Liberals should stop eulogising this reactionary Pope

Francis's popularity among progressives suggests that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society.

Just as some atheists and agnostics long to believe in God, many are more than a little keen to see the best side of the pious, as the bizarre discussion over the Pope’s alleged 'Marxism' demonstrates. Even if they themselves don’t believe a word of scripture, many liberals wish to see something of their own politics reflected in the outlook of the Catholic Church – hence the repeated references in recent weeks to the 'progressive' Pope and the overrated idea of 'liberation theology'.

It is predictable that the reactionary politics of the new Pope should be played down by liberal Catholics in favour of his musings on social justice and global capitalism. What’s so depressing has been the extent to which liberal non-believers have fallen so hook, line and sinker for what is in reality nothing more than a clever repackaging exercise.

I say this because, apart from a few centrist musings about inequality, the Catholic Church - which Pope Francis heads and therefore has the power to change - stands on roughly the same political terrain as it did under the leadership of Pope Benedict. Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl. Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.

"Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall," gushed Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian last month, while Time magazine has just bestowed Pope Francis with the honour of 'person of the year'. Writing about the magazine’s decision, editor Nancy Gibbs said the pontiff had "done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music". "This focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star," she added.

Time famously bestows its awards not according to the merit of the person in question (both Hitler and Stalin won the accolade), but based on who captures the (predominantly American) public imagination that year. And Pope Francis has done just that, largely because liberal non-believers have been so eager to elevate him to the status of progressive pin up.

Some of the material contained in Pope Francis’s first teaching document is rightly music to the left’s ears. When he asks his flock rhetorical questions such as "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?", he is undoubtedly onto something. But as is so often the case, the search for a hero has resulted in people switching off their critical faculties and overlooking inconvenient truths which don’t align with their worldview. How else could the Pope come out of 2013 a 'progressive' icon while at the same time holding views on women and abortion that make Jeremy Clarkson look like a radical socialist?

It is possible, of course, that we simply hold religious figures to a lower standard than we do secular ones. But the Pope’s popularity among the right-on surely has something to do with the fact that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society. The new Pope has done nothing to fundamentally alter the Church’s bigoted stance on homosexuality. He has referred to gay marriage as "moral relativism". He presumably believes that men who sleep with men are going to hell. He views the all-male priesthood and the church’s prohibition of abortion as beyond debate. This would situate him to the right of UKIP even if he were advocating the nationalisation of the FTSE 100, which he isn’t.

Pope Benedict was a PR disaster for the church. Yet under Francis little of substance has actually changed. The Catholic Church continues to vehemently discriminate against gay people and women, it’s simply sugar-coated its message with fashionable sound bites about inequality. And depressingly this has worked. Many otherwise erstwhile progressives have fallen into line faster than Danny Alexander at a cabinet meeting.

We should, however, reject the notion that someone who can rescind the Church’s stance on gay sex, and chooses not to do so, is a figure worthy of admiration. Nor, if he won’t countenance women priests, is there a reason to suppose the Pope has anything of note to say about poverty. Why waste precious time worrying about anything such a person thinks?

Aside from the fact that we still hold religious figures to a lower standard than secular ones, the fawning over Pope Francis demonstrates something profoundly depressing: in the struggle for a better world, women’s and LGBT rights are still not taken seriously.   

Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on December 18, 2013 in the Vatican City. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.