In 1935 Joseph Stalin is said to have asked contemptuously: “how many divisions has the pope?” The question was answered emphatically by John Paul II long after the Soviet dictator’s death when the Berlin Wall came crashing down and Eastern Europe emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.
John Paul was the most influential pope of the modern era and was not afraid to speak out on secular concerns when the occasion demanded it. At an open-air Mass in Drogheda on September 29, 1979, he made an appeal to the IRA and other paramilitaries: “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.”
Because of his easy manner and personal charm, Pope Francis has often been compared to John Paul. There was an expectation, therefore, that he would address the plight of the Rohingya people during his visit to Myanmar.
Instead, he spoke blandly about “respect for each ethnic group” in his keynote speech and failed to mention the brutal ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority.
That failure diminishes his moral authority as leader of more than 1bn Roman Catholics. While John Paul II energised the Solidarity movement in Poland, Francis’s failure serves to further isolate the Rohingya people.
As the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke put it: “It is enough for evil to triumph that good men do nothing.”
Pope Francis is a good man who did nothing.