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Pope Francis’s speech on Europe could have come from the lips of St John Paul II or Benedict XVI

Pope Francis addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg (PA)

The Pope’s recent speech to the European Parliament is interesting on many levels. It tells us a great deal about the Church’s attitude to the European Union, and it also tells us something about what may well be going on inside the Vatican at the court of Pope Francis. It also, by the way, marks the limitations of the Church’s influence in the political arena.

First of all, the speech, on the surface, clearly represents a rowing back from the optimism of the days of Saint John Paul II, the last time that a Pope visited Strasbourg. Then the European Union was hailed as a “beacon of civilisation”; now the European Union, and indeed the continent itself, is seen as old and haggard, and somehow abandoning the ideals of its founders, in favour of bureaucratic structures.

It is this change of tone, which cannot be denied, that the Daily Telegraph picks up on as marking the speech out as somewhat Eurosceptic in tone. Indeed, when one considers that the Pope’s speech comes from an Italian and Catholic ambience, and that Italy and Catholics in general have been the greatest cheerleaders of the Union to date, this is remarkable.

But of course the Pope does not say just how this sad change has come about or what the obvious symptoms of the change are. He does condemn the shockingly anti-life attitude that pervades Europe, and its general lack of faith, of course, which is what this paper picked up on (something other papers ignored). One wonders what his take on specific issues facing Europe at present are, in particular the question of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

A quick glance at the footnotes shows us something of great interest, namely the way the Pope quotes his two predecessors, Saint John Paul and Benedict XVI. This marks the speech out as in continuity with much of what has gone before; up to now we have been constantly fed the line that Pope Francis represents a rupture with the past, the papal version of “regime change”. But that is certainly not the case here. This speech could well have come from the lips of Saint John Paul or Pope Benedict, which leads me to guess that it was in fact written by someone who wrote speeches and encyclicals for them. If I were to point the finger, I would do so at Archbishop Rino Fisichella, one of the most clever and capable men in the Roman Curia.

This may well tell us something about what is happening in the Vatican at present. After a period of disconcerting chaos and drift, a more secure hand seems to be on the tiller. Cardinal Burke asked the Pope to give us a clear statement of doctrine – well, here it is. Taken with the recent appointment of the highly dependable Cardinal Sarah, is there a hint that Pope Francis is “tacking to the right”? By “right” one does not mean rightwing in the usual sense; rather, is the Pope now doing something to placate those he has until now done little to please? Are we seeing a change or a moderation in direction?

The other thing about this speech is that it shows us the limitations of what the Church can do. With reference to yet another shipwreck near Lampedusa, when confronted with the sad deaths of so many illegal immigrants, the Pope uttered the word, “Vergogna!”, meaning “Shame!” But to whom was the word addressed? Now we see the Holy Father telling us that the Mediterranean must not be turned into a graveyard. Well, quite: no one wants people to drown in the Mediterranean. But the question remains: how is the phenomenon of illegal immigration to be dealt with? This is something to which the Italian government, and even more so the Maltese, would love to have an answer.

An examination of the Pope’s words on the question make it clear that he wants it to be seen as a problem that requires a unified European response; and he also wants us to do more to solve conflicts abroad, which fuel such immigration. And he talks of “accepting” these immigrants, while protecting the rights of European citizens by legislation. One can only hazard a guess about what this means. I think it means that those currently languishing in Malta and the south of Italy should not be confined there but should be free to live in other parts of the Union too. In other words that the countries of the north should share the burden. What this brushes under the carpet is the illegal nature of such immigration. Are we to legalise what is currently illegal? Or does legality no longer matter? I cannot imagine the Pope’s words making much difference, frankly, though he is right to highlight the fact that the burden falls unfairly on certain nations, particularly Malta.

The Pope also made another speech at the Council of Europe which was not as good as the speech to the Parliament, it has to be said. It had at its centrepiece a reference to a poem by Clemente Maria Rebora, an Italian poet, and a Rosminian priest, who died in 1957. This will delight the fans of Rebora, and makes one suspect the Pope is one of their number, but Rebora is pretty obscure, even in Italy. Rebora was a Russian speaker and translator of Tolstoy, but it might be pushing it to read anything into that!