Main Site      Policy & Research     Communication      Media      What people say    

How to handle Donald Trump: complicity, compromise and conviction

2017 January 31
by Paul Vallely

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an unfinished hero, according to Dr Vicki Barnett of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many factions in the Church – from liberals to evangelicals and even to Trump-supporting conservatives – like to lay claim to the Lutheran theologian. They find in his stance against the Third Reich an endorsement of whatever issue they feel they need to take a stand upon. But theirs is “the Bonhoeffer of the T-shirt”. For the martyr has something more complex to teach us.

We should be cautious about analogy, Dr Barnett warned when quizzed about the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the growth of populist nationalism today. Others were less reluctant. The academic introducing her at the 2017 Bogdanow Lectures in Holocaust Studies this week acidly noted the irony of Donald Trump choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to announce his ban on Muslim refugees entering America to flee from war. It had echoes of the European Jews rejected by the US in 1939 and sent back to deaths in German concentration camps.

Certainly it was hard not to bring to mind the blistering pace of Mr Trump’s first week as Dr Barnett recalled that, when Hitler became German Chancellor, it took him just six weeks to transform democracy into dictatorship. Watching current events coalesce, she said, has “given me a greater understanding of the dynamics of all this”.  Even as she spoke President Trump was sacking the serving Attorney General, Sally Yates, for declaring his travel ban unconstitutional.

Bonhoeffer was a man on a moral and political journey. He gave the Nazi salute when he deemed it politic. He declined to give Church burial to a relative branded Jewish by Nazi race laws. He was initially more concerned to resist the nazification of the German church than in taking a public stance against the wider persecution of the Jews. But he did work worked privately to rescue individuals. Later he became active in the German Resistance. Eventually he was executed for plotting to kill Hitler.

A similar interplay of complicity, compromise and conviction is at work today. The British prime minister opted for the former in her dealings with the new US president. It brought initial success on her visit to the US but crumbled when she was tardy in her repudiation of Mr Trump’s approach to Muslim refugees – and she showed poor judgment with her premature offer of a state visit for Mr Trump, an accolade never accorded to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton and for which George Bush and Barak Obama had to wait more than two years. Compromise is the realpolitik for which Mrs May must now strive.

Conviction, meanwhile, is in great evidence in anti-Trump streets protests here and across the world, much of which, the prime minister may tartly note, is at no personal cost to the protestors. Yet Mrs May must find a way to accommodate that without giving insult to a US president with a notoriously thin skin and a propensity for retaliation.

Perhaps she should read a little Bonhoeffer.

 from The Church Times

President Trump’s angry God

2017 January 24
by Paul Vallely

Critiques of President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech tended to focus on how divisive and angry it was. What few noticed was the extent to which it was infused with religious language.

Most incoming presidents invite a couple of religious leaders to participate in the ceremony. Mr Trump had six – a Roman Catholic, a Jew and four evangelical Protestants. Having made speeches on the campaign trail which largely avoided references to the Bible or to God, or were clearly uncomfortable on that turf, he now made explicit reference to Psalm 133. “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,” he said, though he primarily addressed those who had voted for him rather than the entire nation.

The speech was shot through with other biblical allusions. Americans lives must “shine” before others. They were told “open your hearts’, although to patriotism rather than to Jesus. America was a great nation, echoing Psalm 33. All America’s children were “infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator”.

Not all this resonated as intended. When he said “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots” the bleeding conjured something sinister rather than inclusive.

Before the ceremony Mr Trump went to church, as presidents traditionally do on Inauguration Day tradition. There the First Baptist preacher he chose, Robert Jeffress – a man with a history of incendiary remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays – compared Mr Trump to the Old Testament figure of Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel. “You see, God is not against building walls,” he concluded, dubbing Nehemiah’s biblical detractors as “the mainstream media of their day”.

Today’s critics suggested that the embrace of Christianity was no more than “a dishonest and cynical attempt to appeal to the Christian right”. One sketchwriter noted that the inaugural choir from Missouri singing about welcoming strangers from overseas to their new land didn’t seem quite in tune with Mr Trump’s immigration policy. Prayers noting that the poor and humble are blessed, opponents said, merely emphasised the wealth and ego of the new President.

