Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.
Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”
That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in Myanmar, offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”
Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”
That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.