Why are Liberals Turning on The Pope?

... and why Pope Francis’s praise of empires isn’t what you've heard.

Pope Francis in St. Petersburg, Russia 2014

Pope Francis—heralded in times past as a liberal revolutionary, a maverick, the outrage of the conservative and the traditionalist Catholic—finds himself at the epicenter of a Western media debacle. In comments made to Russian students over video call, Francis praised the legacy of the Russian Empire. Then, later in a visit to Mongolia, he lauded the virtues established by Genghis Khan’s empire. Criticism raged regarding his comments on the former. Rutgers professor Alexander Motyl outrightly called the Pope an “imperialist” in an op-ed for The Hill. Ukraine's leadership likewise accused Francis of spewing propaganda in favor of the “destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages.” The UK’s The Times & Sunday Times covered the Pope’s visit to Mongolia by highlighting the brutality of Genghis’s war machine, eventually using it as a lead-in to incorrectly state that the Pope expressed “conciliatory” messages to China (more on that later), which currently persecutes its Catholic population.

As behooves a discerning public, we have to wonder if this change of heart for the liberal West’s golden child echoes a principled stand for justice, or represents a maneuver grounded in the complex dynamics of political propaganda—a space where, all too often, consistent ideology and ethical reasoning are sacrificed for corporate and political expediency.

To answer this question, we must investigate the Pope’s intention and strategy, and then determine why the Western media reacts the way it does.

Background: The Pope’s Comments

In late August, Pope Francis held a virtual meeting with young Russian Catholics, speaking in his native Spanish. At the end of his prepared remarks, he switched to Italian and added his own, unscripted message:

Don’t forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — educated, great culture and great humanity…
Never give up on this heritage. You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you — thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian.

Outrage followed, as described earlier. The timing of the comments was bizarre, to say the least. The narrative of Russian’s current invasion of Ukraine revolves around Putin’s imperial ambitions. Putin himself offered much of the same language as the Pope’s to justify his invasion, often citing Peter I to remake the Great Mother Russia.

The Pope later refused to walk back his comments, but acknowledged they were unclear. In his words, he was thinking, “not so much geographically but culturally.” Invoking the novelist-philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky, he emphasized that, “Russian culture is of such beauty, such profoundness. It should not be cancelled because of political problems. There were dark political years in Russia, but the heritage is there, available to all.”

In Mongolia, Francis offered the same message, albeit in more precise language. Speaking to just 200 attendees—Catholics represent a tiny minority in Buddhist Mongolia—the Pope heralded the culture of religious liberty and tolerance established in Genghis Khan’s time and then later during the rise of Tibetan (Gelug) Buddhism in the country.

Perhaps to establish a pattern, some media sources sought to paint Francis as maintaining his praise for brutal empires. Though to better analyze the Pope’s meaning, we must delve deeper into the context of these papal visits, and the Mongolian context offers tremendous insight into the bigger picture.

Papal Political Strategy

To start, the act of visiting Mongolia was historic. No Vatican leader had visited Mongolia since a representative of Pope Innocent went in 1245. The representative, Caprini, sought to convert the Mongols as well as make a plea to the Kahn to spare Catholic nations in their invasions. He was turned away, with a letter saying the pope would submit to him. However, in the years that followed, Caprini maintained a relationship with Mongolian leadership and eventually wrote a book called The History of the Mongols. Nearly 800 years later, Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh praised the book as a “precious resource” to the country, in an address to Pope Francis. Political relationships of the papacy tend to persist through the cultural/ideological shifts of history. As is often said, the Vatican thinks in centuries, and this principle guides Francis’s actions and statements.

Second, the Pope addressed scarcely any people in Mongolia. With only around 200 in attendance, Francis supported his image as a champion of the people in meeting with Catholics across the world, no matter their political stature. This image is increasingly important as Francis looks to distance the Church from—ironically—imperial powers. Popes have typically maintained a strong grasp of realpolitik, typically siding with victorious states in the realm of great power politics.

