Sunday 26. September 2021
#194 - June 2016

Pope Francis’ geometry lesson on Europe

The general principles described by Pope Francis to the end that “differences are harmonised within a shared pursuit”  may serve to guide European decision-makers in their process of integration.

Pope Francis delivered a memorable speech during the award ceremony for his Charlemagne Prize at the Vatican on 6 May. Using a tone more intimate and more constructive than the one he had adopted at Strasbourg in November 2014, he especially called on Europe to retrieve its “capacity for integration”. The Pope was not talking about the principle of European integration itself but about the integration of its migrants. The originality of his approach is linking the future of the founding fathers’ Community-building project to integrating the people knocking at the gates of the Old Continent. Europe would thus stay true to its “identity”, which he defined as “dynamic and multicultural”. Europe would also recover its influence which the world sorely needs.


When broaching subjects such as the European project, the European institutions, or the way the Community operates, the Pope from Argentina is careful not to speak dogmatically, as this is neither his field nor his role. He does not put forward any suggestions for facilitating agreement among countries confronted with the migrant crisis, nor more generally on the subject of uniting Europe. However, his principles with regard to “progress in building a people in peace, justice and fraternity […..] where differences are harmonised within a shared pursuit,” which he had declared in his exhortation Evangelii gaudium, published in November 2013, may serve to enlighten European decision-makers. When you think about it, at the time he formulated his principles, Jorge Bergoglio was not even thinking about Europe. Yet his principles are entirely transferable to the construction of Europe.


That is particularly true for the first postulate: “unity prevails over conflict,” which he converts into a link of a new peace process. This principle is certainly one that lies at the roots of the building of the European Community launched by Robert Schuman and the other European founding fathers. In similar vein today, the conflicts that fuel the refugee crisis should not be splitting the EU asunder but instead should be pushing the Twenty-Eight to work closer together, thereby stimulating a new integration process.


Sharing sovereignty, the path being trodden by the European project, leads to competence transfers at which European leaders are balking. For Jorge Bergoglio, however, “time is greater than space.” This viewpoint calls upon people to think of the EU not as a new supranational power removing power from the levels beneath, but rather as a stage in a long process of reconquering the European citizens themselves. This turnaround could help us view “Brussels” in a different light.


Another important Bergoglio postulate should not be forgotten: “realities are more important than ideas”. Nothing frightens Jorge Bergoglio more than the cold-blooded implementation of abstract theories without consulting the people on the ground, and decision-making that is blind and dogmatic. Understanding that realities prevail over theory means that we should not allow the idea of a united Europe to stray too far from the realities of national politics, and we should establish permanent dialogue between them. This would oblige the European institutions to refrain from serving any ideology but instead to show that it is always tackling realities, and ready to listen to the peoples in their diversity. The peoples, in turn, deserve the courtesy of patient explanation of how Europe operates and what she has achieved.


In accord with Bergoglio’s final major principle, “the whole is greater than the part”, Francis wrote as Pope, taking care that he should not himself stray from the realities, “We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting.”  At the very moment when Britain is wondering whether or not to remain a member of the EU, when the refugee crisis is showing up how governments push the problem over to their neighbours, when the Greek crisis is stretching European solidarity to its limits, the Twenty-Eight should be constantly reminded of the principle that “the whole is greater than the part” during their negotiations.


How are we meant to understand Europe as forming a whole? A helpful hint here comes from an analogy that Jorge Bergoglio likes to use: the image of a polyhedron, a geometrical shape that has the special feature that all its differently shaped facets fit together to form a whole while each plane surface remains unchanged. This is in marked contrast to the sphere, a form which is smooth and uniform. Following this analogy, the EU has no ambition to force all into uniformity but must respect the principle of subsidiarity – which comes straight from the Church’s social teaching. The polyhedron gives the example of “unity in diversity”, which is nothing less than the official motto for the European Union.


Sébastien Maillard

 Reporter for La Croix in Rome, formerly a press reporter in Brussels


Translated from the original text in French


A longer version of this article was published in the magazine Etudes, May 2016.

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