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)

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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