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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

Don Warrington’s black production of King Lear mistakes shouting for passion and melodrama for horror

2016 April 12
by Paul Vallely

King Lear

Royal Exchange, Manchester

2 stars

There is a conundrum with productions of classic plays by black companies. Is the aim to give black actors a crack at big roles the theatre often denies them from unconscious prejudice? Or is it to bring out new resonances, or even an extra dimension, in the text.

The latter happened at the RSC last year when Othello and Iago were both black, with a performance of immense intensity from Lucian Msamati as the villain. And in 2012 the RSC’s African Julius Caesar rang with renewed conviction from the world of Amin, Mengistu and Mugabe.

Don Warrington’s Lear with the black-led Talawa theatre company was eagerly awaited. He gave a performance of real power at this theatre two years ago in All My Sons. Sadly his Lear is lacklustre and Michael Buffong’s production – despite extensive programme notes about age, dementia and race with its section on BAME Shakespeare – brings no new insights.

There are flashes. Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool is shot through with irony and pity. Thomas Coombes adds camp menace to the often anonymous role of Goneril’s steward. And Alfred Enoch’s Edgar feigns madness with a vigour which suggests a subliminal psychological disturbance. Signe Beckman’s cleverly tilted set conjures a world where things are out of alignment.

Warrington’s Lear works in its final pitiful scenes, where the outcast king regains his autonomy and assurance through madness. But otherwise it lacks subtlety, which is true of the whole production which mistakes shouting for passion and melodrama for horror. It does not just lack dynamic range, it is unmodulated. The Bastard has no sexual chemistry. There is no tenderness in this shouty Cordelia. And the first night audience actually laughed openly when Gloucester’s eyes were put out and bits of rubber flew out all across the auditorium. Oh dear.

This review appeared in the i newspaper

The secret letters of Pope John Paul II raise serious questions about fidelity and celibacy

2016 February 22
by Paul Vallely

DID Pope John Paul II have a secret lover? That question was asked by several newspapers and websites in half-baked previews of the BBC broadcaster Edward Stourton’s extraordinary disclosure that more than 350 letters were written by Pope John Paul to an attractive, vivacious, married Polish philosopher, Professor Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

In the event, the BBC made no suggestion that the pontiff ever broke his vow of celibacy. And yet the intimacy and intensity of the couple’s relationship raises important questions about celibacy, fidelity, and the emotional intelligence of the priesthood.

The letters, and the testimony of close friends who survive her, suggest that Teresa-Anna — as the Pope called her — fell in love with him when he was Archbishop of Krakow in the 1970s. A passionate relationship ensued for 32 years. We heard only from the Pope’s letters, not hers to him, but it seems clear that she declared her love for him, and he wrestled with how to respond.

“You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words,” he wrote. “The words ‘I belong to you’ woke a great tenderness in me but at the same time an enormous anxiety.”

Most priests, confronted with such passion, would have broken off the relationship. But John Paul continued it, inviting her to go skiing, hiking, and even camping with him. In one letter, he wrote: “It was good you sent your letter by hand — it contains things too deep for the censor’s eyes.” He spoke of “issues which are too difficult for me to write about”.

Eventually he wrote: “I was looking for an answer to these words ‘I belong to you’ and finally I found a way — a scapular.” He gave her the devotional object that was his most treasured possession; his father had given him the scapular when he made his first communion. John Paul had worn it against his skin ever since. “I feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, when you are close, and when you are far away,” he wrote.

We were not told what Teresa’s husband made of all this. What impact can the intensity of such a relationship, and her frequent trips abroad, have had on her husband, and on the quality of her marriage? Fidelity is emotional as well as sexual; for many, emotional detachment is a deeper betrayal even than sexual duplicity.

For a pope, who sits at the head of celibate clergy, it raises questions about priestly isolation and loneliness. The need for relationship and companionship is psychologically far more profound than the focus on sex that is assumed in most discussions about celibacy. Was John Paul’s solution paid for at the cost of an emotional fidelity in Teresa’s marriage?

The Pope reconciled all this by calling her “a gift from God” to him. He wrote: “If I did not have this conviction, some moral certainty of Grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this.” This “Grace is stronger than our weaknesses,” he wrote. But it is hard not to conclude that the pontiff was playing with fire.


Paul Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.

What the Woolf Institute report says about school assemblies and faith schools shows up its whole approach as binary and reductive

2016 January 11
by Paul Vallely

There was a short letter in The Times just before Christmas. It said: ‘At our little parish church in our quiet corner of Cornwall, the carol service on December 20 will begin with the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, sung by a child. This year that child is nine years old and a Hindu. Her entire family will be present to support her.’

The report by the grand-sounding Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life came in for a fair amount of flack when it was published in the same month. The Church of England accused it of having been hijacked by a ‘humanist’ agenda. But that letter about the Hindu participation in a Christian carol service hinted at the key deficiency in the report – its lack of political sophistication.

