Habemus Papam: time for a fresh start at the Vatican?

After promising beginnings with the Vatican II council, the Catholic Church lost its way under the reactionary leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, says John Cornwell. Can it now change course?

John Paul II’s defining political moment as pope, or so it seemed at the time, occurred on 2 June 1979 when he faced a million-strong crowd in Victory Square in Warsaw. “Come, Holy Spirit,” he intoned, “fill the hearts of the faithful and renew the face the earth.” And he added: “Of this earth,” indicating Poland and the world beyond. Here was Karol Wojtyła, less than a year in to his papacy, liberator of his oppressed nation and evangelist of “solidarity” – the recognition that freedom is to be found in the political and spiritual interdependence of all peoples on the planet.

Two years later there emerged the Polish trade union Solidarity, funded by John Paul’s Vatican bank. Solidarity’s principal grievance was the collapse of living standards in Poland under communism; its strategy, serial strikes. Ten years after Victory Square, the Berlin Wall fell and the fate of the Soviet Union was sealed. “The tree was rotten,” John Paul would say. “I just gave it a good shake.”

Yet through the 1990s his sense of solidarity diminished. He became an ecclesial autocrat, a disciplinarian and excluder of dissidents, aided and abetted by his enforcer Cardinal Ratzinger, appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981.

Wojtyła and Ratzinger denounced liberation theology, which characterised “sin” as oppression and unjust socio-economic structures. Theologians who strayed from strict dogmatic guidelines were excommunicated. The nomination of new bishops, a prerogative of popes since 1917, favoured papal yes-men. Priests or members of religious orders, including nuns, who dared raise questions about a married or female priesthood were disciplined. Catholic aid workers were told that it was sinful to distribute condoms to combat the spread of Aids in Africa, let alone for victims to use them.

The Wojtyła-Ratzinger papacies resulted in an increase in Roman centralisation and the reduction of collegiality – a downgrading of bishops’ authority and local discretion. The obligation to refer laicisation of offending clerics back to Rome resulted in the failure to deal with the clerical abuse scandal promptly. Reports of warring Vatican cliques, financial misdemeanours and theft of private documents from the papal apartments complete the picture of a regime racked by intrigue, confusion and decay.

According to Catholic progressives, the greatest failure of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership was its betrayal of the spirit and letter of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, known as Vatican II. Great councils of the Catholic Church, in which the collective authority of the bishops becomes manifest, are rare events, and popes are obliged to pay heed. Catholic critics and a wide constituency of senior clergy and laity assert that the worst papal betrayal of Vatican II has come in the area of political and social teaching, which sought to overturn a century of entrenched hostility to pluralism.

From the middle of the 19th century the papacy has obstinately resisted the advance of secularism and democracy. In 1864, Pius IX, the longest-serving pope in history (1836-78) and a rabidly fundamentalist cleric by today’s standards, published his Syllabus of Errors, a catalogue of denunciations of “modern” propositions, the 80th of which stated: “[I]t is a grave error to assert that the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation.” Here was the first modern papal political manifesto. Pius also forbade Catholics, on pain of mortal sin, to vote in the new Italy.

His successor, the politically temperate Leo XIII, realised that the ostrich stance was unfeasible. In 1891, he published Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), a belated response to the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Capital. This document became a crucial catalyst for subsequent popes and for “Catholic social teaching”.

Although it deplored the oppression and virtual enslavement of the poor by the instruments of “usury” and although it advocated just wages and the right to organise trade unions (preferably Catholic), Leo’s encyclical rejected socialism as equivalent to atheism and class hatred and was lukewarm on democracy. Class and inequality, he proclaimed, are inalterable features of the human condition, as are the rights of property ownership. Leo’s immediate successor, Pius X (1903-14), reverted to the stance of Pius IX. He initiated an “anti-modernist” campaign. “Modernists”, a term of extreme abuse in Pius X’s parlance, were Catholic academics and clerics who introduced historical criticism into theology or who attempted, for example, to reconcile Genesis with Darwin’s theories. “Liberalism” in all its forms stood condemned as relativism.

In 1907 he added a further 65 errors to those indicted by Pius IX. He said that modernists should be “beaten with fists”. His spymaster, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, said that historians did “nothing but vomit” and understood one thing only – “the Inquisition!”. George Tyrrell, an Anglo-Irish Jesuit modernist, was excommunicated. When he died in 1909 he was refused burial in consecrated ground. The priest who said prayers over his grave was suspended.

Pius XI, who followed Benedict XV, the mild pope of the First World War, revealed his own distrust of democracy by collaborating with Mussolini and repudiating Italy’s Catholic Partito Popolare, forbidding all priests from joining it. In 1931 he published an encyclical in celebration of the anniversary of Leo’s great Rerum Novarum – Quadragesimo Anno (“Fortieth Year”). It promoted the social thought of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas on the benefits of “subsidiarity”: the belief that higher institutions in a society – the state, for instance – should not arrogate to themselves functions that can be carried out by lower ones.

