Pope Francis
Credit: Aleteia Image Department/Flickr

Poland is free because of a pope, the Vatican, and a European dream. Not that long ago, Soviet-dominated Warsaw created a spiritual alliance and common cause with a church-dominated Rome and its dream of an expansive pan-European political union.

That dream is now a nightmare that aligns the two Catholic-dominated nations of Poland and Italy, bound together in an anti-immigrant stance, an unholy alliance ready to take on Europe and cut it down to size.

This latest assault on the European Union comes on top of an uncertain and undefined Brexit brought on by a banger-eating British populace tired of Polish plumbers unclogging their water closets. Europe seems especially brittle right now with the political chaos surrounding Britain’s political schizophrenia and the unanswered Irish border wall question. Despite Brexit’s severe disruption, however, Poland and Italy are the European Union’s newest challenge for survival.

The pope and the Vatican might be all that stand between a divided West that falters and a revived united Europe. Divine intervention gladly accepted. First, the backstory:

In 1989, while Poland’s bankrupted Communist leaders and military dictator occupied Warsaw’s political institutions, Pope John Paul II provided moral leadership. He was the political ally of the opposition dissident Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa. The pope inspired peaceful demonstrations and unified the Polish opposition. The pope—with a little help from President Ronald Reagan—inspired the revolution against Soviet domination and guided Poland’s early return to Western Europe.

Enter Italy. The spiritual and cultural alliance between Rome—the seat of the Holy See—and Warsaw has always been grounded in the authority of the church and the pope’s leadership. I experienced this profound relationship in 1990, when I stood with 300,000 people, mostly Poles and Slovaks, on Czechoslovakia’s Letna Plain, bearing witness to the Vatican’s unifying political and spiritual power.

Today, there is a lot of passionate and reactionary anti-Europe noise to cut through, but the Vatican faced similar political challenges at the end of the 20th century to help end the Cold War. Pope Francis has already weighed in on America’s border-wall hysteria, suggesting that an irrational fear of migration “makes us crazy.” Unfortunately, that “crazy” knows no American or European borders.

Now Italy and Poland, despite Pope Francis’ profound moral humanism and deep spirituality, are joining in common cause, saying to new European arrivals that there is “no room at the inn.” This new approach suggests compassion is theoretically fine, but migration, refugees, and the “other” are unwelcome. Polish and Italian populist leaders claim that migrants are overwhelming their societies, changing their character, stressing their services, inflaming their politics, and threatening their stability.

Poland and Italy’s leaders are now aligned and allied. They call their anti-EU collaborative electoral project a “new spring” for Europe and have joined forces to gain political power and push out Brussels’ often ineffectual leadership. If in power, they plan to undermine European institutions, not build new ones.

Not everyone has the same orientation. I recently joined former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at a Stanford University dinner. He is one of the last Europeanists. Renzi talks animatedly about a reinvigorated European continent driven by EU investments in culture and art. To save Europe, he envisions investing heavily and wholeheartedly in a 21st century renaissance. Instead of a “new spring,” Renzi believes in a European rebirth. It is a positive vision.

Europe must rebuild its confidence and cultural capital, argues Renzi. He says Europe needs to spend euro-for-euro on culture and military: One euro spent for tanks or planes should be matched by a euro for poetry, painting, or opera. Renzi suggests this is the surest way to a common cultural and military defense. He also guarantees his plan would widely promote the blessings of moral democratic systems, Christian-based humanism, and charitable, European high-minded culture. It would counter European nationalist fears and give the EU a proud, unifying, and unassailable cultural and artistic identity.

But he is nearly alone in this vision among Europe’s new short-sighted and small-minded nationalist leaders. Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) politicians are populists focused on shallow, nationalist measures. They push for near-term tactical political gains that overshadow the need for sweeping, strategic, and humanistic value-based leadership.

Poland’s unholy alliance with Italy’s similarly anti-Brussels, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, anti-everything populism brings a lot of riled-up Europeans to the table as game changers. The Italians and Poles live in large and heavily populated nations, and a victory for their ruling nationalist parties in Europe’s May 26 parliamentary elections will allow their politicians swing their wrecking-ball widely at Brussels.

Re-enter Pope Francis: with his global perspective and universal appeal, he embodies the moral authority and personal charisma to articulate, promote, and propel a contemporary and compassionate European vision as he ministers to the world.

Whether the pope’s message can penetrate the heated Polish and Italian political debates is unclear. But his is a spiritually humanistic voice that needs to be amplified to harmonize the voice of God and man.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).