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What the ‘State of the World’ address reveals about the state of the Church

Pope Francis poses for an official photograph with diplomats accredited to the Holy See (Getty)

The annual speech to diplomats offered a deep insight into Vatican thinking

Pope Francis delivered his annual “State of the World” speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See on Thursday morning, in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

At once topical and thematic, the speech usually serves as a sort of “editorial” look back at the year that was, and an opportunity to identify and frame issues needing attention in the year ahead. It is not so much a policy speech as an opportunity to focus world leaders on the things the Holy See would like them to address.

The major themes of the Pope’s broad-ranging remarks this year were the duty — systematically neglected — to care for our common home, and international dialogue in favour of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence (including especially the United Nations as a vehicle for pursuit of that goal).

Specific issues on which the speech touched were: nuclear proliferation; education; the need to nurture a culture of encounter; and fostering the role of women in society.

On that last point, Pope Francis concluded his address by recalling the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. “Looking to Mary,” Pope Francis said, “I would like to say a special word to all women, 25 years after the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995.” Recalling the gathering a quarter-century on, Francis said, “It is my hope that the invaluable role of women in society may be increasingly acknowledged worldwide and that all forms of injustice, discrimination and violence against women come to an end.”

The Beijing conference followed on the heels of the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development, and saw many of the same issues up for discussion. At Cairo, Vatican diplomacy thwarted an attempt by powerful developed nations to enshrine a supposed right to abortion and make it an integral element of family planning policy on the international level.

The Beijing conference on women was, in some ways, Cairo redux. Under the leadership of Mary Ann Glendon (who later became US ambassador to the Holy See), the Vatican delegation to the Beijing conference was able to attenuate some of the worst parts of the Beijing Conference’s final product.

That was a significant success for Vatican diplomacy, though by no measure an unqualified victory. “The Holy See’s position as the conference came to an end was a difficult one,” Glendon said in 1996. She said the documents had been improved in some regards, but were “even more disappointing than the Cairo document,” in many significant respects, “which the Holy See had been able to join only partially and with many formal reservations”.

Glendon described “an intense session in which members of our delegation shared their views, hopes, doubts and concerns about the [Bejing] documents,” and then sent their assessment to the Secretariat of State. John Paul II’s decision was: “[A]ccept what is positive, but vigorously reject what cannot be accepted.”

Glendon warned readers of her 1996 essay in First Things that, after Beijing, “We have not seen the last of the effort to make abortion a fundamental right, or of the attempt to depose heterosexual marriage and child-raising families from their traditionally preferred positions.” Writing in 1996, she further predicted that we had not “seen the last of selective use of rights language to advance an anti-rights agenda exemplified at Beijing by the emphasis on formal equality at the expense of motherhood’s special claim to protection, and by the elimination of most references to religion and parental rights.”

“Worrisome, too,” Ambassador Glendon went on to note in her essay for First Things, “is the trivialization of universally recognized core principles through the attempted addition of vague new rights.” This has been a concern not only of Catholics and other Christians, but of jurists, political philosophers, moral theologians, and political leaders, for decades. A glance at the headlines will show how prominent those issues continue to be.

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Francis also expressed his hope for a visit to South Sudan, noting the many signs of hope and reconciliation he encountered during his visits to the African nations of Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius in 2019. At the same time, he decried the frequent and deadly violence in many other places on the continent.

“[I]t is painful to witness, particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, continuing episodes of violence against innocent people, including many Christians persecuted and killed for their fidelity to the Gospel,” Pope Francis said.

The Holy Father organised his reflections around his travels in 2019, and placed those reflections in the twofold key of “hope and realism”.

Describing the emotion of the new year as something that affects us in a manner not unlike “the cry of a newborn baby”, Francis went on to say: “[I]t fills us with joy and hope,” which is “an essential virtue for Christians, to inspire our way of approaching the times that lie ahead.”

Hope, however, must face concrete circumstances squarely.

“Certainly, hope has to be realistic,” he said. “It demands acknowledging the many troubling issues confronting our world and the challenges lurking on the horizon,” and requires that we call problems by their name and discover the courage needed to resolve the problems before us. “It urges us to keep in mind that our human family is scarred and wounded by a succession of increasingly destructive wars that especially affect the poor and those most vulnerable.

