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Beloved of the people: how the Pope has again become a leader for our times

At a time when career politicians are held in such contempt, Pope Francis is offering a masterclass in leadership.

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope two years ago hardly anyone knew who he was. He had a number of firsts to his name: the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere. But beyond that there was only a sense of gentle bafflement and an awkwardness in the wake of Pope Benedict’s retirement: for popes, unlike bishops, life means life, so to replace a living pope was almost unseemly.

Since then, Pope Francis has succeeded in cutting through the language of Italian scholasticism, the constraints of Vatican tradition and the consistent wail of ration­alist denunciation to become the most popular public figure in Europe. In contrast to his predecessor he has established a Catholic populism around a critique of capitalism and a concern for the poor while embarking upon an unprecedented reform of the Vatican itself, most particularly its finances. Taken as a whole, this has led to a misunderstanding that he is a progressive, liberal or “left-wing” pope. It should come as no surprise that the Pope is deeply and traditionally Catholic. What is clear is that his modesty, his continued emphasis on being a sinner himself, and his criticism of himself and his Church have endeared him to people who have not been listening to the Church for a very long time, if ever. Whereas Pope Benedict missed few opportunities to point out the moral nihilism of modernity and its tendency to violence and self-gratification at the expense of love and faithfulness, Pope Francis seems more at ease with temptation and less comfortable with the domination of corporate capitalism and its effects on the lives of the poor.

This can be explained by the times and places in which the two men emerged. Cardinal Ratzinger came of age as a theologian and bishop in West Germany in the 1960s and had previously been seen as a radical. He perceived a tendency in the 1960s generation towards a revolutionary hedonism that could only end in systematic human degradation. In response, he asserted the authority and majesty of the Catholic Church and its traditions, and took a particularly hard line on Marxism and liberation theology. His alliance with Pope John Paul II, who had been a bishop in communist Poland, was resolute.

Bishop Bergoglio, by contrast, came of age as a priest in Argentina under its particularly ugly military dictatorship, and became bishop of Buenos Aires in the 1990s during a period of Washington-led free-market economics that ended in a spectacular and devastating crisis. Argentina experienced austerity and a financial crash nearly two decades before the rest of us, and the bishop was witness to the destitution and institutional breakdown involved.

Pope Francis is the first pope in a century for whom communism is not the main threat to morality and the Church. For him it is of very little consequence. Instead, the main threat to the dignity of the person, their families and work is a capitalism which gives incentives to sin. Growing inequality, the domination of the poor by the rich, the favour shown to the banks, and the costs carried by workers in “restructuring programmes” are things he has witnessed and gives witness about. Pope John Paul came of age resisting communism; for Pope Francis that was not the problem.

I saw this first-hand when I was invited to the Vatican to give a talk on Catholic social thought. I outlined what I saw as the central features of Catholic teaching on capitalism, which provides the political economy for Blue Labour, and its stress on regional banks, a vocational economy, incentives to virtue over vice, and the representation of the workforce in corporate governance. There were audible rumblings of discontent in the audience, and a visiting American put the view plainly that my argument, with its implied interference in managerial prerogative and the sovereignty of capital, was “communist”. There was no one there from the Labour Party to find that funny, and it all felt a bit uncomfortable. But Pope Francis interjected with a question. He asked my interrogators – for there was more than one – “What is your idea? That the banks should fail and that is the end of the world, but the workers starve and that is the price you have to pay?” Things went much better for me from that point – so in telling this anecdote I am also declaring an interest.

His reference to workers was not accidental but central to his argument. For he still maintains a theory of labour value, that workers have value and generate value, and that one of the fundamental problems with the present system is that they are denied recognition as creators and partners in the economic system.

Pope Francis does not fear the poor, but prefers “to weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice”. He watches football, he drinks maté, the Argentinian herbal tea, and he delights in the company of children. He could not wait to leave the formal event at which we met to embrace the visiting children who had made the journey to Rome for Argentina’s national day. In Italy, when he visits a place he is followed by people who make presentations of their working lives – they give him their fireman’s helmet, or their wooden spoon – and his popularity exceeds that of any politician. They swarm around him; he feels safe with them and they give him protection.

At one of these walkabouts I asked a woman why she had come to see Pope Francis. “Like me, he loves the Church but doesn’t trust the Vatican,” she said. “He needs to know that we are with him.” I found this view widespread, including among those who are proud to call themselves socialists.

In a Europe that has been dominated by the free movement of money and labour, and that has been unable to break the intellectual and political domination of neoliberalism, the Pope is unusual because he articulates a constructive alternative that is for private property but against financial centralisation, and stills holds on to certain concepts, such as vocation, virtue and value, a century after they have fallen out of fashion with monetarists, Keynesians and Marxists alike.