The Pope was more ambivalent. In an interview given on inauguration Day, Pope Francis insisted we must wait and see. “I don’t like to judge people prematurely,” he said. But he offered two revealing riders. He criticised what he called “spray religiousness” insisting that Christianity was found only in specifics. And he warned against people looking to a charismatic leader as a “saviour” to restore a nation’s identity, adding: “Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.”

The incoming President’s clerics turned everything to his advantage. When the heavens began to rain on Mr Trump’s parade Rev Franklin Graham proclaimed: “In the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing”. The rest of us may take a rather different view.

from The Church Times

President Trump and the nuclear bomb codes

2017 January 17
by Paul Vallely

A man in uniform will wait discreetly behind the scenes of today’s US Presidential Inauguration. He will carry the briefcase containing the codes with which Donald Trump will be empowered to launch the world’s most potent nuclear arsenal. For the next four years a military aide with the briefcase will stay constantly by Mr Trump’s side.

It’s a scary prospect, and not just because the reality-TV star businessman President has no experience of either politics or the military. Donald Trump has an erratic and volatile personality. He is thin-skinned, quick-tempered and prone to vindictive retaliation to judge from his juvenile use of Twitter. He is a man with poor control of his impulses.

Throughout the campaign commentators predicted that at some point he would drop the coarse vulgar braggadocio, with which he sought to enlist America’s disenfranchised angry white voters, and become “presidential”. He never did, instead issuing wild threats to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the US, denigrate climate change, cosy up to the Russians, disparage NATO, and slap trade tariffs as high as 35% on goods entering the United States, starting a trade war which could plunge the world into recession.

But the signals from his team are mixed. He has nominated an Energy Secretary who thinks the Department of Energy shouldn’t exist, a Secretary of State with a history of doing commercial deals in Russia, and a Defence Secretary who rejoices in the name of “Mad Dog”. His chief Middle East adviser backs the extremist Israeli desire to abandon a two-state solution and suppress the Palestinian dispossessed.

Appearing before select committees in Congress, however, his nominees have sprung surprises. Mr Trump’s future Secretary of State called Russia “an unfriendly adversary”, adding “we are not likely to ever be friends”. His Defence nominee contradicted the Trump verdict that NATO is “obsolete” and called it “the most successful military alliance in modern world history”. Trump nominees also rejected their leader’s insistence that President Obama’s nuclear arms deal with Iran should be torn up. They said No to the idea that the US should withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And the man chosen to be the new director of the CIA said he would refuse to carry out a Trump order to torture suspected terrorists.

It is just possible that these men will be able to moderate the worst impulses of the new President. After all Mr Trump lacks consistent views on many things – he has changed his mind about abortion and gay rights, for example – and seems inclined to go for whatever is politically opportune.

In ancient Rome victorious generals as they made their triumphal progress through the city were said to have a slave stand behind them in their chariots to whisper into the great man’s ear that this glory was transient and that one day he too would die. We can only hope that the presence of the man with the briefcase exercises a similar psychological restraint on Donald Trump.

from The Church Times


UK aid policy needs better scrutiny than this dog-whistle journalism

2017 January 8
by Paul Vallely

LAST year ended with some ferocious attacks on Britain’s overseas aid budget by right-wing newspapers. Reading through the material over the Christmas holidays — I know, there were far more festive things to do — prompted me to for­mulate a couple of New Year’s Resolu­tions for politicians and press alike.

Anyone with more than a passing ac­­quaint­ance with development knows that the quality of foreign aid needs to be constantly scrutin­ised and improved. The Times and the Daily Mail, in particular, highlighted three areas of concern: too much money is being spent on highly paid Western consultants; the chief executives of some charities in receipt of British aid earn massive salaries; and large sums are being invested in private sector growth on the debatable assumption that benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, when aid ought to be targeted at direct poverty alleviation.

But the campaigns also revealed the need for much higher-quality journalism. Too many articles were filled with leaps in logic, false equivalence, and ideologically driven innuendo and smear.

Again, let’s take three just examples. The Times downloaded large amounts of data, which is freely available on government websites, and presented it as an investigative scoop. Some of what it found was, aid insiders know, cause for genuine concern. But other material lacked context, such as its complaint of £23,000 in taxpayers’ money going to write a two-page policy brief — as if it would have been better “value for money” if it was 200 pages long.

