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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

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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