Pope Francis’s visit to Lesbos was an extraordinary piece of political theatre. Not since John Paul II kissed the soil of his native Poland when he disembarked from a plane on his first visit as pope has there been a gesture so eloquent as Pope Francis taking three Muslim families back to the Vatican for refuge. When he was asked why there were no Christians, he replied that the Christian families that had been considered did not have their paperwork in order. Apart from the paperwork, the only criterion, he said, was that the refugees should be children of God. This is a direct and radical challenge to almost all the European countries’ reponses to the migration crisis. For Francis, the problem is suffering, and the immediate duty of a Christian, or of any human being, is to relieve it. This is something that most of the countries of Europe no longer appear to believe.
Since the great uprush of sympathy last year, prompted by the photographs of a dead two-year-old refugee, Alan Kurdi, sentiment has turned decisively against the migrants. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been forced into a humiliating deal with Turkey to try to ensure that only refugees, not economic migrants, can reach Greece. This has not pacified her critics on the right, while those on the left have been outraged by her decision to allow President Erdoğan to sue a German television satirist under an obsolete law against defaming foreign heads of state. Sweden has almost entirely closed its door to refugees, and is making absurd and incredible threats to deport hundreds of thousands of them. Denmark and Norway have hardened their tone to the point where there has been talk about imprisoning all new arrivals, or confiscating valuables to pay for their stay. Britain never planned to take any significant numbers, and is entering a slow convulsion of an EU referendum where the danger is that the real subject becomes immigration rather then the niceties of trade arrangements or the bureaucracies of European integration. The largely Catholic countries of eastern Europe are resolutely opposed to the pope’s message. They want no immigrants and especially no Muslim ones. He still sees the sea where Alan Kurdi drowned, as “a cemetery”: that’s what he called it on the plane to Greece. But for the north of Europe, the Mediterranean is now a moat, and the mood is to pull up the drawbridge and hope the walls will hold.
The pope insists that his message is not political but purely humanitarian, just as he insisted that his meeting with Bernie Sanders was nothing more than good manners and that anyone who doubted that “needs a psychiatrist”. This is plain enough but not exactly straightforward. The proper sphere of politics is itself a political question, and it will be a very great political feat if the Catholic church can rebrand a contentious political question like the reception of immigrants into a simple humanitarian imperative binding on everyone, with the political arguments confined to details of implementation. But the prize will be a very great one if he succeeds. Whether you believe that refugees should not be allowed to drown because they are children of God, or whether, as most people in Europe would say today, they should not be allowed to drown because they have human rights, a continent that wholeheartedly lived up to those ideals would be very different and very much better.
In the background of all this lurks the very much greater and wider question of relations between Europe and Islam. As so often before, Pope Francis has distanced himself very clearly from the Catholic right, which understands western civilisation, and Christian Europe, as something fundamentally opposed to Islam, and in some sense defined by this opposition. In that mindset there are only two possible responses to the spread of Islam: submission or resistance. This is the reasoning that leads to the belief that these are also the only two possible attitudes towards Muslims, even when they are penniless and desperate refugees. But to renounce the heritage of the crusader is also to refuse that choice.
The problem then becomes one of integration. This is partly a matter of economics, since nothing so disintegrates a society as mass unemployment. It is partly a matter of politics. But it must in any case rest on a shared consciousness of common humanity, and a sense that this is more important than any differences we may have with our neighbours. And in the last analysis, that is where the pope’s visit to Lesbos was going.