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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 appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses