How Angela Merkel and Pope Francis are reshaping the world

Pope Francis gestures as he speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a private audience at the Vatican May 18, 2017 (CNS photo/Gregorio Borgia, pool via Reuters)

When Germans go to the polls this Sunday, they are likely to re-elect Angela Merkel as chancellor, an office she has occupied since 2005. Merkel’s expected victory will be all the more remarkable given that the recent populist backlash against the global establishment has tended to see her as its chief enemy. Many had thought she would not survive the anger that her handling of the refugee crisis inspired.

To her enemies, Merkel is the leader of a technocratic, globalist European establishment that has lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people, an establishment that imposes austerity measures on weaker countries and is undermining the particularity of national cultures through the encouragement of mass migration.

Among Christians, attitudes towards Merkel diverge. The conservative Protestant prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is one of her most determined opponents.

He sees his resistance to her political programme as being rooted in his Christian convictions. Orbán stands for a Europe of Christian nation states which preserve their traditional cultures and economic independence; Merkel stands for a Europe of multi-culturalism, integrated into a globalised economy with a transnational division of labour.

But there are Christians who admire Merkel as the defender of solidarity and human dignity against fear-mongering populists. By far the most important of these is Pope Francis. In photographs, the two leaders seem to have an unusually close rapport, and Merkel has spoken of their shared values. In June, for instance, she said the Pope “encouraged me to continue and fight for international agreements, including the Paris [climate] agreement”.

This bond might seem surprising, since the Holy Father is a fierce opponent of what he calls “the globalisation of the technocratic paradigm”. But he admires Merkel because he is convinced that she is not the sinister globalist that her critics claim.

He may see in her programme a commitment to a goal that the Vatican has long shared: promoting a more humanised form of globalisation, as described in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio.

Merkel’s political platform is a complex mixture of different elements. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was founded in West Germany after World War II. Many of the founders had been members of the Catholic Centre Party before the war. The CDU, however, was meant to unite Catholics and Protestants, in order to form a consensus between people of goodwill in the defence of human rights, ensuring that there would be no repetition of the totalitarian horrors of the Third Reich.

This was typical of Christian Democratic parties in that period. While earlier Catholic politicians had hoped that states would once again recognise the Social Kingship of Christ, post-war politicians, under the influence of thinkers such as the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, believed that the way forward would be pluralist democracies, based on a consensus about natural law, partly inspired by the Christian understanding of the person but not itself explicitly Christian. Peace among such democracies would be promoted by economic and social interdependence, and the breaking down of barriers.

Such ideas were an important influence on the Second Vatican Council, and they were systematically promoted by Vatican diplomacy, especially after Paul VI, an admirer of Maritain, became pope.

In an interview in 2010, Merkel explained her view of the three main roots of her party’s programme: conservatism, liberalism and the Christian social heritage. By “conservatism”, Merkel meant a willingness to defend freedom and peace by military means; by “liberalism”, a market economy; and by “the Christian social heritage”, a commitment to defending the family and treating every human being as having an inalienable dignity as a child of God.

There have long been tensions between these different elements. For instance, Merkel responded unconvincingly when the interviewer asked how the increasingly liberal attitude of the CDU towards homosexuality was compatible with the Christian commitment to the family.

The Protestant and Catholic strands of the Christian social heritage diverged in some ways. Before the reunification of Germany in 1990, the CDU was dominated by the south-western Catholic tradition, with its mistrust of centralised power and its emphasis on local traditions and intermediate institutions. Reunification meant that the CDU became more north-eastern and Protestant.

When Merkel became head of the party there were murmurs among the old guard against the “Prussian Protestant”. Prussian Protestantism valued the efficiency of centralised, technocratic bureaucracies. Prussia was the home of Immanuel Kant’s duty-based ethics. Its spirit was cool and abstract. Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor who grew up in East Germany, certainly embodies something of this tradition.

The various parts of Merkel’s political make-up came together in her handling of the refugee crisis. The accusation that she planned a massive influx of migrants through the Balkan route to accelerate the multicultural transformation of Germany is unfounded. Even one of her severest critics, the journalist Robin Alexander, shows in his bestselling book on Merkel and the refugee crisis, Die Getriebenen, that Merkel was, on the one hand, driven by force of circumstances (the meaning of the title) and, on the other, by a sense of duty.

She met the great fear that the migrants aroused in Germany with an appeal to deeply held Christian moral convictions. The new arrivals were not merely “masses”, she said. They were individuals created in the likeness of God. As to fears about Islam destroying the Christian culture of Europe, Merkel said that Christian culture had already been eroding from the inside, as one could tell by asking ordinary Germans the simplest questions about Christian theology. “If you are worried about the preservation of Christian culture,” she said, “go to church more often and read the Bible.”

Excellent advice. But what Merkel overlooked is that one of the reasons why Christian practice has eroded in post-war Europe is arguably the very pluralist, religiously neutral ideal of democracy that Christian Democrats such as her have long promoted.

Maritain had thought that a pluralist democracy with a consensus on human rights would lead to a strengthening of religion. But this has not been the case. Societies that do not recognise the Social Kingship of Christ have instead become increasingly secular. And views of morality – especially sexual morality – have diverged from the teachings of the Church. Christian political parties such as the CDU have responded by continually watering down their own commitment to Christian moral principles.

Pope Francis admires Merkel, in large part, because she seems committed to the pluralist vision of global development that the Holy See has been pursuing since the pontificate of Paul VI. The hope behind this pluralist policy is that it will foster peace, cooperation and prosperity. The Holy See seeks a globalised world marked by solidarity and responsibility, in which sectarian differences are no obstacle to respectful harmony.

But the risk has always been that pluralism will lead to Christianity dwindling into an ever more marginal part of society, with the Church coming under increasing pressure to play down her teachings. Unfortunately, there are signs that this is already happening, particularly where Catholic moral teaching comes into conflict with secular moral attitudes. At the recent family synod, there seemed to be a strong impulse to overcome this divergence by softening Church doctrine. But surely no gain in harmony with the current establishment can justify obscuring the Church’s witness to those truths.

Merkel has always been adept at softening her position to accommodate changing public opinion. A turning point in her current campaign came when she relaxed party discipline to enable the German parliament to legalise same-sex marriage. The rival Social Democrats had hoped to use the opposition of Merkel’s party to the law against her in the election campaign. But by allowing the law to pass (even though she herself voted against it), Merkel pulled the rug out from under them.

It would be interesting to hear Pope Francis’s thoughts on this move. Would he see it as an example of moral cowardice? Or would he see it as a secondary matter which could be set aside in their common pursuit of a pluralist future?

Fr Edmund Waldstein O.Cist is a monk at Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria. He blogs at Sancrucensis and is editor of

This article first appeared in the September 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here