This is classic confusion of quantity and quality, input and outcome. The real question is surely how much work went into those two pages, what logistical and security challenges the authors faced, and whether the document was penetrating and useful.

The Daily Mail went beyond sloppy cut-and-paste journalism with a misleading claim that millions of pounds went to a girl band that is the Ethiopian equivalent of the Spice Girls. In fact, the money goes to a project to combat forced early marriage, child slavery, and to educate girls — reducing child mort­ality and HIV transmission, and raising family incomes.

But most pernicious was the extrapolation that several newspapers invited that all this proved that all British aid was so inefficient and corrupt that the cash should be diverted to the care of the elderly in the UK. That is as pre­posterous as saying that the deaths at Stafford Hospital mean that we should do the same with NHS funds. Or that dubious pro­cure­ment practices on Trident mean that we should abolish the Ministry of Defence.

Instead of feeding dog-whistle politics that panders to the ugliest currents in British public life, the press should focus on the difficult questions. How much should you pay senior charity workers if you want to harness the best skills of the business sector to max­imise the number of poor people whom charities can help? Are constraints on the number of civil servants a false economy that has led to the growth in overpaid consultants? Is giving the world’s poor 7p out of every £10 of our national income really over­-gen­erous?

Of course, tackling such dilemmas will be harder work than wilfully misleading readers to feed a political agenda.

from The Church Times

Why Pope Francis must not retire at 80

2016 December 17
by Paul Vallely

Pope Francis is 80 today, the age at which cardinals must retire from the electoral college which will pick the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Will Francis chose today to retire too?

In the past popes ignored this octogenarian watershed. They went on until they died. But Benedict XVI changed things when he became the first leader of the Catholic Church to resign in more than 500 years. Pope Francis has, in the past, indicated that he might retire too. But it is vital for the church and the world that he does not do it now.

The two popes before Francis were conservatives. Between them John Paul II and his successor Benedict set the public tone of Catholicism for more than three decades. In just three years Pope Francis has gone some way to hauling the Catholic Church back towards the centre. But the ideological right within Catholicism is increasingly fighting back. Their private criticism of the first Pope from the global South is turning to public dissent. Now is not the time for Francis to have innovative thoughts about institutionalising papal retirement by stepping down.

Francis is not the liberal the secular media sometime paint him. He takes the traditional Catholic line on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and women priests. And yet his positions can be more nuanced than the Catholic Right can tolerate.

Gays have felt welcomed by his famous “who am I to judge?” remark. He has invited transgendered individuals into the Vatican and physically embraced one of them. He has opened the path to fuller inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. He has set up a commission to investigate the possibility of women deacons, which many see as the first step to female priests. And at the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation he acknowledged that Martin Luther had a point about spiritual corruption within the Catholic Church.

All this – together with his sweeping reforms of Vatican finances, his work to remodel the Roman bureaucracy known as the Curia and his moves to empower the wider church and rid the papacy of its monarchical status – have gone down badly with traditionalists.

Some of the men who became bishops during the previous 35 year conservative ascendancy have reacted with sullen silence, in what one Vatican veteran described as “passive-aggressive non-compliance”. But others have been publicly hostile or disdainful – and some are now openly resisting him.

Just a month ago four ultra-traditionalist cardinals issued a public challenge to the pope. They said that his ruling that, in certain circumstances, remarried Catholics might take Communion, could require a “formal act of correction” from the College of Cardinals. They published five dubia – doubts – virtually accusing the sitting pope of heresy, something without precedent in recent Catholic history.

Those who rely on the internet for their information might be forgiven for supposing a civil war is raging inside the Catholic Church. That is certainly what the “culture warriors” in the United States – which is where many of the most ideological hardliners are to be found – want the world to believe. They paint a picture of a Catholic majority, loyal to the unchanging traditions and teachings of the Church, locked in combat with a progressive pope who is diluting doctrine and capitulating to the moral relativism of contemporary secularism.

Such nonsense flies in the teeth of opinion polls which show that 85pc of US Catholics approve of this pope. Talk to Catholics in the pews in the United States and you encounter a less rigid, more generous, more pastoral mood than is evident among some of their bishops. In Europe and the UK too the vast majority of Catholics love this pope.

