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Pope of the masses: is Francis really the people’s champion?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury reflects on the politics of Pope Francis.

Reports in recent months suggest that approval ratings for Pope Francis have declined sharply in the United States since the publication of his encyclical on the environment, which framed climate change as “one of the principal challenges facing humanity today” and argued that wealthy nations had a moral responsibility to tackle it and to pay their “grave social debt” to the poor. It seems very unlikely that he is losing any sleep over this; and no doubt his visit to the US later this month will revive the figures. But it is a phenomenon worth thinking about. For non-Roman ­Catholics, there is a certain wry satisfaction in watching conservative Catholics, mostly in North America – commentators who gladly treated every pronouncement by Francis’s two immediate predecessors as maximally authoritative – wriggling through explanations that of course the Pope’s views on climate change or capitalism are just his personal opinions, and as such of purely academic interest to the faithful. In the wonderful phrase quoted by Paul Vallely in the new edition of his book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Francis is an “equal opportunities annoyer”: he is not moving fast enough for liberals on the women/gays/divorce/abortion cluster of issues, and he is not saying enough about these things to keep conservatives happy, wasting his energies and compromising his authority by sounding off about poverty and environmental crisis.

Two very good biographies of an extraordinary figure – Vallely’s book and Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns – observe at various points that Francis is frustratingly hard to categorise as a conservative or a liberal. He is still capable of cheerful sexist banter that would make even some quite old-fashioned co-religionists in the UK or US wince. He is not interested in the ordination of women, opposed to same-sex marriage (though rather surprisingly clear and positive about civil unions and equal legal rights for homosexual people) and entirely traditional on the ethics of abortion. It has taken time for him to catch up on the professional handling of abuse allegations. At the same time, he has been more outspoken than any other religious leader anywhere about the evils of unregulated global capitalism and the vacuity of trickle-down economics; he has advanced a powerfully eloquent critique of environmental irresponsibility. He has also challenged the system of centralised Vatican government with unexpected moral passion, and set in motion the most important reform of the quagmire of Vatican finances in the history of the modern papacy. And most importantly he has given the clearest possible messages that public debate of sensitive questions – including those on which his own instincts are fairly orthodox – is welcome. His style is conversational, in every sense: not only a gift for speaking in public like a human being, but a sincere willingness to learn from his encounters. For all his capacity at times for unreconstructed patriarchalism, he has brought more laywomen into the public discussions of the Roman Catholic Church than ever before.

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Conservative or liberal? The Pope’s record might prompt us to ask whether these categories are as obvious or as useful as we assume. As various commentators have astutely noticed, the Pope is a Catholic. That is, he thinks and argues from a foundational set of principles that are not dictated by the shape of political conflict in other areas. It is difficult for some to recognise that his reasons for taking the moral positions he does on abortion or euthanasia are intimately connected with the reasons for his stance on capitalism or climate change.

The Catholic conservative who has unthinkingly rolled up the pro-life agenda with support for the death penalty, the National Rifle Association, US foreign policy and the uncontrolled global market finds this as shocking as the Catholic (or, indeed, non-Catholic) liberal who thinks in terms of a single “progressive” or emancipatory agenda that the Pope is failing to support consistently. But “conservative” and “progressive” imply that we all know there is one road for everyone on which we may move forward or backwards, rapidly or slowly. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded from time to time that this assumption can be an alibi for lazy thinking. The Catholic tradition of ethics and theology sets out a model of what is abidingly good and life-giving for human beings which does not depend on this model of a single road towards a given future. It is about making choices that bring you closer or otherwise to a particular vision of human well-being; and those choices do not necessarily map directly on to other, familiar taxonomies.

This is a point that has relevance well beyond the limits of the Church. We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)

In other words, it is futile to expect this pope or any other simply to fit the ready-made stereotypes. Pope Benedict “looked” conservative; Pope Francis “looks” liberal. Yet that tells you nothing at all of interest about them. And it obscures a simple fact: Benedict’s theology, though cast in a different and less accessible idiom, is entirely of a piece with all that Francis has said in his major public essays about evangelism and now about ecology. Even the contrast in style between them can be exaggerated a little. Paul Vallely notes that Francis has chosen to sit on the same level as his guests on formal occasions. Benedict did the same at the interfaith event in Assisi some years ago; he was also the first to break the taboo on the Pope eating in public with others.

