One of Pope Francis’ most popular metaphors for the Church portrays it as a field hospital, caring for the wounded. Every time he proposes it people, both inside and outside the church, swoon. It seems so caring, so pastoral, and such a welcome change from the doctrinaire Catholicism of his predecessors.
Closer attention to the metaphor shows its sinister elements. A field hospital cares for those wounded in battle. It fixes them up and throws them right back into the fight that butchered them. It doesn’t do anything to stop the battle. In fact, it enables the war to continue, offering up a continuous stream of treated soldiers to the front.
This reading of the metaphor matters because tending to the wounded while acquiescing in the cause of their wounds has become a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy.
Pope Francis, friend of the poor and the marginalized, the soft, cuddly face of the Catholic Church, has consistently played nice with dictatorships. While some of his predecessors were a thorn in the side of totalitarianism (most famously Pope John Paul II) Pope Francis enables and bolsters it.
The most recent example is perhaps the most egregious. Alexander Lukashenko has been the brutal dictator of Belarus for over a quarter of a century. He arrests citizens without trial and tortures them. He has killed and jailed his political opponents. In the months after last August’s election, he repressed peaceful protests with savagery.
In response to this, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, widely regarded as the real winner of the election, asked Pope Francis to condemn the brutal regime. But Pope Francis did not. Instead, on December 21st, he provided a significant “victory” for Lukashenko. Lukashenko had exiled the leader of the Catholic Church in Belarus, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, after Kondrusiewicz condemned him. Incredibly, the Vatican did not criticize Lukashenko for this. Instead, Pope Francis sent envoys to meet with Lukashenko’s regime to discuss the conditions under which Archbishop Kondrusiewicz might be allowed back. The promises they made were satisfactory and, with great fanfare, Lukashenko announced on December 21st, that, after a personal request from Pope Francis, “there were no more obstacles” to Archbishop Kondrusiewicz’s return. Those obstacles, originally, were the Archbishop’s support for opposition to the dictator. These obstacles, after Pope Francis' intervention, are no more.
Such acquiescence is nothing new. To be fair to Pope Francis, it should be noted that former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was a strong ally of Lukashenko under the pontificate of Benedict XVI, criticizing the sanctions that many countries brought to bear on the dictator. Increasing evidence of Lukashenko’s brutality, however, has been accompanied by an even closer relationship under Pope Francis. Last month, amid a storm of international condemnation of his dictatorship, Lukashenko was confident to proclaim, “Belarus and the Vatican enjoy special relations”.
Such close relations between Pope Francis and totalitarian regimes is far from unique. His playbook in Belarus has mirrored his approach to China. Francis struck a deal with China in 2018 that allowed the Vatican to appoint bishops in China as long as these bishops were approved by the Chinese communist party beforehand. This deal led Cardinal Joseph Zen to claim that the Vatican was “selling out the catholic Church in China”. But no matter. Francis’ goal is not to change brutal dictatorial regimes, it is to maintain a presence on the ground in the hopes of being able to offer a helping hand here and there. It was not to challenge totalitarian regimes – as, after all, who is he to judge? – it is to acquiesce with them.
Pope Francis remains a media darling for his non-judgemental and pastoral approach. An apolitical approach grounded in his claim that “realities are greater than ideas”, a principle he shared with Argentinian dictator Juan Peron for whom practical care for worker’s needs mattered far more than ideological principles, such as the right of a person to vote. In Argentina, this approach served him well as, under a series of dictatorships, he could maintain a pastoral presence without ruffling any feathers.
Pope Francis calls ordinary Christians to care less about ideological issues and, instead, care for people, and love them where they are. But Pope Francis is not an ordinary Christian. He is a world leader. He is no longer the pastor who kept his mouth shut under dictatorships. As a world leader, Pope Francis' acquiescence with brutal dictatorial regimes, such as Belarus, bolsters these regimes and enables their horrors. Francis is loved because he offers a simple pastoral presence. But he must remember that, whether he likes it or not, he is no longer a simple pastor. He is the Pope and his ideological aversion to ideology has massive costs for people living under totalitarian regimes, like the dictatorship in Belarus, which he continues to support.