The Catholic Church has always married aspirational ideals with a pragmatic pastoral compassion. Pope Francis enshrined this subterranean pragmatism in official teaching when he issued his document Amoris Laetitia in April after a two year Synod process. His critics accuse him of being wilfully vague in the document and deliberately avoiding doctrinal clarity; the Pope’s response is that people are more important than dogma.

Mercy is the prime gospel value for Francis. It has been the dominant theme of his time as Pope. During his Year of Mercy, which ended last month, Francis made that concrete with a series of private visits to vulnerable and marginalised groups. He ended with an encounter – to the discomfit of traditionalists – with men who left the priesthood to marry, and with their wives and children too. “We have to meet people where they are,” Francis said.

Pope Francis is playing a long game. He has refused to reply to the four cardinal critics but has indirectly attacked them for rigidity, legalism, psychological inadequacy and generally behaving like the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with trick questions in the gospels.

Publicly he has declared himself unworried by the hostility of this vociferous minority. “I’m not losing sleep over it,” he told an interviewer recently, adding that he would continue to follow the path of the Second Vatican Council, which turned the Church away from sacramental introspection towards engagement with the wider world – a reform that many conservatives have spent the past four decades trying to undo.

Instead the Pope has been quietly moving to restore a more moderate tone to the Church. He has just sacked all the conservatives from the body that governs Catholic worship. He bypassed the three leading right-wing US archbishops who expected red hats when he created 19 new cardinals last month. And the head of the Vatican’s main working court this week declared that the four cardinal critics could be stripped of their red hats.

It’s unlikely Francis will do that. Instead he is steadily remoulding the College of Cardinals, filling it with moderate pastors rather than doctrinal ideologues. For the first time in history Europeans are outnumbered by the rest of the world in the body which will elect the next pope. Cardinals have been appointed from 11 countries which have never before been represented. Almost half the electors are now from the poor world.

But Francis has named only 44 of those electors, compared with 76 created by previous conservative popes. If Pope Francis wants to secure his legacy he must not retire yet.

Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

This article first appeared in The Guardian


The ever growing and changing Pope Francis

2016 November 29
by Paul Vallely
Massimo Faggioli’s review of the second edition of
Pope Francis – Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

(Photo: CNA)

Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, Paul Vallely, Bloomsbury, 2015, 470 pp.

This is the only major biographical work on Pope Francis that has been substantially updated after its first edition.

Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism adds nine new chapters, which constitute a thorough analysis of the first two years of the pontificate.

The most important is Chapter Six, “Exile in Cordoba”.

It represents, in my opinion, one of the keys to understanding the “mystery” of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man and the priest, and therefore to understanding his pontificate. It is clear to me that the turnaround of this Jesuit – who, in his fifties, took stock of his failures – has a parallel in the life of the young Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and the future John XXIII’s embrace of the idea of the “medicine of mercy”.

The chapter that follows, “How Bergoglio Changed”, is one of the best analyses of the cultural and spiritual complexities of Bergoglio-Francis. Vallely accurately describes the deeply anti-ideological approach to the issues that been seen as so typical of this pope. Francis transcends the divide between a Catholic culture focused on social justice and a more spiritualized Catholicism that saw such political engagement in the period after the Second Vatican Council as a distortion of the nature of the Church.

But for all Bergoglio’s complexities and paradoxes, Vallely convincingly shows that there is a trajectory in his life and thought. He was not a liberation theologian, but as pope he clearly expresses a liberationist perspective. In this sense, as the pontificate continues to add new elements to the trajectory of the pope’s life, it is interesting to read Vallely’s analysis of how top clerics perceived Bergoglio in different ways at the conclave and at the beginning of the pontificate (especially Cardinals Mueller, Burke, Nichols, and Woelki).

This book is particularly valuable for its nuance. The chapters on Bergoglio during the dirty war in Argentina, on his handling of the sex abuse crisis at the Vatican and his approach to the role of women in the Church and in theology offer a healthy reminder. For all his conversion from the authoritarian Jesuit to the synodal pope, Francis has idiosyncrasies stemming from his background, formation, and culture as a cleric.

I disagree with Vallely’s judgment in only a few passages. For example, I would not say that Francis’ statements on contraception represent “ambiguity” (page 193). I think rather it is because the matter itself is complex that a pope finally decided to address it in a complex way. In this he points out that Catholicism is full of contradiction, like every Christian experience.