A big part of the problem lay in the failing of the panel which produced the report – assembled by the interfaith Woolf Institute and chaired by the former high-court judge Dame Elizabeth Butler- Sloss – to understand the difference between theory and practice. Take one of its most prominent recommendations, the proposal to abolish the requirement for state schools to hold a daily act of worship.

In an era marked by a decline in formal religious observance, coupled with the growth of non-Christian religions, and the spread of an ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ popular sensibility, the Butler-Sloss proposal sounds sensible enough. But look what is happening on the ground. Just as a Hindu child – and indeed a girl – can take the lead in beginning a Christian celebration, so in schools across the land a pragmatic accommodation has been worked out in daily or weekly assemblies. Though the 1944 Education Act creates a statutory obligation on schools to hold nondenominational daily acts of collective worship few schools now do so. At least three quarters of schools were not adhering to the requirement, according to Oftsed.

So the issue is theoretical rather than practical. If you were designing the system from scratch you would not include such a requirement. If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here, as the old country bumpkin joke has it. So why not remove the requirement? Before answering that it is important to know what would replace it.

Butler-Sloss suggests an ‘inclusive time for reflection’ drawing upon ‘a range of sources’. Given the materialist utilitarianism which informs the rest of the report the suspicion must be that it would be replaced by something social and ethical rather than spiritual. The fear must be that a whole dimension of children’s development would be neglected in line with the general drift to a devaluation of the spiritual life. That is why a law that requires daily worship (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) might be the lesser evil.

The 1944 Act requires a daily assembly which is a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. That wording is a happy example of our national genius for compromise. It keeps a spiritual and moral yardstick before the eyes of educators while allowing wide flexibility in its application. The same question – what will replace the status quo – is one which others faiths clearly ask themselves when faced with the idea of disestablishing the Church of England, another hoary favourite floated by Butler-Sloss. She seems to fear it must cause offence to other religions as it does to the humanists whose agenda has driven much of the report. The problem is that other faiths are overwhelmingly unhappy about the notion of CofE disestablishment, fearing it will be another attempt to erode the status of faith within national public life.

Ditto on faith schools, on which the report opines: ‘in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension’. It is not clear. On that rather flimsy premise it recommends that the government should require faith schools to limit the number of children from religious backgrounds they admit.

Others have rather different views. Though it is true that in some middle class church schools pupils never mix with anyone outside their elite social peer group, there are many other faith schools which are far more diverse than mainstream schools. They almost always have broader catchment areas and a wider ability range. The school attached to the first church I attended in Manchester contained immigrant children of 42 different nationalities.

Moreover faith schools adopt different mission visions; CofE schools focus on serving their local area, where Catholics, Jews and Muslims see their purpose as serving the needs of their specific faith communities. It is hard to see how Butler-Sloss’s prescriptions can apply equally to both. Few in the faith communities take offence at the schools of other religions; indeed many Muslim parents prefer Christian schools over secular ones. Large numbers of non-religious parents also chose a church school – and in numbers which outweigh the groups of agnostic or atheist parents who object to a religious ethos. That is why faith schools are among the most oversubscribed in the country. The report’s cheap jibe about religious parents wanting “to have their children raised in a religious ethos at state expense” fails to consider that such parents pay the same taxes as those in secular schools.

The face of faith is changing but it is becoming richer and more complex. Addressing those changes needs an approach which is less binary and reductive. A real opportunity has been missed.


from Third Way


The Woolf report: a vision of hollowed-out religion

2015 December 17
by Paul Vallely

It seemed like a good idea – a commission on religion in public life. It’s a shame then that the report just released by the interfaith Woolf Institute under that badge is such a hodgepodge of interesting insights, unexamined prejudices and muddled thinking.

Let’s start with the good parts of this curate’s egg, if that’s not too narrow a simile for our diverse era. The report has important things to say on the need for greater religious literary among our opinion-makers and policy-framers. It’s good on the balance needed for sharia law to play a positive role in the UK.  It points out unhelpful legal anomalies that protect Jews and Sikhs but not Muslims. But when it argues for abolishing the collective act of worship in schools, or cutting the number of bishops in the House of Lords, it is bald and reductive.

The report lacks clarity on the tensions between declining institutional or affiliated religion and the emergence of more subtle forms of faith – not to mention what endures in the cultural and moral legacy of Christianity. It repeatedly assumes that those who say they are not religious must be humanists. And it ties itself in knots over the relationship between faith and ideas of Britishness.

When its chair, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, launched the report on the radio it was difficult to work out whether she was being naïve or disingenuous in all this. Reading the full report makes that clear. Though it calls itself a “commission” – a word with official overtones –this self-appointed group has produced an ideological document which assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society.

The report quotes the British Humanist Association ten times, the National Secular Society five and even the Humanist Society Scotland gets three mentions. By contrast there’s a single quote from an Anglican Archbishops’ commission and a solitary reference to a report by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Humanists are crammed in, even in the most unrepresentative contexts, as with the insistence that some volunteers on Christian soup runs might be atheists.

In the end the dominant paradigm for the report is sociological. (Linda Woodhead gets ten mentions). But it lacks philosophical, theological, historical and political sophistication.

