September 14, 2021 - 10:15am

One of my all-time favourite news photos is from 2018. It shows Sir Philip May, husband of former PM Theresa, playing lawn bowls with Melania Trump, watched by a Chelsea pensioner, two schoolboys and a US Secret Service agent. I have no idea of the context, and I don’t really want to know. It just strikes me as a wonderful illustration of the incongruous meetings thrown up by the demands of international relations and diplomacy.

One such meeting occurred this weekend, between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Pope Francis. They did not play bowls; the pontiff was in Budapest for a flying visit to the 52nd Eucharistic Congress, a quadrennial peripatetic Catholic jamboree, and had only a short meeting with Mr Orban. Officially they discussed the environment, family policy and the Hungarian Catholic Church.     

The Holy Father spent about seven hours in the country on Sunday, before moving on to Slovakia for three days. The rather striking disparity has led Vatican-watchers to speculate that this was a subtle rebuke of the Hungarian government, for its loud and persistent hostility to large-scale settlement of migrants within its borders. If the brevity of the papal visit was intended as a snub, Orban gave as good as he got, gifting his visitor a copy of a medieval letter from King Bela IV of Hungary to Pope Innocent IV, requesting help against the invasion of Europe by tribes from the east.

The arguments about Hungary will run and run, not least because the country is treated by both sympathisers and critics as a symbol, rather than a real place with its own complex history and political conditions. Are you for Based Orban, the heroic defender of our way of life against insidious international liberalism, or do you loathe Wicked Viktor, the anti-Soviet dissident tragically gone bad, who foments hatred for minorities and neuters the judiciary to shore up the power of his own cronies?

What seems more interesting to me is the way in which Francis and Orban represent two approaches to what Christian politics should look like in the modern world. Among all the governments of Europe, Orban is probably the leading standard-bearer for what you might call ‘civilisationism’. He is concerned with the persistence and survival of a particular people, and a particular culture, in a particular place — primarily the Hungarians, but also Europe more widely. This explains his attempts to raise the birth rate in Hungary, and his hostility to George Soros, that archetypal representative of globalising, homogenising modernity, and to what he perceives as socially destructive trends in academia and left-liberal activism.

Francis, by contrast, draws on other streams in Christian political thought. As an Argentinian Jesuit, the type of villain that looms large in his mental furniture is the aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist leader, who cements his own power with cynical attacks on foreigners and the enemy within. South American nations are not, generally speaking, favoured destinations for intercontinental mass migration, so are not facing the prospect of large-scale demographic change. For the Pope, a Christian country and culture is not one preoccupied with its own integrity and its own survival, but one which makes an unshakeable political imperative from the divine commands to welcome the stranger and to recognise all men as brothers.

There is obviously a strong tension between these two viewpoints, and Christian supporters of each can point to strong Biblical and theological arguments in their favour. What Europe needs, ultimately, is an intelligent and sustainable synthesis, recognising the fragility of national social fabrics in the highly mobile, hyper-connected modern world, while giving a nuanced and balanced account of the developed world’s responsibilities to those less fortunate.   

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.