First position: still in his first year as pope, Francis holds the post of prime importance in the Vatican but insists on living modestly. Image: Getty
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Pope Francis’s mission to cleanse the Catholic Church of luxury

This summer he told a group of young nuns and monks, “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest model car. You can’t do this.”

A new spirit is abroad in the Vatican. After a conservative pope, John Paul II, who, in his declining years seemed increasingly out of touch with the wider world, and a Vatican insider pope, Benedict XVI, who never seemed in touch with it, Pope Francis has brought life to his office. Catholicism is enjoying a bounce. Even in secular Britain there has been a rise in the numbers making confession, including some who have not confessed for decades.

What is new? Much attention has been paid to Francis’s friendly words to groups that historically have been regarded as beyond the pale by Catholic Church authorities, notably gay people and atheists. Yet this aspect of his radicalism seems the least convincing: a case of style over dogma. There has been no discernible change in the official Vatican views on same-sex relationships, birth control or female priests. A former parish priest in Melbourne, Australia, who opposed the Church’s thinking in these areas was defrocked and excommunicated only last month, apparently on direct orders from Rome. His fate should not surprise. Such views have been dear to Catholicism since Saint Paul’s time. To expect a new pope to change them, or want to do so, is a little like expecting a supertanker to turn on a penny.

What is undeniably new, though, is Francis’s desire to cleanse his Church of luxury. He is truly the Austerity Pope for this new age of austerity. He shows intense empathy for the poor, the unemployed and struggling economic migrants. Hearing of the recent terrible drownings off Lampedusa, he said “today is a day of tears” and remarked that the “world does not care about people fleeing slavery, hunger, fleeing in search of freedom”. A few weeks ago in Cagliari, Sardinia, he protested that “the world has become an idolater of this god called money”. To his credit, he backs up his views with action. He drives around Rome in an old Ford Focus and lives not in the Apostolic Palace, but in a simple house in the grounds of the Vatican. At a detention centre in Rome soon after his coronation, he washed and kissed the feet of young offenders, including a Muslim woman.

He expects the rest of the Catholic Church to follow his example. This summer he told a group of young nuns and monks, “It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest model car. You can’t do this.” He added, “Just think of how many children die of hunger and dedicate the savings to them.” Last month he denounced those ambitious “airport bishops” looking out for a more prestigious diocese, whom he compared to men “who are constantly looking at other women more beautiful than their own”; and he commented, “Careerism is a cancer.”

Few would disagree that the Catholic Church is well in need of reform. It has been stained by child abuse scandals, cover-ups and murky financial goings-on. As recently as June, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a highranking accountant in the Vatican’s assetmanagement organisation, was arrested on charges of conspiring to smuggle €20m in cash into Italy on behalf of a wealthy shipping family. Francis is well aware of the dangers his Church faces. In an interview with the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, in which he complained that the Church was obsessed with birth control, abortion and gay marriage, he warned that if it did not find a new balance it would “collapse like a house of cards”.

Yet Francis is by no means the first Catholic leader to try to shake corruption from the Church. Take away the old car, the posing for selfies and the Twitter feeds, and he is, in many ways, an anciently familiar figure – a new pope in town, bravely trying to clean things up from the top. How well will he do? It may be helpful to take a glance at how his predecessor reformers fared.

The most spectacular effort at sanitising the Church took place almost a millennium ago. It followed iniquities that make those of today seem modest. For two centuries the papacy was a cash cow fought over by powerful local families. Popes murdered and were murdered. In 897 Stephen VII (who was later strangled) felt such resentment against his predecessor Formosus that he had him dug up from the grave, placed in a chair and tried for illegally gaining office. Found guilty, Formosus’s corpse was stripped naked, had its three benediction fingers hacked off, was reburied in a strangers’ cemetery and was then re-exhumed and thrown into the Tiber. Two decades later an infamous power player named Theodora installed her lover as Pope John X. Theodora’s equally formidable daughter Marozia later installed her own son, who was the bastard child of yet another pope. This era culminated in the staggered reign between 1032 and 1048 of Benedict IX, a depraved and murderous teenager on his appointment who, when he grew bored with being pope, sold the office to his godfather in return for 1,500 pounds of gold, only to change his mind and seize it back.

Reaction followed. It reached a climax under Gregory VII (1073-85) who felt such disgust towards high-living clergymen that, a little like Mao Zedong in his quest to cleanse the Communist Party of China from below, he called on low clergy, and even non-clergy, to rise up against them. As with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, violence erupted. In Italy, low clergy and non-churchmen of the pataria movement formed street gangs and attacked rich bishops and aristocrats, expelling churchmen from office. When one of the pataria leaders, an ex-soldier named Erlembald, was killed in 1075, Gregory moved to make him a saint.

However, the purge was not enduring. When later popes lost interest, bad old habits returned. This is hardly surprising. As the historian Norman Cohn once observed, “clergy constantly slipped into laxity – as any large body of human beings will tend to do”. Imposing austerity is a little like jumping in the air to defy gravity; it can be kept up for a time but eventually more profound forces will come into play.

