The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.
In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”
Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.
The refugee crisis presents a particular challenge that Francis’s predecessors did not have to face, and it is one of the issues on which global Catholicism must address the shifting relationship between the radicalism of the Gospel of Jesus and the complexity of the political, institutional, and demographic of the church in countries where Christians are a minority. It presents a further challenge in that it is impossible to frame ideologically in a way that can help Francis’s case. Christian Europe has had to deal with refugee crises in the recent past, but the current situation has nothing in common with, for example, the opening of West Germany to citizens of the former East Germany after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. A few decades before, at the end of World War II, the 12 million Germans who came to the very young and fragile Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) were “ethnic Germans” fleeing both communism and anti-German retaliation of the post-war period, and they were accounted for in the diplomatic deals that concluded the war and redefined the boundaries of European states and the spheres of influences between the Soviet Russia and the free world.
There is no obvious ideological, ethnic, or religious identification between Christian (but now largely secularized) Europe and the refugees trying to reach the continent today. From an ideological perspective, the wars in Africa and the Middle East are difficult to fit into the categories of Western politics, except for the fact that they awaken in European nations a sense of responsibility for the failure of the nation-states created between the First and the Second World Wars. Ethnically, these asylum seekers are from different groups, sometimes enemies to each other. From the religious standpoint, there is in Western Europe little knowledge (and this is not the fault of secularization) of Middle Eastern minorities (including Christians), who because of their common “Arab” culture are perceived simply as “Muslim.”
From a purely political point of view, the refugees are a burden and a liability for European leaders. The discomfort of Europeans, including European Catholics, at the prospect of hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern poor is due not only to the crisis of the European social model and the limited capacity for integration. It also arises from the difficulty of ideologically framing these strangers. It is worth remembering that only a few years ago, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, archbishop of Bologna from 1984 to 2003 and one of the heroes of conservative Catholics in Italy, asked the Italian government to accept only Christian immigrants and to limit the religious and civil liberties of Muslims in Italy . He made this statement in a public lecture on September 30, 2000, during the Great Jubilee called by John Paul II. The Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church have come a long way in these last fifteen years. It is no longer the ideological pillar of the West, but rather is driven by a clearly post-ideological and anti-ideological Pope Francis.