But what is even more typical of Catholicism is not the contradiction, but the paradoxes. In Francis’ case, the paradox of reconciling the validity of the overall message of Humanae Vitae on marriage and love with the very problematic (to say the least) reception in the Church of the passage on contraception. Francis is, in fact, the first pope that has gone through the reception of Humanae Vitae as a young priest.

Secondly, I do not think it is correct to affirm that Francis confirmed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (page 369). I think the dossier of the American sister was part of the complicated transition from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis. In fact, in December 2014 Francis put an end to the whole investigation.

Finally, I believe it is unfair to say Francis’s view of women is that they are like “strawberries on the cake”. Along with that remark, which the he made in December 2014 during an address to the members of the International Theological Commission in December 2014, the pope also said quite clearly that women should not be seen that way and must have a more visible role in the Church (page 376).

The subtitle of Vallely’s new edition – the struggle for the soul of Catholicism – comes up explicitly two times in the book, according to my count. On page 264 the author talks about “a war for the soul of Catholicism” in reference to Francis’ critical speech to the Roman Curia in December 2014.

Then at then end of page 326 he reports on a comment made by an Downton Abbey kind of lady at a Cardinal Burke event in Chester, England: “This is a battle for the soul of the Church”.

Vallely’s inclusion of the subtitle concerning Pope Francis’ “ struggle” is part of this revised and expanded edition for a reason. The pontificate is meeting resistance from the establishment of the Church – much more than any recent predecessor on the chair of Peter.

The author’s story of Bergoglio is “a story of change” (page 412). The Church is also a story of change, and this book helps us understand the connection between the deep inner transformation of its current leader and the possibility of transformation of the Church.

Massimo Faggioli
Vatican City
December 15, 2015

A bravura performance from Niamh Cusack in a new translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts

2016 November 24
by Paul Vallely


Home, Manchester

4 stars


The stage appears to have been turned through 45 degrees so it protrudes, in a diamond shape, into the auditorium. In the corner nearest to the audience stands an empty bentwood chair. It was only after the play had ended that I worked out what this curious mise-en-scène represented in Polly Findlay’s ingenious production of a new translation of one of the foundational texts of modern drama – Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The empty chair is the chair of Captain Alving, the character who never appears but whose dissolute personal life dominates the action even so many years after his death. It is eventually occupied by Alving’s son, Osvald, only at the point where he realises that he is the inheritor of his father’s legacy. In public that inheritance is a home for orphans as a tribute to the life of a man lauded as the apotheosis of virtue. In private the inheritance is the terminal syphilis with which Osvald has been born thanks to his alcoholic father’s endless womanising. The sins of the fathers visited upon the children.

There is a bravura performance from the peerless Niamh Cusack as the Captain’s widow, struggling years later to come to terms with the life he led and the deception she practiced in pretending to the world that he was the acme of righteousness. Much of the skill of the new translation by the playwright David Watson lies in lines which are superficially banal and yet shot through with subtext. Cusack gives an extraordinary performance in which the very thought-processes of the philanderer’s widow come alive in a compelling between-the-lines piece of acting.

Ibsen wrote the play in 1881 when its critique of puritan religion, portrayal of extra-marital sex and allusions to venereal disease, incest and euthanasia deeply shocked his contemporaries. It’s difficult for a modern translation to convey that sense of outrage; today Osvald’s defence of promiscuity sounds like commonplace received wisdom. Yet David Watson combines a sense of colloquial modernity with the claustrophobic atmosphere of a repressed society.

The Olivier award-winning director draws nicely-judged performances from William Travis as the cloven-hooved ever-so-umble Engstrand and Norah Lopez Holden as the daughter determined to break away but entrapped in the orbit of her debased father. Jamie Ballard makes credible the anguish of the Calvinist pastor and Ken Nwosu deftly captures a mix of worldly knowingness and self-delusion as the doomed Osvald. Go and see this.

from the i

A great crack, where the light got in

2016 November 15
by Paul Vallely
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes I thought it was there for good so I never tried

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried

By one of those eerie coincidences, a few days after the death of Leonard Cohen, one of his songs came up in something I was watching in the theatre. The play was called Things I Know To Be True and though it was written some time before the Canadian songwriter’s death it highlighted why the departure of such a figure on the cultural landscape can feel like a personal rather than a public loss.