It jumbles the universe with the meaning of life. It thinks religious identity is fixed and final. It has a fuzzy portmanteau understanding of the common good. It thinks humanism began at the Enlightenment (poor Erasmus). It suggests that respect for life, human rights, peace and equality are humanist not religious values.

It takes no account of the practical politics of replacing the requirement for an act of worship with a warm and woolly “inclusive time for reflection”. It replaces evidence with assertion in decrying faith schools and neglecting the fact that religious parents also pay taxes.

The vision it offers is of a lowest common denominator society which hollows religion out. By contrast society needs a highest common factor vision which draws on the best of all faiths rather than seeking to neuter them with an impoverished secularism.



from The Church Times

The questions MPs need to ask before voting on bombing in Syria

2015 December 1
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

There are a number of questions MPs need to ask before they vote on whether to bomb Islamic terrorists inside Syria – and they should be refracted through Just War theory which, imperfect though it is in an age of terrorism, is still our best guide for ethical thinking here.

A number of criteria are clearly fulfilled. ‘Just cause’ and ‘right intention’ are evident. So is ‘competent authority’ after last week’s UN Security Council resolution calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq – though what is necessary is not universally agreed. But is this ‘last resort’? And what of ‘proportionality’ and ‘probability of success’?

It is through that lens that MPs should look when they ask whether the prime minister has fulfilled the requirement of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – whose Conservative majority said bombing in Syria should not be approved without a persuasive case that air strikes are part of a “coherent international strategy” to defeat ISIS and end Syria’s civil war.  Any benefits of air strikes in Syria would be outweighed by the risks of “legal ambiguity, political chaos on the ground, military irrelevance, and diplomatic costs”, the committee said.

So the first question is: What material difference will it make if the UK joins the US, France and Russia in bombing?  The PM’s insistence that it is “standing by our allies” is dubious in Just War terms. We might call it the Blair Defence. MPs should be convinced of a clear military advantage.

Next, may bombing be counter-productive? It could act as a further recruiting sergeant for ISIS whose internal literature makes clear it wants to provoke a battle against all “the forces of Rome” – that is the entire Christian heritage world from the US through Europe to orthodox Russia. It sees an apocalyptic battle with “Crusader forces” on ISIS territory as part of a divine plan.

War has changed.  In traditional warfare the aim was to smash the opponent’s army; now it is to break the will of the opponent. Terrorism is a tool for that. But so is provoking disproportionate responses which result in civilian casualties which will make the broader Sunni population – among which ISIS hides – see the West as a bigger threat than ISIS. We should have learned that from drone bombings of wedding parties and children’s hospitals in Afghanistan.  But technology makes an imprecise hitting back too easy, without endangering the lives of our own troops.

What will replace ISIS on the ground if it is militarily obliterated? There are not two sides in the Syrian civil war but at least four, each with international backers. Assad is backed by Russia and by Shia Iran. ISIS and other salafis groups are unofficially backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian Free Army is backed by the US.  Then there are the Turks who are using the cover of fighting Isis to bomb the Kurdish even as they fight ISIS.

The story of Iraq and Libya is that when a bad regime is removed something worse can rush into the vacuum. Is there a coherent strategy to avoid that?

Finally, by bombing Syria, the UK will lose some of its diplomatic independence, and sacrifice leverage in the current round of  international diplomacy in Vienna. Is the military gain worth the diplomatic loss where, in the end, there can be no military solution only a political one? A coherent realpolitik transition for Syria must be negotiated internationally.

The Paris massacre may provoke us to the conviction that “something must be done”.  But MPS need to think very carefully about what that something should be.


from The Church Times


Has modern warfare changed the nature of battlefield ethics and made a Just War impossible?

2015 December 1
by Paul Vallely

War has changed in recent decades. Once it was about opposing armies facing off across a battlefield. But in the “war on terror” one side attacks with airstrikes and drones which can be operated by an Air Force lieutenant in Nevada, putting in a 9-5 shift before going home for dinner with his wife and kids. And the other side responds by chopping the heads off journalists and aid workers – and are now threatening to do the same to a taxi driver from Salford whose only crime was to deliver nappies and baby food to refugees in a far-off land.

Welcome to a new and thorny thicket in the military moral maze.

Notions of what is proper behaviour in battle have evolved over 3000 years. The ancient Indian text, the Mahabharata, sets out strict guidelines of civilised combat. Cicero, in Ancient Rome, had clear views on what should justify taking up the sword in the first place – vengeance, honour and self-defence were approved motives. But war has never been merely a monstrous aberration in which all morality is set aside. It must have its own set of ethical constraints.

The classical idea of a Just War goes back to the 4th century religious thinker Augustine of Hippo. For war to be licit, he said, it must be declared by a competent legal authority – a ruler not a private individual. And it must have a just cause – to recover something stolen or to punish evil. Injustice was a greater evil than war.