The Italian Fascists exploited this idea as a basis for state corporatism, comparing medieval guilds to local “fasces”. Subsidiarity was a feature of the socially “distributist” proposals of G K Chesterton in the 1930s, and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell believed that the idea might underpin socio-economic policies in postwar Britain. Yet subsidiarity was hardly adopted by the Catholic Church internally.

Under Pius XI, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, negotiated a historic treaty with Hitler in 1933, the Reichskonkordat, which traded Catholic withdrawal from the political sphere in Germany for a greater measure of Vatican control over the Catholic population there. The deal involved the dismantling of the democratic Catholic Centre Party, after it had voted for the Enabling Act, which give Hitler dictatorial powers.

Pacelli, both as cardinal secretary of state and as pope, would favour such figures as Ante Pavelic in Croatia, Franco in Spain and António Salazar in Portugal. State corporatism was his favoured model of the good society. Throughout the war he made no moral discrimination between the Allies and the Nazis. What he feared most was a communist eastern Europe and Italy after the war. He declared it a mortal sin to vote for the communists, notices to which effect were nailed to every confessional box in Italy.

Pius XII bequeathed a centralised church with the pope as ultimate authority. He decreed that whenever there was a dispute over faith and morals, the pope’s verdict should be taken as final. But the monolithic Church, disciplined, triumphalist and admirable in so many ways, was out of step with the world. The faithful longed for a different kind of church, and their aspirations were as much social and political as they were spiritual.

Angelo Roncalli, the man who became John XXIII in 1958, had spent much of his priestly life as a papal nuncio, or envoy. He had tried to help the Jews during the Second World War. One of his first public acts as pope was to apologise on behalf of the Church for Christian anti-Judaism. In January 1959, three months after his election, he called a general council of the world’s bishops with a view to pastoral renewal and the promotion of Christian unity.

The conciliar bishops attempted to address a problem fraught with social and political significance in the coming decades: how does a religion that believes itself to be the unique repository of truth respect the truths of other religions and, indeed, those who hold no religious belief at all? At stake was the tension between religious fundamentalism and freedom of conscience. In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI had declared that freedom of conscience sprang from the “evil-smelling spring of indifferentism”. Conservative bishops in the council recoiled at the mere suggestion of such a debate. The political philosopher Carl Schmitt believed that the council was betraying Catholicism’s “political” vision, by which he meant a loss of “differences” – between “sacred and profane”, “good and evil”, “God and Satan” – that would lead to the certain destruction of the Church.

However, in 1961, a draft document on these issues emerged out of the council’s findings. It formed the basis of the groundbreaking Nostra Aetate (“Our Time”), promulgated by Paul VI after John’s death in 1963. This stated that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in [other] religions”. Sincere respect must be shown towards “moral and doctrinal teaching which may be different in many respects from what she holds and teaches”.

By the end of Vatican II, the bishops agreed a document entitled Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which accepted the inalienable right of freedom of conscience for all. The Catholic Church now accepted that political and religious pluralism owed its origins to a powerful principle in natural law.

Karol Wojtyła, who took part in Vatican II as a bishop, welcomed the declaration as essential to his struggle with the communist regime. He continued to pay lip-service to it as pope until the regime collapsed. But as economic globalisation burgeoned in the 1990s and Europe prepared to expand without a Christian element written into the proposed EU constitution, he became anxious and then angry about the triumph of free-enterprise democracy. In 1991 he wrote an encyclical to mark the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. He argued that pluralism, democracy and free enterprise were degenerating into new forms of tyranny, without a “moral culture” to restrain and shape them. By moral culture he meant Roman Catholic moral culture: crucially, the repudiation of sins against chastity and the sanctity of life.

Catholics inspired by Vatican II insisted on continuing the dialogue with opinions that were often antagonistic to Catholic values. The matters for discussion included human embryonic stem-cell research, contraception, the deployment of nuclear weapons, poverty, the environment and development. John Paul II’s style through the 1990s became increasingly harsh and dogmatic. He hurled the epithet “culture of death” at those he deemed to be in the grip of the “contraceptive mentality”. Over his bishops and ancient intellectual orders such as the Jesuits and the Dominicans, he favoured highly disciplined evangelistic groups, such as Opus Dei, acquiescent to every papal directive and recommendation.

It was noticeable that Catholic moral phil­osophers, most of whom were non-clerics, were becoming increasingly distant from papal social teaching. The Scottish-born thinker Alasdair MacIntyre, working in the Aristotel­ian tradition, had argued in his masterpiece, After Virtue (1981), for the importance of virtue ethics in social, political and economic life. He had many followers among political philosophers on both sides of the right-left and the confessional divide. The “Red Tory” Phillip Blond and Jon Cruddas of Blue Labour have both cited MacIntyre as a resource for rethinking the relations between individuals, society and the state.

