I do not know how the Pope's activity is covered in Western media, but local media in my country (Romania) covers all the important meetings of the Pope. Many of these meetings are with important political figures, as briefly caught in the images from here.

The title of this article clearly suggests that "Pope Francis is a man of peace - and immense political power":

the papacy has always enjoyed diplomatic clout. In the early 1800s, the Pope pressured heads of state to suppress the slave trade. In the Eighties, Pope John Paul II united Christians in opposition to communism. And Benedict XVI made overtures to the Eastern Orthodox – something that his intellectualism and love of liturgy made him especially well placed to do.

However, present times are quite different, as irreligion seems greater than ever in most of the developed countries (also see atheism demographics in Europe). Also, this article suggests a clear decline of Catholicism in the United States.

Question: How does the Pope influence today's politics in countries where State and Church seem to be clearly separated?

My assumption is that there is a clear political influence, since many politicians are "queuing for an audience" with the Pope.

  • 2
    It's worthwhile noting that a fairly large number (and most of the population) of the regions with a state religion aren't Catholic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_religion
    – origimbo
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 0:25
  • Even if there is an official separation, the ability to influence the electorate = ability to influence the elected. Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 16:46

6 Answers 6


Let's assume that the United States is one of the countries where church and state are separated. Politicians can still care about papal opinion because some of their voters do. According to Wikipedia, roughly 20-25% of Americans are Catholic. That's more than are black or Hispanic, and those groups have political influence.

In the US, five or six of the Supreme Court justices are Catholic (Neil Gorsuch was raised Catholic but attends an Episcopalian church with his wife). Presumably they care somewhat about the pope's opinion on areas like abortion.

During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, visited the Pope in Vatican City. The campaign said:

The Sanders campaign denied any political motivation behind the trip, saying the conference was an opportunity for the senator to spread his message of economic inequality.

Up to you if you want to believe him or not.

US politicians also meet with the Dalai Lama, and hardly anyone in the US is Buddhist.

  • 1
    How is "spread his message of economic inequality" not a political motivation? Commented May 23, 2017 at 17:26
  • 1
    @PaŭloEbermann Economic Inequality is a social issue not a political one. How a government tries to combat/ignore it is the political part Commented May 23, 2017 at 19:49

The state is separate, but the people aren't. And by and large, people can believe in anything and be swayed by anything they want.

Say you're a practicing Catholic living in the US, and you're watching the Pope give an address to the Vatican Congregation. In this address, he says something like: "It is sinful to take from the needy to give to the rich". Now, a week later, you're researching candidates for an election. You read that one candidate plans to remove Social Security to fund a tax cut for those earning over $10 Million. You remember the Pope's teaching and decide you won't vote for this candidate because it would be sinful.

Or, to give an example that isn't obvious from the Bible's teachings, imagine the Pope came out and said that Climate Change is a key issue for humanity today (I'm 99.9% sure he has said words to that effect, but can't find a source right now). Now you're more likely to support a candidate who wants to tackle climate change.

Multiply this by however many Church-going Catholic Americans and you have a considerable voting base that vote based on the Pope's opinion on a matter.

  • 1
    This might be the source you're looking for. m.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/sep/1/…
    – JonK
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 17:21
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    Coincidentally, this also explains why there has traditionally been a resistance in American politics to Catholic presidental candidates. The concern is that a Catholic president would defer to the Vatican, undermining U.S. sovereignty. JFK was famously quoted as saying, "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me."
    – tonysdg
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:30

Italy is probably the best example. It's maybe an extreme case, since we literally have the Pope here all the time, but that also makes the dynamics involved very clear.

Italy, as you might know, is a predominantly catholic country (catholicism was the official state religion until 1984). The overwhelming majority of the population professes to be catholic, and statements from members of the church - from the top Vatican levels to town priests - are taken into serious consideration by a lot of people.

Even if Church and State are officially separate, the Church still has a strong, real influence on people's opinions and lives; and having support (either implicit or explicit) from the Church is a vital factor for every political party. Almost every party tries to be pope-friendly. Public endorsements from bishops, cardinals, or even the Pope himself are huge deals that are reported by the press in great detail.

It's also extremely important to not underestimate the material economic power of the Catholic Church. The institution has something like a thousand-year-old history of wealth and political power. The Vatican State itself has been stripped of almost all its land, but the Church still has assets all over the country (and the catholic world). In Rome alone, thousands of apartments - a total value of billions of euros - are ultimatelly managed by the Holy See. Virtually every hospital in Italy is under more-or-less-direct control of a religious organization. Key political figures and business positions have strong ties with church-approved religious groups. It's such a big (and often hidden) economic behemoth that it's impossible for any politic group or party to be completely extraneous to its influence, be it for tangible economic advantage or for pure electoral strategy.

So, to answer your question in a more direct way: the Pope does not influence politicians directly. It's the politicians who try to obtain the Vatican hierarchies' favour in order to get something in return or to be seen as the most sensible choice by the religious majority of voters.


How many divisions has the Pope? In the battle for public opinion more than a few.

There are hundreds of thousands of professionals well placed in communities across the globe prepared to repeat and expound any point made. They have training in communicating ideas and regularly pontificate on current events and how they relate to The Church's teachings.

Things the Pope says are news. The Church has a very large following, and two thousand years experience at arguing for moral high ground. Some very clever people have worn the hat or written support for it. "The West" and historical Christendom overlap about as well as anything without a strict definition can.

  • "two thousand years experience at arguing for moral high ground" - make it: experience at influencing of public opinion for benefit of Church. Or you need to admit that crusades are "high ground". BTW I have no problem for every entity to argue to benefit their own interest, just don't pretend it is "high ground". Commented May 22, 2017 at 14:48
  • @PeterMasiar At least some call to arms for the crusades are phrased as moral arguments. I make no claim about the righteousness of their claims of righteousness.
    – user9389
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 15:03
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    "high ground" assumes moral superiority. BTW I do not disagree with your argument, even upvoted it. As Sun Tzu says, good general first wins the war, then starts the battle. Public opinion is big part of any conflict. Commented May 22, 2017 at 16:11
  • "regularly pontificate on" - was that deliberate? (For those that don't know, "to pontificate" derives from an alternate title for the Pope, "the Pontif") Commented May 23, 2017 at 13:09

The separation of church and state - at least as implemented in the the US - is really a very narrow principle. It's enumerated in its entirety in the First Amendment, which states (in part): "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The only people who can violate the separation of the church and state are the members of Congress, and they can only do it by establishing an official state religion, or making laws persecuting specific religions. Anything else is fair game. The First Amendment was not intended to keep religion out of politics - rather, it's intended to keep politics from interfering with religion.

Bear in mind that some of the original US pioneers come from the background of being persecuted by the Crown, and expelled from the country. It's that sort of thing - abusing political power to persecute religious minorities - that they were trying to prevent, not religious people influencing politics. Indeed, preventing people from engaging with politics on the basis of their religion would be exactly the sort of thing which would violate the First Amendment.


Another interesting example, with the current Pope, is that of Argentina. When Bergoglio was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, president Cristina Kirchner was extremely cold to him, and even aggressive, a bit on her own and a lot through partisan politicians and media. There is an annual celebration every year, on a patriotic day, called the "Te Deum". For most of Argentinean history, the tradition was that the president would attend every year. Cristina Kirchner, though, always sent some minor figure from her government instead of attending.

But then, after a few years of this, Bergoglio becomes Pope. And now she was desperate to visit him and travelled several times to see him in Rome (she never did in Buenos Aires), take pictures with him, etc., etc.

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