In later centuries other philosophers elaborated the rules. The Middle Ages’ leading thinker Thomas Aquinas insisted there had to be “right intention” behind the just cause, ruling out grabs for power or land (or, indeed, oil) masquerading as the righting of wrong. In the 16th century the fathers of international law – the theologian de Vitoria, who criticised the King of Spain’s plundering of the Americas, his colleague Suarez and the Dutch jurist Grotius – added that a just war must be fought by proportional means, must always be a last resort and must have a realistic chances of success.

But all of this was in a world in which war was seen as the combat of opposing armies. Yet in the Second World War against Nazism, which was generally taken to meet all the key ethical benchmarks of a Just War, the British bombed Dresden with high civilian casualties and no military purpose beyond breaking the will of the enemy – an illicit purpose in international morality and law. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima entirely targeted civilians; it was militarily decisive but morally outrageous.

The world began to think differently about the ethics of war. Nuclear bombs maintained peace throughout the Cold War with the threat of “mutually assured destruction” to cities of civilians on both sides. It seemed to work in practice but it was morally indefensible to many ethicists. It turned civilians into combatants, defying one of the key Just War imperatives – that only soldiers should be killed. Terrorism puts that approach into practice more graphically – as the tragic case of the jihadist hostage Alan Henning, the taxi driver from Salford, reveals.

The sheer terror of nuclear weapons led many ethicists to suggest that a Just War was no longer possible. War was, Pope John Paul II said, “always a defeat for humanity”. For many pacifism became the default position. All war was now immoral.

But changes in warfare undermine that thinking. The extent of that transformation has been spelled out by one of Britain’s top soldiers, General Sir Rupert Smith, who served in Northern Ireland, the first Gulf War and Bosnia before becoming Deputy Commander of NATO. Smith, in his book The Utility of Force, uses the phrase “industrial war” to describe old-style conflicts between states with formal armies and recognisable events called battles.

But this has been replaced by what Smith calls “wars between peoples”. These abandon conventional military strategies, tanks and big guns, uniforms and even nationalities. This is the asymmetric war we see on our tv sets whenever an Army patrol is filmed moving through streets filled with women shopping and children on their way to school.

In the old wars the aim was to smash the opposing army. In the new the aim is to break the will of your opponent, or change his intentions, to create new conditions in which your strategic objective is achieved. That is pretty much what the US did in the Cold War, a conflict which was won without open war. When fighting does break out, in this new paradigm, the best military forces in the world can win every fire-fight and still lose the war. American air strikes against the so-called Islamic State (IS) will not succeed on their own.

So the aim in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Ireland or wherever, is to defeat the enemy without alienating the civilians among whom the enemy moves and takes cover. Massive military responses can even be counter-productive. The Israelis found that, Smith says, when heavy use of armour inflamed the situation during the Intifada. It is a lesson which, modern Gaza shows, they failed to learn.

Looking to the use of drones in Afghanistan, Smith adds acerbically, “bombing the hell out of a wedding party doesn’t help” when the task is to root out and neutralise the enemy. “Fights and battles must be won but winning must be done in such a way that it enhances [rather than diminishing] the sense of security of the local population,” the general says. On the other side the fanatics understand this; they have made the calculation that the Sunni population of Iraq and Syria sees even IS brutal bigotry as a lesser threat than the murderous sectarian menace of Baghdad’s Shia militias or the Damascus government.

The other side of the coin in this asymmetric warfare is that grassroots operators, like the fanatics of IS, cannot counter the high-technology of US airstrikes. But they can kidnap hostages and cut their heads off, perhaps in an attempt to provoke Washington to send in American troops the zealots can try to kill.

Terrorists know that atrocity will outrage a democracy and steel it to fight; but they also know that continued relentless atrocities can eventually sap a democratic public’s will to continue that fight. That is why President Obama wants to minimise US casualties by having the on-the-ground fighting against IS done by local people, with high-tech support comes from America.

So how do the principles of Just War obtain in this new more chaotic world? The idea of “just cause” still applies with its appeal to the punishment of evil and defence of the common good. But “right intention” is not so clear when the rhetoric of values is but a thin disguise for factional interests.

Weasel words abound in a world where Russian troops don civilian clothes and pretend to be pro-Moscow Ukrainians. Or where President Obama says there will be “no US boots on the ground” in Iraq when he has ordered 1,100 American soldiers back to Iraq since June as “trainers” and “advisers” and is about to send in 475 more. Or where the gap is so wide between Israel’s stated aims and actions in Gaza. Or where the UnIslamic State routinely violates many of the key principles of Islam.

Then there is the lack of clarity over “lawful authority”. Alongside the arrival of a default pacifism among many leading churchmen there has developed a sense that no one country can be trusted to constitute a “lawful authority”. Only an international body like the United Nations can be that.  Pope Francis echoed this idea last month when he suggested that military action against IS was licit but that the decision could not be taken by a single country.

Yet there are problems of partiality within the UN too, especially its Security Council, where nations talk about the common good but press their own national interests. Rowan Williams has suggested that the UN should pass decisions on military interventions to an independent body of international lawyers. That is attractive but unlikely at present. So US presidents rely on “coalitions of the willing” to indicate international support for their war on terror; Obama appears to be more successful on that this week than George Bush was in his time.

