Easy to miss the distinction here, but it’s there, all right. He’s not praying “for the people of Europe”, or even, “to grant wisdom to European leaders”, or anything like that. He’s praying for “the unity of the European Union”.
On the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church and Patroness of Europe, let us #PrayTogether for the unity of the European Union, so that we might all move ahead together as brothers and sisters.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 29, 2020
It can’t be an accident, either. There is, perhaps, no organisation on the planet that parses its words more carefully and with more precision than the Vatican, as those of us who remember the immortal phrase “mental reservation” might recall.
It’s relatively unusual for the Pope to overtly pray for the success of a political project. Even JPII, the great basher of communists, didn’t ever pray for the unity of the North Atlantic alliance and the end of the Soviet Union, because to do so might have been seen as a bit provocative in the Kremlin. In fact, this may be the first time it’s happened since Popes stopped praying for the downfall of protestant English Kings and Queens as part of their daily routine.
He’s entitled to pray for whatever he wants, obviously, since he’s the Pope, and we can only hope that he takes the precedent and includes some prayers for lower taxes on people like me tomorrow.
But why’s he doing it, now?
A couple of possible explanations. First, the one place in Europe where the Pope still has significant political influence is in Italy, itself. And Italy, having been hit hard by Coronavirus, seems in significant danger of falling out of love with the EU. Remember this?
New poll in Italy.
On EU membership
Remain 51% (-20)
Leave 49% (+20)
Changes on Nov 2018
Would Italy ever leave? I doubt it. But it's also hard to avoid the conclusion that the crisis is fanning the flames of Euroscepticism … https://t.co/ffI4gD7RI9
— Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) April 11, 2020
There’s no immediate danger of a referendum on EU membership in Italy, but, it being Italy, there’s nearly always the danger of an immediate election, one that could benefit strongly Eurosceptic politicians, like Matteo Salvini. The Pope may well be trying to nudge the Italians back to what he feels is a more moderate view of the EU, and the world, with a little invitation for them to pray for it.
Second, he may actually be trying to prod the EU itself. As we’ve noted here repeatedly, the EU is at loggerheads over what to do to head off the coming debt crisis in the Eurozone, as countries like Italy are forced to borrow to the very limits of their capacity during the lockdown:
“The 19 finance ministers of the euro zone failed to reach agreement in marathon overnight talks on how to rescue the continent from a steep downturn expected as a result of the coronavirus.
A press conference to announce an agreement was delayed until Thursday, after already having been postponed to Wednesday morning from Tuesday, to give the ministers more time to agree.
There is deep division over how to respond. Italy is adamant that joint debt issuance in the form of so-called eurobonds or coronabonds is needed as a collective and resolute response to a crisis that has pummelled its already weak economy, a proposal backed by eight other states including Ireland, France and Spain.”
A little Papal nudge about “unity” might well be translated, at least from this Pope, who doesn’t hide his economically left-wing leanings, as “get the finger out and sort Italy out with Eurobonds, lads”.
In fact, it’s probably a combination of the two. Hinting to the Italians that they need to stick with the EU on the one hand, and prodding the EU with the other hand over financial supports to countries that have suffered the most. Truth to be told, it probably has nothing whatever to do with Brexit, though that probably won’t stop the British Press getting annoyed with the Pope, which a British Press tradition as old as writing mean headlines about the prospective wives of British princes.
Is it wise, though, for the Pope to be getting involved in this sort of thing? That’s entirely a matter of perspective. My own preference, to be honest, is that he’d stay out of politics altogether. Even on subjects that are supposed to be very important to the Church, like abortion and poverty, the Pope usually refrains from overtly political interventions, on the grounds that it doesn’t help the Church much to antagonise progressive political leaders. Of course, this is slightly different, in that unlike those issues, the EU is popular with progressive political leaders, so the Pope’s not taking that risk here.
Which is very important, obviously, since the whole point of the Church is to say things that are popular with political leaders, isn’t it?