The International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen will go to Pope Francis, the prize committee announced December 23. The prize is awarded for “exceptional work performed in the service of European unity,” the Charlemagne Prize website says.
While so many of the European Union’s founders saw their work through a Catholic lens, many today do not. Yet at this crucial juncture, as Europe struggles for unity, the one who has been singled out as offering hope for the future is the pope.
Europe has gone through seven years of “weaknesses, crises and setbacks” causing “a dramatic loss of confidence,” the prize committee stated. “In these times, in which many citizens in Europe seek orientation,” the pope “sends a message of love and encouragement.” The website says the award’s recipients are those “who most often work toward integration—and who are able to exercise a political influence.”
Pope John Paul ii was the first pope to win the Charlemagne Prize, awarded just before his death in 2005. He is the only person to ever be given the “Charlemagne Prize Extraordinary.” His award focused on his role in defeating communism, which allowed Eastern and Western Europe to come together.
The Economist said that “the selectors are adamant that Pope Francis, more than anybody else, has breathed new life into the construction of Europe at a time when that effort was sagging” (Dec. 27, 2015).
In their announcement of the pope’s selection, the award committee cited the pope’s 2014 address to the European Parliament, in which he focused on unity and on bringing “a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe.”
It is not just the Charlemagne Prize Committee that sees this hope.
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation is a think tank that helps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union formulate policy. In November, the foundation produced a paper titled “Microstate and Superpower—The Vatican in International Politics.” “At first glance, the Vatican is a microstate without massive resources,” the authors wrote. “Be that as it may, it does have a great deal of symbolic power, not least thanks to it partially sharing its identity with a world religion, which makes it a superpower after all, religiously, culturally and socially.”
It specifically noted the power of the Vatican as a mediator and a unifier, saying it “has, in fact, been involved in central decision-making and events of world politics for a long time, acting patiently behind the scenes, particularly since the middle of the 20th century.”
The lengthy paper relates example after example, from the Cold War to the present, in which the Catholic Church has been a mediator. As unity is becoming a desperate need for all of Europe, the think tank for Angela Merkel’s party is considering the Vatican’s track record of bringing such unity.
The Vatican’s Prophesied Role
The European Common Market has “so far … been unable to bring about full political union,” Herbert W. Armstrong wrote more than 40 years ago in his book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. “This will be made possible by the ‘good offices’ of the Vatican, who alone can be the symbol of unity to which they can look.” The Charlemagne Prize and the German paper indicate that a number of those with power and influence in Europe are indeed recognizing the unifying force of the Vatican.
They are also timely reminders of the Catholic Church’s deep, but little noted, ties to the European project. Most of the EU’s founders were staunch Catholics. To men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, Otto von Habsburg and Konrad Adenauer, the European project was as much a religious ambition as it was a political one.
From the beginning, the Catholic Church put its religious and political backing behind the project. In 1962, Topic, a prominent British magazine at the time, wrote: “The Vatican, usually cautious over political changes not of its own inspiration, now considers the Common Market the work of divine providence. Not since the times of Spain’s Charles v has a Roman Catholic political force been so strongly welded. Not since the end of the Holy Roman Empire has the Holy See been offered a Catholic rallying point like the Common Market. If the ‘Pact of Rome,’ which created the Common Market, had been signed within the Vatican walls, it could not have favored the church more.”
The church’s role in uniting Europe goes back further still. Charlemagne used the Catholic Church to unify his empire 1,200 years ago. As the Catholic Encyclopedia noted, Charlemagne’s legacy was “the idea of a Europe welded together out of various races under the spiritual influence of one Catholic faith and one vicar of Christ ….” In fact, Charlemagne used more than mere “spiritual influence” to spread this one faith—tribes of other faiths were massacred.
This is the heritage the Charlemagne Prize revives, and it’s one that European leaders are very familiar with. History shows them that the road to European unity goes through the Vatican. That same history can also show us where that road eventually leads.