Geopolitics on the rocks

Pope Francis against the Apocalypse

Coming from the end of the world but only wanting to generate beginnings, the pontiff doesn't focus on spatial geopolitics and rejects any final battle to defeat the ultimate enemy. Steve Bannon’s worldview versus Pope Francis’.

Following Donald Trump’s visit to the Holy See, and taking into account Antonio Spadaro’s analysis on MacroGeo, we offer a few thoughts on the distinctive “geopolitics” (or “anti-geopolitics”) of Pope Francis. 

We use the term “anti-geopolitics” because the pope constantly emphasizes the primacy of time over space, thus questioning geopolitical narratives. 

We will argue that the pope’s theological and political purpose opposes apocalyptic narratives (of which Steve Bannon offers an example) and apocalyptic players, developing a new role for the Catholic Church as a mediator capable of addressing new conflicts.   


The ends of the earth and the paradox of Christian time 


Pope Francis’ papacy started with a spatial remark, on March 13th, 2013: 


Brothers and sisters, good evening!

You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one… 


In recent years, Francis has emphasized in his theology the principle that “time is greater than space”. Therefore, he comes from “the ends of the earth”, but highlights the primacy of time, both for Catholics and for the Catholic Church as a world player.  


Christianity has always had a complex relationship with the world, with mundane affairs, with the interaction between space and time. On the one hand, according to Saint Paul, “time is short”, and on the other hand, time is valuable. This earthly life does matter. This paradox was influential at the beginning of Christianity, when the first Christian communities were waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. As we know, this did not happen. For Christians, nevertheless, our time is different because of Jesus Christ’s first coming, because of the Word made Flesh, His death and resurrection. But He does not return. This is a paradox; iam et nondum, now and not yet. 


Compared to other nation-states and empires, as a geopolitical player the Catholic Church is all about endurance. This, for instance, allows the Church to emphasize long-term trends, such as demography, to build a more complex map of the world than that of volatile political players. But there is also this peculiar relationship with time, comprehending (a) the times of Christian beginnings, (b) the times we live in and (c) the end of time. In the Letter to Diognetus, it is famously stated that “there is something extraordinary about the lives” of Christians. They are a living paradox. They inhabit the earth fully, but as strangers. “Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.” 


In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.”  


The idea of initiating processes rather than occupying spaces could be linked to the Augustinian idea of “beginnings” that Hannah Arendt liked to quote in her works. “Initium … ergo ut esset, creatus est homo, ante quem nullus fuit” (De civitate Dei, XII, 21). Man is here to be a beginning. Man must generate beginnings. 


Perhaps Pope Francis’ stance is anti-geopolitical, because there is no primacy of space, because spatial conflicts are not his key perspective. It is, however, certainly an anti-apocalyptic view. It is built on patience, not on haste. He comes from the ends of the earth, but he wants to begin, not to end. This is also his view of the Catholic Church as a world player. 

So, the pope argues against any apocalyptic geopolitics, against any idea of a final battle to end all battles, the ultimate struggle to vanquish the ultimate enemy.  


Bannon and Francis: two concepts of “world war” 


A prominent example of apocalyptic geopolitics lies in the ideas of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist at the White House. Bannon outlined his perspective in a now-famous Skype speech during the summer of 2014 (July 18th, 2014) at a conference held inside the Vatican and also attended by a prominent Catholic conservative, Cardinal Burke. 

At the beginning of his speech, Bannon made a comparison between 1914 and 2014. According to him, we are children of the First World War (“children of this barbarity”, children of what the 20th Century triggered, starting in 1914). The battles of this century-long war (which includes the Cold War) was essentially a battle between the “Judeo-Christian West versus atheists”. The alliance of Judeo-Christian values with the possibilities of capitalism won the century-long war, but now capitalism faces a crisis of values that endangers our civilization. 


According to Bannon, war is the distinctive feature of our time. Peace is an illusion. The century-long war between civilizations continues. At this very moment, “we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism”, and “this war is metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it”. This war requires “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam”. 


Just a few days after these once-obscure remarks by Bannon, Pope Francis spoke to a journalist about an already ongoing Third World War, but one fought “in pieces”. Did Francis listen to Bannon? Did he get the tape of Bannon’s speech from Cardinal Burke? It seems highly unlikely. 

Their approaches are exactly the opposite, because Bannon, for the sake of the Judeo-Christian West, emerges as an advocate of apocalyptic geopolitics. The idea of the apocalypse is always attractive in building a community of values, because it leads to absolute loyalty. There is a long history of apocalyptic attractiveness in religion. What does this imply? According to the Bannonian view, given that war is the key feature of our times, patience is a vice. We cannot initiate processes. We cannot begin. Our duty is rather to win the final battle against our enemies. This is the war to end all wars. Sloth is a cardinal sin and therefore the Church needs to choose, supporting the community of fighters. On the other hand, as Spadaro wrote, Pope Francis’ view acknowledges that peace needs to be conquered, but peace initiatives cannot be reduced to a unique, comprehensive battle against enemies. The war is one fought in pieces.   


The Church’s new role as a mediator and its challenges


Due to its unique history and bureaucratic competence, the Church has often played a diplomatic role. In his 1983 speech at the University of San Diego, the then-Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli emphasized the distinctive idea of the Holy See’s “mediation”. Casaroli said, “Dialogue often need mediators; not always, of course, in the technical sense that this word has in international law. The Holy See, for its part, does not shrink from the duty of offering its help, in accordance to its specific nature and possibilities.”  


In our times, the role of the Catholic Church is not simply that of a mediator of conflicts. The Church of Pope Francis becomes an advocate of Time against the Apocalypse. This also emphasizes the Church’s internal challenges. As Spadaro has shown, a number of issues take prominence in Francis’ ideas, such as touching the wounds of the world and seeing the world from its peripheries, but other traditional pillars are less valuable. For instance, is the concept of “civilization” useful according to Pope Francis? Is being “Western” important to Pope Francis? It seems he does not really care. “Civilization” and “Western” could, on the contrary, be identified as masks of apocalyptic thought. But this, of course, fosters his internal opposition, because filling the void of traditional historical and ideological pillars is challenging.  


Spadaro  has highlighted a key point about the ‘third world war in pieces’, which “threatens to emerge from areas not governed, from the absence of institutions.” The third world war in pieces has to do with statelessness. In the third world war’s pieces, institutions are weak, and a minimum amount of security or “welfare” is often guaranteed by criminal players. The war’s ‘pieces’ also include militias competing for control over a “wounded” territory. At the core of Pope Francis’ thoughts we therefore also have a “theology of fragile states and fragile spaces”. Pope Francis sees the fragility of institutions, such as the fragility of people, as a crucial burden of our age. 

Open wounds consist not only of the world’s peripheries, but also the divisions existing among us; our own institutional weakness in every part of the world. The new mediator’s duty is to address the wounds of the world, not to look down and judge. Not to introduce our “conventional ideas of judgment into the Apocalypse, the book of the many judgments of God, which is a terrible distortion”, as the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said. 

Time is different, in Christianity, but Christians need to act as if they had time. Beginning and enduring, not ending, to fill time with meaning. This could remind one of Apocalypse 12,12: 


For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.


The devil has no patience. The devil is he who acts with great wrath, having little time and trying to conquer time. In a nutshell, the work of the devil is reducing all time to a single space, leaving time no space for different beginnings. As a geopolitical player, Pope Francis comes from the ends of the earth to act against the End. To rediscover the burden of patience. 


(This is a revised adaptation of the author’s remarks at “Geopolitics of Transnational Law and Religion: an exploratory Workshop”, organized by the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, April 5th and 6th 2017)