HAYS, Kansas – Once again a Nobel Peace Prize was announced Friday, and once again a pope didn’t win.
This year’s honor went to human rights’ campaigners in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, in what’s widely been seen as an implicit condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin and both his war in Ukraine and his anti-democratic tendencies at home.
Russia’s Memorial organization, Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and Belarus’s Ales Bialiatski will share the prize money of 10 million Swedish krona, roughly $900,000, and will receive the award in a Dec. 9 ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
While four U.S. presidents have won (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama), along with several prime ministers and statesmen from other countries, no pope has been honored since the inception of the prize in 1901.
Pontiffs routinely are nominated, as Pope Francis was again this year by Dag Inge Ulstein, Norway’s Minister of International Development, who cited the pope’s “efforts to help solve the climate crisis as well as his work towards peace and reconciliation.”
In the run-up to Friday’s announcement, online oddsmakers had installed Pope Francis as about a 15-1 favorite to win the prize, more or less the same odds given to Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the UN Refugee Agency. Over the years, on several occasions I’ve been asked to stand by on a TV platform someplace on the day of the announcement in case the pope wins; in each case, we’ve always had to stand down.
(I’ve sometimes considered billing the prize committee for all the appearance fees I never collected, but somehow I doubt they’d pay the invoice.)
To date, four other Catholic leaders have received the Peace Prize:
- Father Dominique Pire, a Belgian Dominican honored in 1958 for his work, in helping refugees in post-war Europe.
- Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Kolkata, who received the award in 1979 for her efforts to alleviate human suffering.
- Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, who shared the prize in 1996 with politician José Ramos-Horta for their leadership in achieving a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict in East Timor that led to national independence.
- Father Jose Ramon Tizon Villarin, a Filipino Jesuit who was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the prize in 2007.
Recently Belo has faced charges of sexual abuse and misconduct, which reportedly led to a previously undisclosed Vatican sanction in 2020. To date, however, there’s not been any suggestion that his prize might be revoked.
Every pope has been nominated at one point or another since Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, but so far none of them have ever become Nobel laureates.
Why don’t popes win?
To begin with, the Nobel Peace Prize is bestowed by a five-member committee selected by the parliament of Norway, a traditionally Protestant country where levels of interest and attention to popes aren’t especially high.
It’s not that Norwegian parliamentarians are caught up in old debates over, say, Philip Melanchthon (whom many of them would probably think is a striker for Bayern) or the Diet of Worms. But in general, in a country where national identity was forged in part through the rejection of papal authority, giving such an award to a pope just isn’t the most natural thing to do.
In some cases, the anti-papal bias is explicit. When Bishop Gunnar Stalsett of Oslo of the Church of Norway, who also served as leader of the country’s Centre Party, was a member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee from 1985 to 1990 and again from 1994 to 2003, he explicitly stated he would not support the candidacy of Pope John Paul II due to the Catholic Church’s position on contraception.
Many observers believed at the time that without Stalsett’s informal veto, John Paul II likely would have been named a co-winner in 1990 along with Mikhail Gorbachev for their roles in the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire.
In part, the logic for not giving the award to popes also has to do with the fact that popes don’t need the money, nor do they need the media spotlight the award always generates, whereas lesser-known activists and organizations can benefit immensely from both.
Of course, the same arguments could be made about giving the prize to presidents, prime ministers and other high profile public figures, which hasn’t stopped the committee in the past from doing precisely that.
In the end, it’s probably fair to say that there’s a vague secularist bias in the process which assumes that religion simply isn’t as important, or as helpful, in global affairs as Realpolitik or civil society. Over the 121 years the prize has been awarded, relatively few of the laureates have been religious figures of any sort – Swedish Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom in 1930, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 1984 and the Dali Lama in 1989 are among the handful of exceptions.
Naturally, it’s not that losing out on the Nobel Prize somehow diminishes a pope’s moral authority, or that popes themselves hunger for the recognition. Popes already get plenty of acclaim – Francis, for example, has been proclaimed Time’s person of the year, he won the Charlemagne Prize for European unity, and he’s even been on the cover of Rolling Stone.
On the other hand, it’s not as if the Vatican doesn’t notice. During the John Paul II years, employees of Vatican media outlets sometimes were advised to downplay the prize announcement on the grounds that any winner who wasn’t the pope was, de facto, an insult.
In any event, the statutes of the Nobel Peace Prize state that it’s to be awarded to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
It’s hard to believe that not once over the last 121 years has any pontiff ever qualified – unless, of course, there’s some reason the committee simply doesn’t want to recognize a pope.
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