WATCH: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has wrapped up his six-country trip to Europe with a trip to the Vatican. He was in and out in no time — a much shorter visit than other world leaders such as Vladimir Putin, who was there just a day earlier. Jacques Bourbeau reports.
Russia remains at odds with Western nations over its support for separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine, but the tensions between President Vladimir Putin and his geopolitical adversaries was brought to one of the world’s holiest places this week.
Harper’s brief encounter with the Pontiff — just 10 minutes compared to Putin’s 50-minute tête-a-tête with the leader of the Catholic church — continued along the same theme as the rest of his six-day visit to Europe: sending a message to Russia about aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Pope Francis has no political leverage in global affairs. But, he absolutely has a great deal of moral influence that extends beyond the world’s estimated 1.25 billion Catholics.
“Pope Francis seems to have recognized that his role as Holy Father is not limited to speaking about pious platitudes. Rather, he has taken a very serious interest in what we might consider the less obviously religious concerns of the world,” said Fr. Jeffrey S. Burwell, Director for the Jesuit Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Manitoba.
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been outspoken on issues such as income inequality and the environment and offered somewhat more progressive views on the acceptance of sexual minorities and other spiritual beliefs.
The Pope and the Vatican hold unique positions on the world stage. While the Holy See is represented at the United Nations with a permanent observer mission, it’s at the Vatican that world leaders can openly discuss sensitive issues they might not be able to address in a more public forum.
“It is easier for political leaders to meet with the Holy Father and then respond to requests for change that they otherwise could not have made on their own,” said Burwell in an email to Global News.
Dr. David Seljak, an associate professor of religious studies at St. Jerome’s University-University of Waterloo, said the Vatican offer an “ethical dimension” to dealing with global crises, free of political or economic gain — something world leaders don’t have. He said the Pope can serve as a mediator and still allow governments to save face.
“Going to the Vatican can grease the wheels of diplomatic solution because then it looks like you’re not making a political concession but you’re really just having a dialogue in a non-political sphere,” he explained.
“For a variety of reasons, people care what the Pope says” even if they’re not devout Catholics, Seljak said in a phone interview.
He added Francis has both a moral and “charismatic” influence that allows him to “shape public discourse just by the force of his arguments and the visibility of his office.”
There is a tradition of popes using the role to break down political walls.
Seljak said Francis is following the lead of Pope John Paul II — the predecessor to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who became the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years.
Francis is also being credited for playing a role in thawing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, leading to the recent restoration of diplomatic ties, the easing of sanctions and the U.S. removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But politicians don’t always hear what they want from the Pontiff, sometimes prompting them to tell him to stay out of affairs.
“Unlike either Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the interest that this Pontiff has in global affairs has elicited both admiration and condemnation from a diverse cross-section of individuals,” said Burwell. “Even among Catholics, there is no unified opinion on whether his engagement of the secular is good or not.”
In advance of Putin’s visit, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett called on Francis to take a more stern approach to addressing suspected Russian aggression.
“We think they could say something more about concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues,” the Christian Science Monitor reported Hackett saying. “It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine.”
What Francis did stress to Putin was the “need to commit oneself in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace.” according to Radio Vaticana.
While the meeting was “cordial,” Francis often doesn’t back away from sharing his stance on issues of international concern nor worry about stepping on the toes of world leaders.
The Pontiff also recently angered Israel, and its fervent supporters in the U.S., by calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state.
“It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation, and that’s what the Church is supposed to do,” Politico reported Republican congressman Jeff Duncan saying last month.
Seljak said it’s quite common to praise the Pope when he speaks to something the U.S., for example, is standing for but tell him to stick to sharing the word of the Lord when it doesn’t suit their cause.