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.”

New Statesman
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

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)