“Sadly,” Pope Francis acknowledged, “the new year does not seem to be marked by encouraging signs, as much as by heightened tensions and acts of violence.”

Later in the speech, Pope Francis explicitly named the flare-up between Iran and the United States, which has been dominating the headlines.

“Particularly troubling are the signals coming from the entire region following the heightening of tensions between Iran and the United States,” he said, “which risk above all compromising the gradual process of rebuilding in Iraq, as well as setting the groundwork for a vaster conflict that all of us would want to avert.” Pope Francis renewed his appeal to all interested parties, that they “avoid an escalation of the conflict and ‘keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-restraint,’ in full respect of international law.”

Francis did not omit mention of protracted crises in Latin America, either. “Greater polarisation,” he noted, “does not help to resolve the real and pressing problems of citizens, especially those who are poorest and most vulnerable, nor can violence, which for no reason can be employed as a means of dealing with political and social issues.”

Francis particularly mentioned Venezuela, where Vatican diplomacy has been working for years to alleviate and resolve a protracted crisis that has brought the country to the brink of collapse.

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Reporters on the Vatican beat will often comb the Pope’s traditional January address for subtle signs of what he really wants to convey, within the framework of broad issues — usually identified by the Secretariat of State and organised roughly according to geopolitical region — on which the speech inevitably touches.

This year, Francis was about as subtle as a hammer as he explicitly invoked the burnt-out shell of Notre Dame in the section on Europe.

“Europe ought not to lose that sense of solidarity that has for centuries set it apart, even at the most difficult moments of its history,” he told diplomats. “May it not lose that spirit which finds its roots, among other things, in the Roman pietas and the Christian caritas that have shaped the spirit of the European peoples.

“The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” Pope Francis continued, “showed how even what seems so solid can be fragile and easily destroyed.

“The damage suffered by an edifice that is not only precious to Catholics but important for all of France and the whole of humanity has revived the question of Europe’s historical and cultural values, and its deeper roots.”

He concluded: “In situations where a framework of values is lacking, it becomes easier to identify elements of division than those of cohesion.”

In his speech, Pope Francis recognised at once the pressing need of the Church’s moral witness, and the attenuated stature of the Church’s institutional voice as a result of the abuse crisis.

“[A]s we know,” said Pope Francis, “not a few adults, including different members of the clergy, have been responsible for grave crimes against the dignity of young people, children and teenagers, violating their innocence and privacy.”

Francis went on to decry the violence in familiar terms: “These are crimes that offend God, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to their victims, and damage the life of whole communities,” he said.

Noting the meeting he held last February at the Vatican with the leadership of the world’s bishops’ conferences, Pope Francis said: “[T]he Holy See has renewed its commitment to bring to light abuses already committed and to ensure the protection of minors through a wide range of norms for dealing with such cases in accordance with canon law and in cooperation with civil authorities on the local and international level.”

He used the moment to turn into an extended meditation on the role of education in building society. “Given the gravity of the harm involved, he said, “it becomes all the more urgent for adults not to abdicate their proper educational responsibilities, but to carry out those responsibilities with greater zeal, in order to guide young people to spiritual, human and social maturity.”

Then, Francis gave a plug to a major education initiative planned for this spring.

“For this reason,” Pope Francis said, “I have planned a worldwide event to take place on May 14 next with the theme: Reinventing the Global Compact on Education.”

He told diplomats the gathering is meant to rekindle the spirit of concern for and cooperation with young people, and to renew “passion for a more open and inclusive education, including patient listening, constructive dialogue and better mutual understanding”.

One takeaway from this is that Pope Francis still sees sexual abuse as part of a larger societal problem, of which clerical abuse is only a part. There is an important sense in which he’s right about that. The fact remains, however, that the lust for power he correctly identifies at the root of the crisis in the Church is a problem of clerical and hierarchical leadership culture.

When it comes to the Church, Francis is not only a moral voice among others. He is the supreme governor. Remedy demands strong governance as much as high-sounding words and grand gestures. If Francis wants the Church to lead in this regard, he does not so much need to plan great events and tell the world he has made epochal changes, as he does need to make epochal changes — to effect real, not just paper reform — and let the world see the changes taking place.

The problem is that, by definition, epochal changes take time.