The fourth classic Just War yardstick – insisting the response should be proportionate to the threat – is more problematic. The principle still touches the pulse of public common sense, which is why Israel lost international sympathy with its pulverisation of Gaza. But working out what is a proportionate response – when Hamas is firing low-grade rockets into Israel – is a difficult and delicate balancing act. In asymmetric warfare the mighty are often put on the back foot.

Some propose a hardline response to this. Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, wants to redress the disadvantage under which democracies labour. So he has suggested the torture of terrorists is now ethically permissible. He attacks what he calls “dead baby syndrome” whereby insurgents use children for cover knowing that if the enemy kills them it will suffer a propaganda defeat. He has talked of a “continuum of civilianality” which further erodes the traditional distinction between combatant and civilian.

Public morality has not embraced the idea that, as in Gaza, it is acceptable for an army to bomb a house in which it knows women and children are sheltering. Yet, in more general terms, the military and moral imperatives coincide on this issue. In previous eras, from Roman times to the American Civil War, it was common practice for armies to punish the civilian population for guerrilla activity in their midst. But in modern war, says Smith, “dominance in firepower has been supplanted by the need for dominance in information”. Winning hearts and minds is often more important than winning the combat. Theologians and generals are now as one on that.

It is the two final Just War criteria which are most problematic in asymmetric modern warfare – that military interventions must always be a last resort and must always have a realistic chances of success.

The obligation to conduct war justly arises, in part, from the mutual risk of personal harm to those who wage it. Technology has altered the balance of this mutuality. High-tech military solutions can tempt politicians to act prematurely because the risk of casualties to their own side is minimised. What ought to be a last resort is deployed much earlier. But, though robotic weapons systems, air strikes and artillery bombardments lower the risk to the troops of powerful nations, they inevitably greatly increase the number of civilian dead. Moreover, drones launched by remote can anesthetize our collective conscience and make their use easier. And the young soldiers who are pushing the buttons today will be the decision-making generals tomorrow.

Modern conflict also muddles what we understand by having “a reasonable chance of success”. Recent history – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza – show that the chances of a definitive successful outcome is very low. Military force no longer decides the outcome; at best it creates the conditions which force the opponent to change his mind and force him to some settlement. As General Sir Rupert Smith puts it: “In these modern operations, the outcome is not meant to be definitive – and therefore the operation has to be sustained, open-ended.” A “reasonable chance of success” requires politicians and strategists to have in mind a framework for peace long before the fighting begins. The opposite happens in practice, with wars stumbling from one crisis to another – and the definition of “success” being altered to accommodate the reality on the ground, rather than the other way round. Force then becomes an end rather than a means.

So where lies justice in our modern wars? We clearly have to rethink the rules to reflect our changed reality. But in doing that we must not throw away the ethical constraints of the classical tradition. We must not sacrifice our openness to self-criticism by becoming trapped in a self-referential morality. Democracies may be at a disadvantage when it comes to terrorism. But we will be even more disadvantaged if we throw away the values on which democracy rests in our determination to win.


21 September 2014


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester



The schism between Sunni and Shia has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years – and it’s getting worse

2015 December 1
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

The war in Syria began much earlier than is generally recognised.  The conflict actually began in the year 632 with the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The same is true of the violence, tension or oppression currently gripping the Muslim world from Iraq and Iran, though Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What all these places have in common is that Sunni Muslims are one side of the conflict and Shia Muslims are on the other.

The rift between the two great Islamic denominations runs like a tectonic fault-line along what is known as the Shia Crescent, starting in Lebanon in the north and curves through Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and to Iran and further east.

The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims is the oldest in the Middle East – and yet it is one which seems increasingly to be shaping the destiny of this troubled region as thousands of devotees from both sides pour into Syria. Jihadist al-Qaida volunteers on the Sunni side, and Hezbollah militants on the Shia, are joining what is fast becoming a transnational civil war between the two factions.

There are around one and a half billion Muslims in the world. Of these somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent  – estimates vary considerably – are Shi’ites.  In most countries these Shia are minorities in a Sunni homeland. But in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan they outnumber their co-religionists.

What makes Syria different is that there a Sunni majority is ruled by a Shia minority. The Alawites, the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad and much of his army officer elite belong, are Shi’ites. That situation is the mirror opposite of Iraq under Saddam where a Sunni strongman lorded it over a Shia majority – until the invasion of Iraq when elections put the Shia in charge, insofar as anyone can be said to be running that chaotic country.

The division between the two factions is long and deeper even than the tensions between Protestants and Catholics which bedevilled Europe for centuries.  The two Christian denominations had a shared history for 1500 years. By contrast the rift between the two biggest Muslim factions goes right back to the beginning – and a row over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the emerging Islamic community when he died death in the early 7th century.

In the last 10 years of his life Muhammad inflicted total defeat on the pagan tribes of Mecca and by doing so united the entire Arabian peninsula. Around 100,000 people had submitted to the rule of Muhammad and of Allah.