In Vatican II’s advocacy of pluralism, John Paul, with Ratzinger’s backing, saw only relativism. The origins of pluralism, in their view, were to be found in the ideas of John Stuart Mill – in other words, in utilitarian, anglophone sources. When reports of the clerical child abuse scandals first surfaced, the Holy See noted that it was mostly anglophone countries that were involved, overlooking how discovery processes in American tort law often lead to more speedy exposure.

As the 1990s came to a close and the pope became ever more triumphalist, a dispute arose that went to the heart of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger rejection of the primacy of individual conscience. A Belgian Jesuit professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, Father Jacques Dupuis, published a book entitled Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. His idea was that all belief systems are moving towards a truth that will never be attained in this world. Rebutting Dupuis in 2000, John Paul declared that the revelation of Jesus Christ is “definitive and complete”, and that all other religions are “deficient” compared to those that have the “fullness of salvic means in the Church”.

Later that year, in a document signed by Ratzinger and endorsed by John Paul, religious pluralism was condemned as “relativ­istic” subjectivism, which made it impossible for human beings to raise “their gaze to the heights of truth”. Non-Catholic Christian churches, moreover, were characterised as not proper churches. Ratzinger’s papacy, from 2005, was a continuation of Wojtyła’s autocracy, with a traditionalist twist. He attempted to woo back the schismatic Society of St Pius X (which deplores the liberalising tendencies of Vatican II), despite the presence in its ranks of a Holocaust-denying bishop – a decision that outraged Jewish groups and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in equal measure. In a lecture given in Regensburg in his native Bavaria in 2006, he appeared to caricature Muslims as violent and inhuman. Then, without consulting his Anglican “separated brethren”, he launched a scheme to lure into the Catholic fold those Anglican priests who were disaffected by the ordination of women and the prospect of female bishops.

Benedict’s long-delayed contribution to papal teachings on socio-economic matters was launched in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009). People who have no morality about procreation cannot make serious contributions to saving the planet, he said:

Some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception . . . In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.

While paying lip-service to religious freedom, he argued that human beings do not seek the truth, but rather the truth comes in search of them. This is perilously close to John Rawls’s definition of totalitarianism – the imposition of values and beliefs from the top down.

That Benedict’s “political” thinking is inimical to social democracy became evident during last year’s presidential election in the United States. The American Catholic hierarchy condemned President Barack Obama’s proposed health-care reforms (“Obamacare”) because the new rules insisted that Catholic institutions staffed by non-Catholics should contribute to national insurance schemes that might be used to purchase contraceptives. The official Catholic view, controlled from Rome, is that Obama is riding rough­shod over people’s consciences. Lay Catholics, angry at the bishops’ interference in the election process, argued that Rome was attempting to foist its sexual morality on non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Quite apart from this, for five decades at least, most sexually active Catholics in the US have been using contraception. The disagreement exposes the gulf between teaching and practice in the Church.

The dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng, writing recently in the Catholic weekly the Tablet, advised the cardinals not to choose a successor in the mould of Benedict and John Paul. Their “personal politics”, he argued, have led to “manifold disasters” in the Church.

Over the 32 years of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership, the progressive Vatican II reforms have been eroded at the top in Rome, disclosing a political perspective that is increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist. In the debates between the New Atheism and religionists, it is widely recognised that the point at which religion consistently transforms from benign to maleficent is when it fails to adopt a pluralist approach to other faiths as well as to the secular domain. Where Vatican II offered a powerful vision for Catholicism and other world religions, the last two popes have retrenched, taking the Church on a trajectory that will very likely continue into the next papacy.

This does not signal the total failure of a “Catholic” contribution to social teaching that emphasises the notion of the “common good” and has been developed by several generations of moral and political philosophers. The tendency of the two most recent popes to lecture and dictate, rather than be part of a living conversation with their peer group, must be seen as a lost opportunity in a world facing such great socio-economic crises. At the end of After Virtue, pondering the civilising influence of St Benedict on the Dark Ages, Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that the world is in dire need of a “new Benedict”. If the critics are right, Ratzinger was emphatically not he. But then it is unlikely that MacIntyre ever thought that any pope could, on his own, be the answer to the problems of the Catholic Church, let alone those of the world that lies beyond the Vatican.

John Cornwell’s most recent book is “Newman’s Unquiet Grave” (Continuum, £10.99)


1962The Second Vatican Council is convened under John XXIII to address the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world

1965 The Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) recognises religious and political pluralism
1978 Karol Wojtyła is elected pope and becomes John Paul II
1981 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
2004 Ratzinger is elected pope and becomes Benedict XVI
2013 Ratzinger resigns as pope
Pope Benedict addresses his final meeting with the cardinals in the Vatican. Photograph: Osservatore Romano/Reuters

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.