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An Analysis of Pope Francis’ Chance of Winning Peace Prize


Jeffrey Bruno

Pope Francis in the cathedra of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York

John Burger - published on 10/07/15

"He's done some things that are likely to put him very high on the list," says Nobel expert

No pope has ever won the Nobel Peace Prize, but Roger P. Alford believes Pope Francis has a very good chance of being the first.

Alford is author of the forthcoming book Champions of Peace: How Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Changed the World. He is also Associate Dean for International and Graduate Programs and Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame. He teaches and writes in a wide range of subject-matter areas, including international trade, international arbitration, and comparative law.

He spoke with Aleteia a day before the Nobel Prize Committee announces its choice for the Peace Prize.

Could Pope Francis be the Nobel Peace Laureate for 2015?

The Nobel Committee definitely has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Catholics in the past, based on their traditional Christian work. Mother Teresa is the most famous example of that, but there have been others. In 1958, they gave it to a Catholic priest, George Pire, for his work with refugees. They’ve definitely been willing to give it to people who are profoundly influential Catholics.

They’ve also given it to religious leaders in the past: Albert Schweitzer was a very notable example of that. They gave it to the entire Quaker organization for their work after the Second World War. Even the YMCA has won in the past. So they’re willing to give it to religious organizations.

They’ve never given it to the head of a religion, except for the Dalai Lama…. There was a lot of speculation that John Paul II would receive it in 2003 as he was ailing, but they gave it to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian activist instead. I was really surprised by that. John Paul II had a pretty decent chance in getting it.

So I think they would be willing to do something like this, and Pope Francis would be the kind of person who they’d be more willing to give it to than John Paul II because of the politics of the Norwegian committee (versus) the politics of John Paul II and Pope Francis, if you know what I mean.

What about the politics that are behind some of these decisions? Are things like that still at play?

To some degree, I think they are. They are reluctant to give an award to someone who is outspokenly conservative on certain issues like abortion and things like that. I think Mother Teresa is the only one who’s ever spoken openly about concerns about abortion in a Nobel lecture.

But in many respects you can imagine that Pope Francis would say something in a Nobel lecture akin to what the Dalai Lama would say, a message of love and reconciliation and the importance of community and family and things like that. He would not in any way say something that would make [the committee] nervous.

Perhaps his speech at the United Nations last month would give them some confidence. He did mention the need for respect for life in all its stages, but he didn’t hit people over the head with it.

Yeah, he was careful about the way he said it.

It’s also the case that I don’t think a major religious leader has won it in a while. In the past 10-15 years, they’re almost all diplomats, politicians. In East Timor, Bishop [Carlos Filipe Ximenes] Belo won it [along with East Timor President [José Ramos-Horta], but that was probably more for the East Timor situation.

That would be one thing in his favor: you could make the argument that the last religious leader who won it was 1989, with the Dalai Lama. But that was largely a political move because it was right after Tiananmen Square. That was sort of a statement, not only in favor of the Dalai Lama but also against the Chinese government.

There was a former member of the Nobel prize committee, a Lutheran bishop, who said that no pope would ever win this award unless the Church changed its teaching on contraception.

That might be something someone would say under John Paul II because he was very outspoken and strong on that issue, whereas Francis is different in his style. Not that he would disagree with John Paul II but he’s just different in the way he presents it.

What about the other front-runners speculated about in the media, do you have any feelings about anyone who is really a strong candidate? They mention John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart; Angela Merkel, because of her openness to refugees…

I seriously doubt Angela Merkel would win it, because the austerity program Germany has imposed on Greece is just not the kind of thing that normally would give rise to a Nobel peace prize. Usually it’s very rare that any sort of economic leaders, leaders who are trying to deal with economic issues are going to win the prize…. There has been one who won it, Charles Dawes, in the post World War I era, with the rescheduling of German war debt. But it’s really rare that an economic leader would win, and that is something Merkel is viewed as….

I think the Iranian-US deal is a possibility, but they’re going to be really reluctant. They’ve occasionally given it to a diplomat from a pariah state, the most famous being Yasser Arafat, but that’s really rare. And they got a lot of heat for that. So I wouldn’t put it past them to do that, but I would doubt it.

I’m going to guess they’re going to pick a more traditional theme, like poverty alleviation or promotion of human rights, or some sort of refugee type thing.

Are you saying they base the choice more on a theme than a person?

They very often have a certain theme they want to promote. Promotion of democracy is a very common theme. Resolution of disputes is a very common theme. If you just look at the most recent prize winners: Malala [Yousafzai] and Kailash [Satyarthi] are about human rights, particularly education and child labor issues. OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) is weapons, disarmament for the chemical weapons. The European Union, it was essentially about their promotion of democracy and human rights in Europe. The Chinese dissident [Liu Xiaobo], that was also for human rights. Martti Ahtisaari won in 2008 for his work as a mediator. So those kinds of themes are common.

They do occasionally do things that I think are a little bit more on the edge. The most recent sort of edgy award they gave was for climate change, trying to embrace that issue, because normally people say it doesn’t have a strong connection to peace. So they might do something like that.

Speaking of which, that is something Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, made the connection between climate change and war.

Right, the closest connection you can make between climate change and peace is that the scarcity of resources is going to become ever greater as a result of climate change, and that will result in disputes. There have been so-called water wars. Some people think that Darfur was a water war. Some people think a lot of the Middle East’s problems are related to a scarcity of water. The Golan Heights is fought over for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it is the water head for the entire Jordan Valley. …

I’m hopeful that he will be the winner. It makes a lot of sense. If you look at the criteria, it’s basically which world leader has done the most to promote the cause of peace in the past year. He is definitely incredibly high on the list. Not only did he help negotiate and broker the Cuba-US normalization of relationships, he’s also done these other initiatives. So I think that because of what he’s done in the political realm, between Cuba and the United States, and climate change and things like that, he’s done some things that are likely to put him very high on the list and may push him over the edge.

Also, they do a detailed analysis of every candidate and see if there’s a chance there might be a risk to the reputation of the prize in the future. The fact that they gave it to a 15-year-old last year was really surprising to me because you never know if over the course of her life she might say things that might embarrass the prize in the future. That was a more risky choice than Pope Francis.

Not to mention Barack Obama.

They got a lot of heat. It’s not that he was unworthy, it’s just that no US president had ever won it so early in his presidency. It’s hard to exactly say what he had done that early.

I agree, Barack Obama was a riskier move than Pope Francis as well.

John Burgeris news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

Pope Francis
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