Notoriously, the Vatican vacillated between supporting and condemning Hitler and the Nazi regime in the early years of the Second World War. Once the US became the world’s predominant power, Pope Pius XII garnered the nickname, “NATO’s chaplain,” by the media for his fervent anti-communism and support for Western political interventions.

Francis, on the other hand, has criticized NATO, runaway capitalism, and industrial destruction of the environment. In looking for an explanation, one can point to Francis’s Argentinian upbringing, the first pope from the Global South.

It was a hands-on education in the US sponsoring of right-wing dictatorships throughout South America in the 1960s through the 1990s. Operation Condor, led by the CIA and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, provided training, intelligence, funding, and technical support for the state-terrorism that led to the killing of some 30,000 in Argentina alone, not to mention the pervasive cases of torture and rape.

The world is also increasingly areligious, most especially the developed world. Engaging more forwardly with the people of the underdeveloped, the more faithful, offers a way for the Church to strengthen its position in a different realpolitik consideration. One may also point to continuing evidence that Francis may actually believe in championing the causes of the poor and uncared for, which often run contrary to the interests of great powers. Meeting few believers in a poor country is a point in his favor.

Lastly, while Mongolia lacks political stature, its location maintains geopolitical significance. Its neighbors are China and Russia, and the Pope’s visit exerts some influence across the borders. Indeed, several of the attendees were Chinese Catholics, who illegally crossed the border and remained anonymous from CCP surveillance in caps, sunglasses, and face masks. While in Mongolia, Francis offered a message to Beijing saying that the Church “had no political agenda” in an effort to break through the wall put up against Vatican input. Much of the issue that keeps China barring Francis has been his refusal to sever ties with Taiwan. Claiming “no political agenda” reflects a stance that the Vatican engages in spiritual affairs and not political ones—whether the Vatican or Beijing actually believe it or not.

Xi Jinping continues to limit freedom of Catholics, not to mention the crimes against humanity his regime perpetuates against its Muslim Uyghur population. Hardly the conciliatory message that The Times claims it is, Francis articulated a clear, rights-based, populist message in praising Mongolia for its religious tolerance. However, since no Vatican officials are allowed to engage with Church activities in China, working to gain entry hardly warrants controversy.

By all accounts, Francis has demonstrated a desire to shift the Vatican into a more populist-oriented (in favor of the people) Church than of one of great power support—a deviation from his predecessors, like John Paul II. However, to offer a connection to the broader world, the historically minded Church is suggesting that people everywhere look to their own history.

Praising the Virtue of Moral Legacy

When you read/hear the Pope’s words as they are, his statements maintain moral validity. Francis praising the notions of unity and the culture of reflection in the literature of the Russians, and the commitment of religious tolerance in Mongolia demonstrates an appreciation for values nearly everyone would uphold. The comments should lead the local listeners to use the legacy of their moral virtues to reflect on failings of today. Indeed, Francis’s message in Mongolia had greater importance in that, after 700 years of religious tolerance, the country fell into a tyrannical regime of Soviet Communism that led to the persecution of Buddhists and the murder of some 16,000 monks through the 20th Century.

The people’s politics of Russia does not necessarily reflect the state’s position, and Francis’s comments offer some support in a highly polarized and dangerous environment for dissidents. Since the invasion, between several hundred thousand and several million Russians have fled the country; thousands of others have braved the consequences and publicly protested Putin and the invasion. While the majority of Russians appear to still support the war, it also remains impossible to gauge just how much, given the fear around expressing opinions honestly on the war. Appeals for unity, against the backdrop of moral righteousness, reflect Francis’s intention of speaking to the public and not the state, and what it means to survive political danger and spiritual fulfillment amidst tumult.

Regardless of the political strategy, his comments, as they are, are grounded in a logical simplicity. Why has the Western media framed the comments as complicated and oppositional?

