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Pope Francis has said it repeatedly: He did not come to France, but to Marseille. Still, the French must not take offense, since, as he has emphasized, it has been his firm resolution to visit no “great European country.” It matters little that he was received eagerly and warmly by the prime minister and the president of the French Republic, that he was protected every second by both local and national police forces as well as by French soldiers, or that, moreover, the city of Marseille is now the French city that depends most on the goodwill and the resources of the French state; for him this nation, like other European nations, could never be the object of his care nor the subject of his address. As far as he is concerned it does not exist; his world and his motives for action do not extend so far. “Marseille and the Mediterranean”—this is his constituency.

By contrast, his predecessors in the papal office once showed a lively and friendly interest in the various European nations, since they understood to what degree the history of the Church and that of Christianity were intimately intertwined with the history of European nations.  The physiognomy of each of these nations is still strongly marked by the way it took up the Christian religion and by the character of its relations with the Catholic Church. Popes once had something to say to each of our nations, as one can confirm by reading the speeches of Pope Benedict XVI to the British Parliament, to the Bundestag, and at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris—in three countries where the Roman Church was the subject and the object of bitter conflicts. The Church’s respect for the nations derives not only from our history; it is an expression of her respect for human communities, for all the ways by which humanity comes together to mediate between men and govern itself. The Church considers herself, as we know, the mediator between humanity and God himself, as is explained in magnificent terms in the conciliar constitution Lumen gentium.

Pope Francis’s view of the world’s condition is above all a political perspective. In his eyes, migration, or at least migration to Europe, is the most significant phenomenon of our age, and all the questions that stir us must first of all be considered in relation to this. Thus according to Francis, the old European nations are obliged to prioritize migrants and settle in their territories those who ask for this hospitality. It is striking how lightly Pope Francis considers human attachments. Human beings love, often passionately, the families, cities, nations, and ways of life with which they have grown up. These can be dangerous attachments, like everything that is human, but without them nothing great was ever done in the world. Are we to understand that we have a duty of indifference toward our families, our nation, even our Church? 

Pope Francis’s political approach would give us less pause if it were not accompanied by a similar religious perspective. In the 1950s, a part of Catholic public opinion convinced itself that it was the proletariat that gave meaning to the ongoing march of history, and that it must be the special object of Christian charity even when it adhered to the communist movement. To take part in the struggles of the proletariat carried a redemptive value. Many Christians were thus brought to sympathize actively, not only with the worker’s movement, which was perfectly legitimate, but with the Communist movement and the Communist regime as well. We are seeing an analogous phenomenon today. Migrants today, just like yesterday’s proletarians, are for certain Christians the place where earth and heaven meet.  And just as, yesterday, people refused to take account of the link between a part of the proletariat and Communism, today we set aside as impious the question of the link between immigration and Islam. The unconditional acceptance of immigrants is becoming the exclusive, or at least the main, criterion of sincere Christian faith.

The “civilization” that Pope Francis declares to be possible and wishes passionately to render desirable concerns mainly our European nations. His appeals do not include either China, or Russia, or India, or the Muslim countries. It is in the Mediterranean region that the great work must be accomplished. The reasoning that leads to the erasure of nations also necessarily implies the erasure of the Church. Why would the Church maintain her form, her internal principle, her sacraments, and all the characteristics that set her apart? Why stay in the Church, when the Church herself asks us to melt into humanity?

Pierre Manent was director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, until his retirement in 2014.

This essay was originally published in Le Figaro. Translated from the French by Ralph C. Hancock. 

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