The play, at one point, takes Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat and uses it as a device by which a young woman can tell her mother (played by Imogen Stubbs, above) that she has always understood something which her Mum thought was hidden. The daughter had noticed her mother would cry when she heard it. I won’t spoil the plot as this fine play – a tender and moving study of family life by Andrew Bovell – is currently on a national tour. But various lines from the song became an unnervingly threnody along the woman’s life.

Popular song is the soundtrack to the lives of a generation who live, love and age along with the songs’ singers. It’s why musicians of longevity, like David Bowie or Prince, leave such a bewailed gap in the lives of the fans they leave behind. Leonard Cohen did that most distinctively because of the elegance and depth of his poetic sensibility.

To a pop star’s romantic charisma he added an eroticised intelligence. He was more than a womanising poet singing songs of melancholy. He delved deep into love, suffering, depression and despair – and then offered a fragmented redemption with his holy but broken Hallelujah. Pleasure and pain to him were inseparable parts of what it is to be human: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen could gaze up to the heavens and down to hell and yet his feet were planted firmly here on earth. He had “this direct line to the galaxy”, said Rufus Wainwright, “whilst at the same time knowing exactly when to take out the trash”. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh, Cohen said.

He showed that “being spiritual but not religious” can be more than a shallow secular slogan. Brought up an Orthodox Jew he flirted with Scientology before spending six years in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California – an experience which eased his lifelong depression. Latterly he revealed: “Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life.” On his final album, last month, he borrowed a Jewish prayer of preparation and humility, singing Abraham’s response when God called on him to sacrifice Isaac: “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my lord”.

The response to his death showed that his work and his words have reached beyond his peers to resonate across generations. As he wrote to his old lover Marianne on her deathbed only weeks ago: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”. His steps will always rhyme.

from the Church Times

Donald Trump, the Daily Mail and post-truth politics

2016 November 9
by Paul Vallely

They call it post-truth politics. Donald Trump is its most grotesque embodiment. But it is gaining a foothold here, as we saw from the hysterical reaction of pro-Brexit politicians to the High Court ruling that Parliament must be consulted as Britain leaves the European Union.

Politicians have always lied. But “post-truth politics” is something new. It was first defined in the late 1990s when US conservatives became alarmed that laws to reduce carbon emissions would hit them in the pocket. The way to fight back was to question the underlying science. The strategy was laid bare by a leaked memo to President George W Bush which suggested that public opinion would harden once people came to believe the science was settled.

Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump told lie after lie, beginning with the claim that he started his business empire with a “small loan” from his father, when in fact he inherited $40m. His falsehoods were too many to catalogue here. When the professional fact checkers PolitiFact scrutinised his speeches they found 70% of his factual statements were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants-on-fire’ untruths. Washington Post checkers agreed, and found much of the remaining 30% also untrue.

But there is more to post-truth than a lack of factual accuracy. It also involves insult and innuendo, scares and smears, paranoia and the psychology of conspiracy. The response of our populist press to the High Court ruling on the process of Brexit reveals that post-truth politics have taken root here too.

The Daily Mail was particularly egregious with a front page which set out – with the headline “Enemies of the People” – mugshots of the three judges who had ruled that Parliament must have a say on the mechanism of Brexit. You might have thought the system of checks and balances between the executive, the legislature and judiciary embodied in the British constitution was a key part of the national sovereignty which Brexiteers voted to restore. The Mail, however, preferred a diatribe about “the will of the people” having been flouted by judges who, it informed its readers in a classic dog-whistle smear – included a gay Jew, a committed Europhile and a “pal” of Tony Blair’s.

 Donald Trump has for months been up to similar tricks in the United States with slurs on Mexicans, Muslims and menstruating women. Often he acknowledged he was merely insinuating with the preparatory phrase: “A lot of people are saying…” (He aired no fewer than 58 conspiracy theories in his campaign.) But many times he told barefaced lies with brass-necked audacity. Then, when his accuracy was questioned, he riposted: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Mostly his audience roared with approving laughter.

What was at work here was an advertising industry model of communication in which the important thing is not what you say but how you make people feel. So long as something feels true, that is enough. The American comedian Steven Colbert even coined a phrase, “truthiness”, to describe ideas which “feel right” or “should be true”. British politicians should be wary of following our sillier newspapers onto this dangerously debased territory.