Tribal alliances in Arabia in those days usually disintegrated on the death of the leader, or after the short term military objectives had been met and the spoils divided. Often  succession would pass to the leader’ s son. But Muhammad had no son, only a daughter. And his inheritance was spiritual as well as political.

The majority of his followers thought his closest associate, Abu Bakr, should take over. They became the Sunnis. But a minority thought the Prophet’s closest relative, his son-in-law and nephew Ali, should succeed. Shia is an abbreviation of  Shiat Ali “the party of Ali.” Intrigues and violence followed, with Muhammad’s widow Aisha (who was also the daughter of Abu Bakr) leading troops against Ali. Eventually Ali was killed, as was his son Hussein, and persecution and martyrdom became ingrained in the Shia psyche. As the years passed rift hardened into schism.  The seeds of civil war had been sown.

The two sides agreed on the Quran but had different views on hadith, the traditions recorded by Muhammad’s many followers about what he had said and done in his life. Diverging traditions of ritual, law and practice soon emerged. A clerical hierarchy, topped by imams and ayatollahs, became crucial in Shi’ism. By contrast Sunni Muslims felt no need of intermediaries in their relationship with God – an approach which has abetted the rise of extremist zealots like al Qaida. The Sunnis became happy to depend upon the state, which its adherents mostly controlled.

The chief Shia religious festival became Ashura when devotees would beat themselves to commemorate the death of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein at the Battle of Karbala  in 680.  Various Shia sub-sects formed, including the fanatical Assassins, the Alawites in Syria and the Ismailis whose leader is the Aga Khan. Some mystical sufi movements created a bridge between Sunni and Shia but hardline Sunnis regard the Shia practice of venerating saints and visiting shrines as heretical – which is why Sunni extremists bomb Shias on pilgrimage in places like Karbala in Iraq today.

But in the 1400 years since the death of the Prophet the majority of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have not routinely allowed their theological differences to create hostility. Some Sunnis included ritual denunciations of Ali in their prayers but in many times and places the two sects co-existed peacefully.

Yet from time to time violence has flared in which the Shia, in the main, have been brutally and even genocidally persecuted. In 1514 an Ottoman sultan ordered the massacre of 40,000 Shia. Mughal emperors in India between the 15th and 19th centuries routinely executed Shia scholars, burned their libraries and desecrated their sacred sites. Inter-communal violence has recurred in Pakistan.

There have been periods and places of concord. In 1959 the most influential centre of Sunni scholarship, al-Azhar University in Cairo, admitted Shia jurisprudence to its curriculum. In Azerbaijan, where the Shias are in the majority, there are mixed mosques where both sects pray together.

But early in the 20th century the Saudi royal family made discrimination against the Shia official and destroyed most of the Shia holy places in Saudi Arabia. With the rise there of the Sunni fundamentalism known as Wahhabism sevre restrictions have been placed on Shia practice and its leaders jailed. Some Saudi scholars brand Shi’ism as a heresy “worse than Christianity or Judaism”.

The fanatics of al-Qaida have been nurtured in this Wahhabi ideology. Some consider the Shia to be not merely heretics but apostates – and the punishment for apostasy, they say, is death.

Over the years the Sunni-Shia division has been wilfully exploited by outsiders. British colonialists in Iraq in the 1920s used an elite of Sunni army officers to suppress a Shia rebellion, paving the way for Saddam’s Sunni minority rule of the country in which Shia clerics were regulalrly executed. The legacy has been that most of the 6,000 killings over the past year in Baghdad are Sunni on Shia and vice-versa.

Now this ruthless sectariansim has spread to Syria.

Two major developments have triggered the escalation of tension between Sunni and Shia in recent years.  The first was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 when the rule of the pro-Western Shah was ovethrown and replaced with a Shia theocracy with Ayatollah Khomeini at the head.

Khomeini did his best to build good relations between Shia and Sunni inside Iran but other leaders, religious and secular, have since been more divisive. And Khomeini was from the outset adversarial to the Sunni aristiocrats who led Saudi Arabi – calling them American lackeys as well as “unpopular and corrupt” dictators.

The Iranians and Saudis have been fighting a proxy war in the Middle East ever since.

Today in Iran, though Christian churches are tolerated, the million Sunnis in the capital Tehran have no mosque of their own.  There are no Sunnis in top government posts.  Sunni businessman have difficulty getting import and export licenses. Huge numbers of ordinary Sunnis are unemployed.

The situation in Saudi Arabia is the exact reverse, with Shia on the receiving end of the discrimination.

From time to time there are attempts to insit that the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are not religious. In 2007 King Abdullah of the House of Saud met the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, with public hugs, spoke of a thaw in relations between the two regional powers – and condemned those who were trying to fuel the fire of strife between Sunni and Shia.

But it changed nothing in the realpolitik. Each oil-producing giant sees the other as a huge obstacle to its national interests. Geopolitics is the reality but religious vision is the tribal badge it wears.

