with denunciations of populist communist parties in West Europe.
In 1949, Pope Pius XII approved a Decree against Communism issued by the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. It declared that Catholics who supported communist doctrine or voted communist were apostates and should be excommunicated.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II addressed the European Parliament, where the Ulster protestant politician, Ian Paisley, tried to shout him down. In 2002, the same pope went on to encourage Poland to “find its due place in the structures of the European Union, and Poland will not lose its identity but enrich the continent".
I was the UK Europe Minister at the time, and there is little doubt that Tony Blair’s enthusiastic support for encouraging East European nations into EU membership was based in part on his own Catholic faith,and his sense that these mainly Catholic nations and their people would strengthen Europe. Indeed, controversial as the policy of allowing Catholic Poles and others from poorer nations in East and Southern Europe after the crash of 2008 to work in Britain has been, one thing is for certain: the Catholic Church has benefited from bigger mass attendance.
Fast forward to 2019, and Pope Francis has plunged into European politics, turning his attention to the modern anti-European populists of the right. In a remarkable speech to Vatican diplomats and ambassadors, he claimed they were risking turning the clock back to the 1920s and 1930s. According to the Pope, the 'multilateral system' including the UN and EU – was threatened by the “resurgence of nationalistic tendencies. ”
“Some of these attitudes go back to the period between the two World Wars, when populist and nationalist demands proved more forceful than the activity of the League of Nations.”
In a direct reference to the rise of populist nationalism in Europe or Trump's populism in the US, the Pope said: “Political speeches that tend to blame every evil on migrants are unacceptable.” This is highly controversial in Italy, where the new populist government won power last year, and has increased its popularity with strident attacks on migrants. Indeed, Italy’s populist strong-man, Matteo Salvini, and another Catholic right-wing nationalist, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, have created what Kurz calls “an axis against immigration.”
Pope Francis also said his network of Vatican ambassadors that politics which “deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable.” Vatican ambassadors are called papal nuncios and the Holy See’s diplomatic reach, a multi-lingual presence in every corner of the world, have considerable below-radar influence. If Catholic churches start to campaign against austerity policies, he may be pushing at an open door as there is growing revulsion around the democratic world that the last three decades of political decisions – as much from the Democrats in the US, Labour or social democratic leaders in Europe, as from Conservatives, Christian Democrats or Republicans – have widened wealth gaps and increased inequality.
The beggars and homeless that can be found in every EU capital and the abject poverty that co-exists with huge wealth and luxurious living is a testimony to what France’s President Macron called “ultra-liberal EU politics” that have lost sight of the original social ambitions of the early shapers of European partnership and integration.
To be sure, Pope Francis’s criticism of nationalist and populist anti-migrant politics is nowhere near the denunciations and threats of ex-communication of Pope Pius’s campaign against European communism. But it is a first warning shot from the Vatican in the intensifying debate over whether Europe seeks to alleviate poverty and respect the UN’s convention of treatment of refugees.