This first appeared in the Church Times

Female Lear fails to land emotional punch

2016 November 4
by Paul Vallely

Our half-term treat was a trip to the Old Vic to see the amazing Glenda Jackson play King Lear. We’d been well-primed by her masterly portrayal of the 104 year old narrator in Radio 4’s recent dramatisation of Emile Zola’s epic family saga of sex, greed and intrigue. Sadly the Lear was a grave disappointment.

At times the veteran actress was powerfully moving. She was particularly touching in Lear’s maddest scene in which he hallucinates a mouse and much else. But there was a lack of emotional coherence and narrative thrust.

Perhaps we have been spoiled. There have been a lot of Lears about recently. The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a performance of commanding range from Antony Sher as the abdicating monarch who addresses his failing powers by carving his kingdom into portions for his three daughters. This was monarch by divine right, a high priest who channelled the celestial when he called down maledictions upon those who fell outside his favour. His was a disturbing descent from cosmic command to personal collapse.

Before that we saw Simon Russell Beale at the National. His Lear began as a merciless dictator who held his court in a state of nervous dread. His behaviour – along with that of his boisterous and brutal knights – made his daughters’ demand that they should be reduced seem entirely reasonable. His subsequent disintegration into madness then became all the more moving.

Glenda Jackson lacks such a story. Her director, Deborah Warner, has filled her production with gimmicks and tricks but they feel empty. Edmund’s gymnastics, buttock-baring, and most bizarrely of all his entrance carrying a 10 foot ladder, seemed pointless. Regan’s lustful sexuality before her acts of cruelty or violence, appeared gratuitous rather than organic. Most problematically the central gender swap added nothing to the psychological burden of the drama.

When Gillian Bevan played Cymbeline as a queen rather than a king at the RSC earlier this year the switch added a dimension of maternal anguish. But this female Lear merely prompted the thought that most women have too much emotional intelligence to do anything as silly as Lear does.

Two days later, at the Liverpool Everyman we had a happier experience with Two Gentlemen of Verona. Generally considered Shakespeare’s first play it feels a try-out for all the theatrical devices of his later comedies: lovers’ trysts, elopement, cross-dressing and betrayal rounded off by the conventional happy ending. The play lacks the emotional richness of Shakespeare’s later comedies but a touring production from the Globe Theatre gave a splendid modern integrity to all that.

It relocated the play into the world of 1960s pop. 45rpm vinyl discs replaced the Elizabethan love letter. The earnest young hero became a figure of mild fun. And it was decidedly contemporary in its take on gender relations.

The play infamously contains a knotty line in which one of the men offers his fiancée to his friend as a mark of male bonding. Modern audiences find that preposterous but director Nick Bagnall confronted it head on with a demonstration of female solidarity between the two heroines which spoke to our times. If only the same could have been said about King Lear in the Old Vic.

from the Church Times


Pope Francis is slowly dragging the Catholic Church back from the right to the centre – but he still has a way to go

2016 October 14
by Paul Vallely

The lineaments of the papacy of Pope Francis became even clearer this week with his announcement of the kind of men he has chosen to become cardinals – and the electors who will determine whether he is succeed by someone who cements his reforming instincts or by someone who steers the Roman Catholic Church back to the conservative ground to which it was shifted by his most recent predecessors.

The priority he accords to courageous conflict resolution was clear from his placing at the top of his list Mario Zenari, the dauntless Vatican ambassador to war-ravaged Syria. It will be the first time in recent history a papal nuncio will have the rank of cardinal. Also prominent was the youngest candidate, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, who has worked with resolution for an end to the bloody conflict in the Central African Republic. Bangladesh’s new cardinal, Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, has been intensely involved in interreligious dialogue though he has spoken out against radical Islamic indoctrination. And there was a testament to bravery too in the appointment of the only-non bishop on the list Father Ernest Simoni, the priest who brought tears to the Pope’s eyes with his account of his 30 years of prison, torture and forced labour in atheistic Albania.

His preference for the peripheries was evident as Francis makes the College of Cardinals less European. The new men represent all five continents and 12 different countries with 11 coming from places like Bangladesh, New Guinea, Malaysia and Lesotho which have never before had a cardinal.