The crash of 2008 spoke to the Catholic idea that there was a “structure of sin” in the economic system which gave incentives to vice. In this sense, vice is understood as greed, selfishness, immediate gratification and a lack of regard for the inheritance of creation, the humanity of the person or the common good. This led to cheating, exploitation and avarice, complemented by a political system that did not promote responsibility, participation and relationships.

It turned out that Catholic social thought, a tradition initiated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, contained a more rational and apposite political economy than that of its secular rivals. In this, the Pope is as conservative as he is radical. He said that there was a lack of love in the system, and his words resonated.

The word has spread. In February 2015 the bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter concerning guidance for Christians on the election in May. The extent to which the Protestant church has embraced the lead taken by Pope Francis and engaged with ideas of subsidiarity, vocation, virtue and the tendency of capitalism to commodify human beings and their natural environment is remarkable. Catholic thought has come to England, a place where it has played little part in mainstream political life since Thomas Cromwell was chancellor.

There is a good reason for this. We know that neither 1945 nor 1979, neither the state nor the market, generates prosperity, civic peace and participation. We know that 1997 – an attempt to combine a strong welfare state with robust financial markets – did not work either. We are left with debt, deficit and demoralisation. There is an absence of a constructive alternative to put in their place that can explain the problems of the past and chart a course to a better future. No one was expecting the Catholic Church to have that vision.

This incursion is partly supported by the successes of the German social-market economy, which was stitched together between Christian and Social Democrats after the war. Workers are represented on boards, and there is a robust vocational system that regulates market entry. There are strong regional banks that cannot lend outside their geographical area, as well as specific sectoral banks, all within a decentralised federal political system. Our centralised capital and state model did not emerge from the financial crash in robust shape. It was vulnerable to systemic shocks. The German model has looked altogether more robust.

It is not just that many people like the look of Pope Francis; it is also that what he says is popular. It is not articulated by any mainstream political party in Europe, let alone Britain. The EU, with its free movement and centralised bureaucracies, is as far from his teaching as it could be.

Catholic social thought is pro family, responsibility and contribution, and places a great stress on subsidiarity and relationships so that there can be “more love in the
system”. There is little here to comfort the Fabian wing within Labour that stresses uniformity and universality as the prime aims of a welfare administration. Indeed, that is
one of the reasons he is so popular. He defies the orthodoxies of left and right in the name of a common-good politics in which there is an active reconciliation between estranged interests, including class interests.

Part of the appeal of Pope Francis is that he articulates a generous vision of human society and flourishing that recognises the contribution of workers and the poor to the common good. The other is his remorseless reform of the Curia, the Vatican civil service, and his relentless challenge to a conception of the priesthood as managerial, administrative, bureaucratic or – worst of all – corrupt.

A person appointed by Pope Francis to help reform the finance committee told me that he was devoted to the task. He encountered great resistance and there was denunciation of the idea that a group of lay businessmen should oversee the finances in the place of priests and Vatican officers. There was outrage when the beatification accounts were frozen due to a lack of accountability. This turned to rage when an entirely new staff was appointed to the finance office. The Pope had one word for our besieged reformer: fretta. It means faster, stronger, more.

His address, made just before Christmas, to the Curia – in many ways the heirs to the glories of the Roman empire – as “co-workers, brothers and sisters” was a masterpiece of the form. He started with an evocation of Jesus, “who is born in the poverty of the stable of Bethlehem in order to teach us the power of humility” and whose light was received by “the poor and simple”.

And then he began his reflection on the theme of forgiveness for the Church, for its failings as a body which cannot live without nourishment and care. Like any body, it is prey to disease. At this point, he introduced the concept of “curial diseases” to which the officials of the Church were prone. He spoke of an assumed superiority over others and a refusal to recognise their own sin; of an excessive busyness that neglects rest and the needs of other people. He spoke of a “mental and spiritual petrification” that separates them from the lives of people and of an “excessive planning and functionalism” that was hostile to the power of people coming together and doing something better than they had planned. He spoke of poor communication between different parts of the organisation, of a loss of memory and first love, of a culture of gossiping, grumbling and backbiting, of idolising superiors, of an indifference to others, and a miserable face.

As a member of the Labour Party – indeed, of the Parliamentary Labour Party – I could not do other than reflect on the lessons for my party and movement in this speech, and on how we do not have a culture of reflection and evaluation, of disagreement and challenge. I thought we had a lot to learn from the Church, but I also winced at how hard it was to say that.

Pope Francis has turned the attention of the Church away from sex and towards the economy. He thinks of himself as a sinner and sees God in the eyes of the poor. He is prepared to say hard things to powerful people, and shines a light into the darkened corridors of his own institution. He is beloved of the people. In short, the most important thing about Pope Francis is that he is giving a masterclass in political leadership.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and is working on the party’s policy review. This essay is published in the spring issue of Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas: ippr.org/juncture

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article appears in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015