Propaganda—Not a Double Standard

Bear with me as we journey back to 2015, when Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in his first visit to the United States. Outside of Independence Hall, Francis introduced his vigorous support of religious liberty and that it should not be perverted as “a pretext for hatred and brutality.” He continued to extol the founding ideals of the nation. The message to Americans then was to exercise logical reasoning in the principles that “all men are created equal,” as written in the Declaration of Independence. Those principles, “led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement,” which showed that, “when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”

Again, the Pope’s moral argumentation is simple and easy to understand. As such, media coverage of the papal visit was overwhelmingly positive, with criticisms directed at his evasion of speaking on issues like sexual abuse, abortion, and queer rights.

Neither the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times, nor The Times & Sunday Times published articles attesting that, because the Pope supported the values authored in the 1700-1800s, he was implicitly supporting Manifest Destiny, the Trail of Tears, the Three-Fifths Compromise or the rest of the brutality of the American empire. In praising religious tolerance, the Pope’s timing could have been arguably odd then as well. Just three months before the Pope’s visit, the US bombed and leveled a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. This, in year 14 of the War on Terror, justified by the government’s Islamophobia.

The media didn’t write these articles because they understood what he meant.

The media’s response to his comments in Russia and Mongolia goes beyond the application of a double-standard. Editorial boards did not, en masse, understand the Pope’s remarks and then agree to review it negatively, despite their structure mirroring his popular comments in the US. Rather, as demonstrated in Herman & Chomsky’s propaganda model in Manufacturing Consent, major media outlets reflect their interests as corporate enterprises. (Indeed, nearly every major outlet I’ve cited in this piece is a Fortune 1000 company, if not Fortune 200 and higher). Press at this size does not make money from its readers, but rather from advertisers and its investor class. While liberal media allows for deviations from its interests to maintain legitimacy and discussion of freedom of thought—there still have to be readers for advertising to have an audience—it never ventures into topics that might threaten its corporate ideology.

The fifth filter of the model focuses on what was originally called “anti-communism and fear,” though has since been changed to just fear. After the Soviet Union collapsed and the US became so dominant, Herman & Chomsky argue that anticommunism transformed to support for projects like the War on Terror, while maintaining its same instruments. Once these institutions venture into analyzing the moral intricacies of nations of different political histories, the media’s purported moral basis loses consistency.

They agree entirely with the Pope’s intentions, comments, and structure when the US is mentioned because Francis’s guidance to the public to participate in its historical ideology to support a better future can be directed by those who run the cultural narrative. When Francis offers the same guidance—and based on the same morals of unity and tolerance—to other publics, it offers a subtle empowerment of people outside of Western political influence based on genuine liberal virtues (as it should be when addressing American audiences, as well). However, when major media claim to espouse liberal values, commitment to those values is always contingent on them not conflicting with corporatism. Morality becomes an instrument, and nothing more.

As an analogy, the United States government follows the same dynamic, though to a greater extreme, in the extensive history of the US assassinating democratically elected leaders to prop up right-wing tyrannies that better represent its interests. However, plans like Operation Condor do not necessarily mean that the people of the United States do not have a storied history and commitment to freedom and liberalism.

The democratic precept is that all politics are local, and people have to be free from tyrannical forces to make political progress. However, none of us is free from our histories or place in time. Indeed, history is now, and reflections of the past, the continuity of moral virtue, offer profound guidance for our ethics today.

Pope Francis’s comments demonstrate a desire to help the people make distinctions from manufactured political ideologies in favor of independent reflection of the positive lessons of the past. The modern papal political strategy represents this. Make no mistake that criticisms of the Pope and the Vatican in manipulating stigma—especially when they relate to shame and sex abuse—maintain their legitimacy. Flawed, however, are criticisms due to a failing of moral consistency.

All moral arguments demand a form of logical review in their own state. Major media have missed the point on his most recent comments.

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