Does it matter that Pope Francis was overlooked for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee (Photo: PA)

So, we now know the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace 2014. It is the 17-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai and the Indian Kailash Satyarthi. The first is a Muslim, the second a Hindu; the first is female, the second male; the first is the most famous teenager in the world, the second is someone, who, up to now, I have never heard of. But all this is in the fine tradition of the Nobel Peace Prize, which has a reputation of choosing politically balanced candidates.

One person who was tipped for the prize, and was the bookies’ favourite, was Pope Francis. He was nominated for the honour by the Argentinean parliament, which cited his role in promoting peace in the Middle East.

Does it matter that the Pope was overlooked?

Yes and no. In many ways the Nobel Peace Prize is an accolade that underlines the “right on” qualities of the recipient, and their general acceptability to the world’s great and good. In this sense the Pope does not need and certainly should not hanker after the prize, nor should we hanker after it on his behalf. The Pope, still less the Church, ought not to court worldly approval. That way disaster lies. After all, the Pope, like the rest of us, tries to follow Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ had precious few votes in his favour on Good Friday: when the crowd chose, they plumped for Barabbas.

Moreover, the popularity contest that the Nobel often resembles can seem pretty hollow after a time. Arafat won the prize, and so did Obama. Reputations can wane. It is true that Pope Francis is popular at present and this is to be welcomed, but one needs to remember that this popularity has little rational basis, just as the lack of popularity of his predecessor, in identical quarters, had little rational basis either.

However, if Pope Francis had won the prize, he would undoubtedly have used it as an opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the continuing conflict in Syria and Iraq. That would have been worthwhile, as this conflict is one which the world would much rather forget about.

Pope Francis may win in future years, but we need to remember that there have been many great men and women of peace who have never won the prize. One such is Gandhi, and another St John Paul II, who, in helping to bring about the collapse of Communism in Poland, helped to end the Cold War. That was a towering achievement that marks him out as a true builder of peace. However, the Nobel committee refused to honour him.
John Allen tells us why:

“During John Paul II’s papacy, he was frequently touted as a leading candidate for his efforts at peacemaking and interreligious dialogue. However, one member of the Nobel Prize committee, Lutheran Bishop Gunnar Staalseth of Oslo, Norway, publicly vowed in 2001 that no pope would win the award until the Catholic Church changed its teaching on contraception, which he insisted ‘favours life rather than death’.”

So, the pope was denied the Nobel Prize because he was Catholic. But you know what? If I had a choice between getting the Nobel Prize, and staying Catholic, you know which I would choose? That’s right – like the great John Paul, I would stick with being Catholic.