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)

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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