By the 12th century the Catholic Church was back to its old ways. Those who could not stomach its power, its arrogance, its hunger for rent and tithes, and its clergymen’s luxurious lifestyle, looked elsewhere. Heresies flourished, from the Cathars and the Waldensians to those of eccentric charismatics, such as Tanchelm, who, for a few years in the Low Countries from 1112 won over many thousands of followers with his claims to be the equal of Jesus (which he backed up by having himself betrothed to a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary).

A pattern had been established, which has continued ever since: of excess and austere reaction. In the early 13th century the Church purged itself anew, notably by establishing two intensely austere monastic orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Members of both took vows of poverty. Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans and the present pope’s namesake and inspiration, set something of a benchmark for unworldliness. He began his preaching career half starved and semi-naked. Alarmingly for the Church, he was not even a clergyman.

In another age he might have been burned as a heretic but his timing was good. The reformist pope Innocent III saw how useful he and his followers could be and gave them his sanction. Innocent was soon proved right. Both the Franciscans and the Dominicans did wonders for the tarnished image of Catholicism and the Church. They also became heavily involved in its new heresy-smashing organisation, the Inquisition. Heresies were driven back and crushed.

By the 14th century, though, laxity had again crept back in. Popes and cardinals lived in infamous splendour in their new home, Avignon. By the end of the century the Church lost further respect when first two and later three rivals each claimed to be the true pope. Heresies abounded, culminating in an explosion of religious revolt in Bohemia, which seceded from the Catholic Church, only to be conquered and brought back into the fold.

Although the Church managed to bring itself to order for a time, excess again asserted itself with the Borgia family. This time worldliness helped bring the greatest defeat of Catholicism. Under Pope Leo X (1513-21) the enormous cost of rebuilding St Peter’s in Rome inspired an unusually venal campaign for donations. Disgusted, Martin Luther denounced the papacy. When princes backed him, Catholicism’s religious monopoly in western Europe was broken.

Yet the shock of this setback triggered one of the Church’s fiercest austerity fightbacks. At its forefront was yet another new monastic order sworn to poverty, the one through which Francis has made his own career – the Jesuits. With Jesuit help, the Church improved its image. It maintained its ascendancy in southern Europe and even regained an eastern Europe that had seemed all but lost to Protestantism, thanks to the Jesuits’ ingenious idea of offering free (Catholic) schooling to the children of the rich and powerful.

Probably we should not be surprised by the spectacle of this constant tug of war between austerity and excess. Every religion has its fault lines and this struggle reflects one of Catholicism’s deepest. It is the tension between the idealism of its very earliest days and the worldliness of its rise as a religion with power.

Under the guidance of Saint Paul in the first decades after Jesus’s death, Christianity moved into austere waters indeed. The early Christians make Pope Francis’s aspirations seem those of an idle pleasure-seeker. Saint Paul’s Christianity venerated everything that was abstemious and plain: plain clothes, plain food, meekness and, most of all, sexual abstinence. Some zealous early Christians even advocated chastity within marriage. The early Christians abhorred anything that smacked of indulgence: fine living, spicy food, flirtation and especially any kind of extramarital or unconventional sex. Simplicity and poverty were revered.

Yet even in those early days contradictions were evident. For one so keen on meekness, Paul was surprisingly keen to charm the wealthy and influential, and he converted a number of them. In the 4th century his successors hit the bullseye and won Emperor Constantine to their side, and with him the power of the Roman imperial state.

Thereafter worldliness came to the Church. It found itself the owner of ever more buildings and land, donated by sinners eager for help to enter paradise. By the 6th century the Church, which had previously been content to leave politics to emperors, became rather unexpectedly both a religion and a political state. When the western Roman empire collapsed, popes filled the vacuum and became rulers of Rome and its environs, princes of their very own theocratic kingdom. By the 11th century, when Gregory VII launched his cultural revolution, the Catholic Church was also Europe’s greatest landowner. The austerity Church possessed untold riches and power. Although its political power is now all but gone, the riches remain. No wonder today’s Catholic Church seems to fluctuate violently between extremes.

Will Francis have better luck than his reformist predecessors? Let’s hope so. The Catholic Church badly needs reform. He seems a likeable figure, warm and yet determined, informally open and sincere in his good intentions. He even likes Fellini films.

Yet it is far from certain how enduring his revolution will prove in the long term. If the past is anything to go by, trouble is likely to surface after his pontificate. Already he is 76. The Catholic Church has never been good at appointing radical young firebrands. Look into the future, a pope or two down the line, and it would not be surprising if lesser bad habits had begun to creep back, though one would hope that the Church’s worst abuses will have been exorcised.

This is the problem of any dictatorship elected by committee, which, when one strips away the robes and the pomp, is what the Vatican government is. Like another dictatorship elected by committee, like the government of China and like so many other authoritarian regimes of our time, the Vatican lacks transparency. It is not overseen. It is subject to laws of its own making only. Ultimately it is accountable only to itself. Such an arrangement will always tend to nurture secrecy, conspiracy and corruption. And it is commonly the fate of such regimes that they will clean up their act only when forced to do so by their own dire prospects: when catastrophic failure begins to seem a distinct possibility. This, as Pope Francis now recognises, seems to be the case with his Church.

Matthew Kneale’s “An Atheist’s History of Belief: Understanding Our Most Extraordinary Invention” has just been published by the Bodley Head (£16.99)

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).