The invasion of Iraq instigated by George Bush and Tony Blair in 2003 was the second big factor in the deterioration of Sunni-Shia relations. Saddam Hussein led a Sunni elite which governed Iraq’s Shia majority with a reign of state terror.  The US had backed Saddam in Iraq’s war with Iran throughout the 1980s, in which half a million troops died.

But after 9/11 the US changed its mind about Saddam and overthrew him and brought democracy to Iraq. The resulting election placed in power leaders from the Shia majority who have excluded the Sunni minority, who have responded with the car bombs which are killing thousands in Baghdad and elsewhere.  Al-Qaida jihadists have flooded into the country to join Sunni terrorists in attacking the Shia government. And now the polarised sectarian conflict has spilled over into Syria.

When the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011 it began as a protest against the corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses of the Assad government. But within two years the armed uprising against the regime was transformed.

Rebels motivated by political indignation, who received limited backing from Western governments, slowly became outnumbered by rebel groups with extreme Islamist motivation fighting to create what they call the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). These jihadists have come from across the Islamic world but they are backed by Saudi cash. More recently Shia militants from the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah have arrived to support the Alawite-led army of the Assad regime. Full-blown civil war is the result.

What all this means is that Sunni and Shia are locked in conflict all across the Shia Crescent. As each side steps up its activities, the other feels more threatened and hardens its response in turn.

Sunni-Shia tensions are increasing across the world as a result. They are on the rise in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Malyaysia and even in London as issues of identity, rights, interests and enfranchisement find sectarian expression.

The tensions are deep-rooted in wider economic and geopolitical concerns. But the risk is – given the long history of division and tension – that predictions of a transnational civil war between Sunni and Shia could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


from The Independent

29 January 2014

In honour of a consummate artist

2015 August 15
by Paul Vallely
Portrait: Chris Mann

portrait of Jonathan Ollivier by Chris Mann

I have never before had the impulse to go to leave flowers in a public place in memory of someone I did not know personally. It’s a common response in our times, as we know from the wisdom of the crowds after great public deaths like that of Diana, Princess of Wales. But I had thought it an attenuated form of the religious impulse. I had certainly never experienced the urge to do it. Until this week.

I did not know Jonathan Ollivier, the dancer who was killed on his way to work last Sunday. And yet, had I been in London, I think I might have found my way to Sadler’s Wells theatre to leave some tribute at the place where Ollivier had been due that evening to give the final performance of Matthew Bourne’s balletic reworking of the Bizet classic which he had updated as The Car Man.

Only a few weeks ago I had been privileged to witness this extraordinary piece of theatre in which Ollivier was one of three men sharing the lead role. Its power came in no small measure from the intensity of Ollivier’s contribution. His was a compelling amalgam of dangerous animal masculinity and arrestingly delicate sensitivity. The critics noted that his performance, which relocated Bizet’s music in Sixties America where Ollivier’s matador had become a car mechanic, was full of “brooding power and danger” but “tempered with tenderness and vulnerability”.

Those words could have been a summary of the human condition. That was brought home to me, with brutal suddenness, when I heard that Ollivier had been thrown 20 yards into the air after a collision with a black Mercedes not far from the theatre at 11 o’clock last Sunday morning.

All sudden death is shocking. It is more than that we never know the hour. Something has not slipped away, it has been snuffed out. There was something about this death which accentuated that. Perhaps it was the contrast between that dancer’s physique, the sheer puissance and control of a highly-disciplined body, and the finality of his passing, which stunned.

On the radio a few days before a man had spoke of his boyhood obsessions as a butterfly collector. One particular creature he had craved for his collection. It was butterfly of peculiar vibrancy, radiant and vivid in its colouring. Yet when it was caught, and killed, and pinned in place in the collector’s case, all its colour drained away with its life force. The object in the case became brown and drab.

The sheer visceral vitality of Jonathan Ollivier as a dancer seems to add to the tragic futility of his death. More than a physical being has gone.  So has the sense of that creative spark which is part of what makes us human. Ollivier was not just an incarnation of that; he was a zenith. Something which represented an exquisite distillation of human creativity has been cruelly torn from us.

I did not lay the flowers. But this bouquet of words shall take their place.

from The Church Times

How Pope Francis astutely pre-empted the criticisms of US conservatives over his eco-encyclical Laudato Si’

2015 June 27
by Paul Vallely

In the days just before the publication of the Pope’s controversial eco-encyclical Laudato Si’  those involved with drafting the encyclical were much exercised about how it would be received by conservative critics. Pope Francis by contrast, Vatican insiders have told me, was unfazed. He remains so in the face of the onslaught of criticisms which have indeed ensued.

The Pope’s acceptance that global warming is almost certainly man-made has irked the vocal minority with more skeptical views. They have responded by saying Francis has overlooked the ability of technology to provide solutions to climate change. They have upbraided him for ignoring the role of free markets in lifting millions out of poverty. They have criticised his dismissal of birth control as the answer to an over-crowded planet.