All the new men are pastors who “smell of their sheep” rather than theological ideologues. From Madrid he has chosen Carlos Osoro Sierra, a man nicknamed the “Spanish Francis” who walks around his diocese and has a devotion to Our Lady of La Paloma whose feastday celebrations attract thousands of non-church attenders who live “on the spiritual outskirts”.

The new cardinals favour collaboration over confrontation and put mercy before judgemental condemnation. From his native Latin America, Pope Francis has picked men prominent in the continent’s conference of bishops, CELAM, rather than those conspicuous for their conservatism. In Belgium he has chosen Archbishop Jozef de Kezel who was twice put forward by the papal nuncio to take over the country’s primatial see and twice rejected by Pope Benedict XVI in favour of a hardline conservative.

The Franciscan shift is most clearly seen in the three new American cardinals. The Pope has passed over those who had been lined up by Pope Benedict by being placed in sees when the incumbent expected an automatic red hat to follow. (Francis has decoupled hats and sees across the rich world – in Venice, Turin and Toledo). But most pointedly the leaders of the ideological Right among the US bishops have all been disregarded. Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles have paid the price for resisting the pope’s desire to open up communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, combatting the Obama administration over contraception and entrenched theological conservatism.

Instead one American red hat has gone to Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, a key Francis ally on welcoming into the Church those in irregular family situations. Another has gone to Bishop Kevin Farrell, recently moved from being Bishop of Dallas to head the new Vatican on the Laity, the Family and Life, and an outspoken advocate on US gun control. And a third has been given to Joseph Tobin, the former superior general of the Redemptorists, who was demoted from a top Vatican job in the Benedict era for criticising the Holy See’s controversial investigation of US nuns. He was relegated then to the small diocese of Indianapolis where he did battle with the Governor, Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, and refused to obey the politicians instructions not to welcome Syrian refugees to the city.

What it all boils down to is an attempt by Francis to take shift the Catholic Church from the right back to the centre. It will mean that this Pope has appointed more than a third of the electors for his successor. The majority however will still by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI men. So if the reforms of Francis are to be cemented by the next papacy it will require intervention once again by the Holy Spirit.

A truncated version of this appeared in the Church Times


5 star review for Milk at the Traverse Theatre

2016 August 18
by Paul Vallely


Traverse Theatre

Edinburgh Festival

5 stars


The Traverse guarantees to read every play that is submitted to it. It costs a fortune but, if this first play by Ross Dunsmore is anything to go by, it’s really worth it.

A perceptive study of three couples it’s full of acutely-observed humour which darkens as the play proceeds to a charged close.

Two 14-year-olds, Steph and Ash, are in the foothills of their first relationship. Together they fantasise about their future. She will be a singer and a model and an actress who will go to Africa to “adopt a little black baby and bring him back in a Gucci bag”. He will be a game designer and a rap artist and make movies.

Their teacher Danny and his pregnant wife Nicole are about to have a baby. Nicole, in her late 30s is on the brink of fulfilling a long-awaited dream. She is hubristically confident she will be a perfect mother.

Their neighbours Cyril and May, both in their 90s are struggling to survive with no money for food or fuel. Afraid of the present live they in the past. They recall a prime in which Cyril liberated Europe in his tank and after the war they had a happy family, with food aplenty and a toddler son.

But for each couple things unravel. Steph – who is a bundle of colliding female hormones while her boyfriend Ash is still more fired up by the menu in Nando’s – turns her sexual fantasies onto her teacher. Nicole becomes distraught when it transpires her new baby can’t latch on for breastfeeding. And Cyril can’t steal himself to walk past the local youths and dogs to reach the shop for bread for his malnourished wife.

Milk is a metaphor for sustenance in the play in which the themes of food, sex and love intermingle. The resonances are not precise. It’s not clear where milk fits in the teenage relationship, nor what motivates the teacher in his minor transgressions in his relationship with his pupil, nor why the authorities haven’t intervened with the hungry baby or the starving old folk. But the social issues are background. This is a play about relationships and our need for love.

The cast is so strong it would be invidious to single out one actor. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is pitch-perfect. The scenes move briskly but build a steady sense of tension. After the crisis she conjures a poignant moment of redemption. Funny, sharp and tender by turns it’s a play to make you laugh and cry.


an edited version of this review appeared in the i newspaper