But the temperamental differences are clear enough. Francis is, as many have said, a man at home in his own skin. Vallely brings out the degree to which his low-key, accessible manner is a carefully thought-out strategy, but this does not in the least indicate that it is not also something natural to him. One of the fascinating aspects of these biographies, though, is the way they trace the evolution of the Pope’s character. He has a history: the benign and relaxed persona was not always in place.

Jimmy Burns is especially good in his book at filling out the Argentinian background and the details of the Pope’s early career against the monumentally complex backdrop of national politics in the later 20th century. He is illuminating about the scale of the impact of Juan Perón – Argentina’s president from 1946-55 and 1973-74 – on people of Pope Francis’s generation and class. This explains something of his political instincts: populist, suspicious of oversophisticated elites, a distributist or co-operativist strand to the economic vision, a weakness for direct and directive government. And, as other commentators (especially Austen Ivereigh in a study published last year) have argued, this throws light on the deep conflicts in the Jesuit order in Argentina during Francis’s time as its local superior. He has acknowledged publicly that he thinks he handled the office ineptly, in too authoritarian a mode. He certainly left a bitterly divided province; but there was an element in that of the tension between a number of highly educated progressives from elite backgrounds and those who, like the future pope, came from the lower middle classes, the Peronist heartland.

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Father Bergoglio, as he then was, left his position prematurely and endured something of an exile, if not a purdah; Vallely provides a sensitive interpretation of the interior struggles and the eventual opening-up that took place in this period, making it possible for him to emerge as an outstandingly good pastoral bishop (the Jesuits seem to have breathed a sigh of relief at his being taken off their hands). Both biographers paint a vivid and inspiring picture of Bergoglio as a hands-on pastor, tough, practical, compassionate. And both deal fairly and comprehensively with the most difficult question around the Pope’s record: in the period of the “Dirty War” in Argentina (1976-83) did he do all he could have done to protest against the spiralling brutality of the murderous regimes that ruled the country through that decade? Did he do all he could to protect those who did take the risk of staging open protests?

Some of Bergoglio’s critics equally have a somewhat shadowy record; some have indulged in armchair heroics on other people’s behalf. Yet both of the new biographies basically accept the Pope’s verdict on this period: that he could indeed have done more, that he misread some of the signs of the times, but that he was not guilty of collusion with the regime. It is clear that he took risks to help some activists escape and that he was willing to undertake direct private advocacy with the government. He was not, however an Oscar Romero – though their evolutions towards being pastors and advocates for the most deprived and threatened were similar. The martyrdom of Romero, the great reforming Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated while offering Mass in 1980, was both an inspiration and a warning. It is easy to wish martyrdom on other people, hard to know exactly what would have made an effective difference in Argentina at the height of public terror. Most of us would hope to have done at least what Bergoglio did; and most, like him, would have wished they’d had the courage to do rather more.

Yet this close contact both with poverty and with political terror has undoubtedly given Pope Francis a perspective on the Church and its government that is a good deal more impatient with bureaucratic proprieties than many Vatican insiders would like. Vallely describes this particularly well, making excellent use of many contacts at high levels, explaining the dysfunctional conduct of many of the central bodies in Rome and the mediocrity and incompetence of various very senior figures (he also rightly notes some of those who stood out against this depressing background, not least the Vatican’s head of interfaith relations, the shrewd, patient and generous Cardinal Tauran). It is difficult to know how fast one can expect reform to move in this context; and yet, despite the frustration expressed in some quarters, an outsider can only marvel at the speed with which Francis has moved to purge the most intractable.

Vallely devotes a full and candid chapter to the continuing and heartbreaking business of dealing with clerical abuse, concluding that Francis has been slow to make it a priority as Pope, and that his record in this area as a diocesan bishop was at best average. Like practically all bishops who were in post before about the mid-1990s (this writer was one), he had little training and little awareness of the scale and depth of the problem. But he has now set up an effective, even aggressive body, with representation from survivors of abuse. It remains to be seen how it will change things, yet it is typical of the man that once he has identified a priority, he will look for measurable movement in a short timescale.

There will be many more books written about the present papacy, but these two provide first-rate and complementary pictures. Both are profoundly sympathetic but not hagiographic. That itself is a tribute to the stature of a pope who is not afraid of challenge, and not afraid to confess and confront his failures. It shows Jesuit training in detachment, yes, no doubt. But also something more centrally and simply Christian; something about faith, hope and love.

“Francis: Pope of Good Promise” by Jimmy Burns is published by Constable

“Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism” by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

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A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain