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The Post-Pandemic Window of Opportunity for the Global Moral Role of Religion

By: Jocelyne Cesari

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

The end of the Cold War and the emergence of religiously-motivated political groups, most notoriously Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have dramatically and somewhat painfully put an end to the disdain of elites regarding religion as a significant component of world affairs. One unfortunate consequence of this change has been to focus almost exclusively on the security issues associated with the visibility of religion at the international level.

Twenty years after September 11, 2001, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interdependence of peoples and revealed the limited capacity of states to protect their citizens. In line with the focus on security, most media and political attention has been on religious communities that work hand in glove with nationalist leaders and contribute to the rising forms of intolerance associated with the anxiety of citizens in these times of increased danger (Islamophobia, racism, etc.).

But there is more to religion than meets the eye. At this junction in time, religious communities are uniquely positioned to provide moral guidance for global politics. The pandemic has made us conscious of the danger of what President Herbert Hoover called “rugged individualism” by showing that the attitude of one endangers the safety of others. That is one of the reasons why religious groups have been at the forefront of efforts to give social community priority over personal fulfillment by imparting the sense of solidarity and fraternity. In a related vein, the highly publicized controversy over the limitations placed on religious practice during COVID-19 lockdowns has obscured the fact that religious groups have often worked to keep the community spirit alive to avoid personal isolation and despair during the pandemic.

Even more significant, the pandemic has created the conditions for a stronger religious engagement on a global scale, as exemplified by Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Francis’ call for engagement across established cultural, religious, and national borders is at the heart of what he calls a culture of encounter.

The Global Resonance of Fratelli Tutti

Historically, religion has always served as a transnational source of values and cohesion. After all, "religion," from the Latin religare (to bind), reflects the idea of linking together people on the basis of morality and justice with societal implications beyond national borders. In the post- pandemic context, this global horizon makes religious communities key contributors to the reimagination and pursuit of new forms of global governance in our divided, polarized world. Pope Francis's call for global solidarity in Fratelli Tutti is a prominent example of a wider trend.

The Catholic Church is in a unique position to play a leading role in this new context, for two main reasons.

First, the Church has a longstanding history within the international system. The establishment of the Westphalian order in 1648 stripped the Catholic Church of much of its temporal power but did not eliminate its diplomatic and political influence in international affairs. The Holy See has a longer continuous experience in the secular international order than any other religious community. (Islam, for example, entered the international system as a major force much later, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Muslim majority states.) Over centuries the Church has developed a conception of just world order, rooted in the laws of nations or lex gentium. Its turn towards more direct engagement took place after World War II, with the onset of the Cold War and the nuclear threat. More recently, the Church has taken on other global issues, ranging from climate change and refugees to pandemics.

Second, the Catholic Church—more than any other religious community—operates as a moral force, and it is sometimes more successful than secular organizations in resolving conflicts and promoting peace. The peacebuilding roles of the Rome-based Catholic Sant’Egidio community in Mozambique and South Sudan are just two examples. Other examples of the Holy See’s moral leadership have been its strong support for the 2015 Paris Climate Accords and its 2017 advocacy for an international Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

It is worth emphasizing that this political role of religion does not entail policy or lawmaking. It is instead the capacity to articulate moral claims for global issues beyond national and partisan agendas. It is also the ability to mobilize beyond denominations and parochial interests through alliances across religious and secular organizations unified toward the same goal, for example the protection of human life. In this respect, governance in contrast to government requires close interaction between segments of civil society and political institutions to finalize policies. This political role of religion is potentially appealing to the new generations who increasingly reject religious institutions but are open to universal religious moral appeals and actions. In this respect, the culture of encounter is not about opening channels of communication with the “other.” It is about acting together because our respective paths have brought us to the same understanding of shared humanity. In other words, the goal is togetherness, not sameness.

The pandemic has opened a window of opportunity for such religious mobilization. The greater visibility of transnational religious organizations and platforms around humanitarian crises, issues of the environment, and now public health are indicators of the growing political awareness of the global role of religion in global governance. Once case in point is the alliance between UNICEF and Religions for Peace.

There are implications, too, for global economic and financial governance. As emphasized by Pope Francis, value is not simply monetary. It may be time to rethink the global economy by including other human factors in our scenarios for development and growth. Additionally, political success is not exclusively grounded in material prosperity. It also entails public morality and protection of human dignity toward which religions have much to offer.

This emergent trend has not yet displaced the nationalistic and intolerance uses of religion mentioned above. Both trends will at best coexist and at worse clash. For example, the resistance of the Catholic clergy in much of Latin America to vaccination and public health guidelines is at odds with the Vatican’s policy on this matter. Only the upcoming years will tell how greater emerging religious engagement around global issues will unfold and if it will prevail.