The truth is that Pope Francis saw all that coming. As the dust settles, after the whirlwind that accompanied the publication of the encyclical, closer examination of the document reveals that the Pope implanted within it strategies to rebut these attacks. Laudato Si’ turns out to be one of the shrewdest documents issued by the Vatican during the past century. It has revealed Pope Francis as a wily and sophisticated politician of the first order.

Francis learned a lesson from the reaction of some American conservatives who branded his previous papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium, as Marxist. He put in place a raft of defences against his eco-encyclical being dismissed as the work of some kind of left-wing maverick.

His  eco-encyclical takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi. The 13th century saint, like his 21st century namesake, combined a love for the poor, for peace and for nature. But if the saint’s theology was new the pope’s is traditional. Moreover he has taken care to locate his text firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by previous popes, including two beloved by American conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis also made a point, highly unusually, of referencing the pioneering eco-theology of the Orthodox Church as well as citing no fewer than 18 teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. All this demonstrated his acute awareness of the importance of skilful alliance-building on such a major issue.  You are not, he was telling critics, dealing with just one man here.

He took similar care over the science in the document. The Pope should stick to religion and leave science to the scientists, said one conservative, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum in one of a wave of “prebuttal” remarks as the encyclical was being finalised.  That is exactly what Francis did in accepting the view of the 97 percent of actively-publishing climate scientists who say human activity is a major contributor to global warming. The Pope’s political acumen was also clear from the way he timed the encyclical to target the three United Nations summits on aid finance, sustainable development and climate change later this year.

But there is something more profoundly subversive about Laudato Si’ than what it says on climate change.  On the day it was published the Pope privately told his closest advisers in Rome that the encyclical was not really an environmental document at all. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The real problem, he insists, is the myopic mentality which has failed to address climate change to date.  The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment in pursuit of short-term economic gain is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics has taught us that the world  is a resource to be manipulated for our gain.

This has led us into unjust and exploitative economic systems which Francis calls ‘‘a throwaway culture’’ which treats not just unwanted things but also unwanted people – the poor, the elderly and the unborn – as waste.

Capitalism may maximise our choices, he observes, but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want.

It is in this analysis that the Pope’s replies to his conservative critics lie. Capitalism may have lifted millions out of poverty in Asia but it has done so at huge cost. That is shown by the catastrophic air pollution in China which has seen that country oust the United States from the unenviable position as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Worse than that, poorly-regulated capitalism in the global south has left behind millions more – the weakest and poorest.

Technological solutions fail to address the root problem. They often just change the problem without truly solving it, the Pope says. His critics have countered that gas from fracking is less polluting than burning coal. But that is like advocating dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. Carbon-trading, Francis says, may just encourage speculation – and continued over-consumption by the rich.

Population is likewise a red herring, he insists. Poor people make hardly any contribution to global warming, according to one of the Pope’s chief advisers, the atheist professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. A 10 percent cut in emissions by rich nations, he says, would be far more effective in combatting global warming than any birth control programme.

In all this, the market has tricked us into confusing technological advance with progress. It has reduced our politics to a maximisation of our individual freedom and choice. We have forgotten the common good as we have our common home, the earth.

Pope Francis is seen as such a threat by many conservatives because what he is saying is that the environmental crisis is really a crisis in laissez-faire capitalism. And he is saying that the answer is a profound change at all levels – political, economic, social, communal, familial and personal. This is not Marxist, for it lacks a materialist view of history. But it is revolutionary – and deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Previous popes have spoken boldly on eco-issues. The idea that our hearts need an ‘‘ecological conversion’’ was first coined by Pope John Paul II. But it was merely a side issue in other papacies. For Francis it is central. He is the first pope from the global South and from the outset he called for ‘‘a poor Church for the poor.’’ He speaks with a new passion. He is unafraid to rebuke the world’s politicians for “weak” leadership. But he also gets into nitty-gritty detail to tell ordinary Catholics to use less heating and air conditioning, avoid plastic, sort and recycle garbage, use buses or car-shares, and turn off unnecessary lights.

Ecologists have been saying all that for decades, but Pope Francis is delving to a deeper level in the human psyche. Such ‘‘simple daily gestures’’, he says, will ‘‘break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.’’ He asks ‘‘every person living on this planet’’ to stand before God, or our own consciences, and be honest with ourselves about the consumerist lifestyle to which so many of us are in thrall.

Pope Francis knows that if the consciences of ordinary Catholics can be pricked they may begin to adjust their life choices – and that could create pressure for the world’s politicians to change gear too.  Climate change skeptics may well find that in Pope Francis they have met their most formidable opponent.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester and the author of the forthcoming book ‘‘Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.’’

An edited version of this piece appeared in the New York Times

Climate change deniers, free-market ideologues and blinkered consumers may finally have met their match in Pope Francis

2015 June 26
by Paul Vallely

As the dust settles after the whirlwind that was Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical three truths have emerged. The first is that most of the most vivid reactions tell you more about those who have delivered them than they do about what the Pope actually has said. It was “the gospel according to Greenpeace,” proclaimed one of the Pope’s more polite critics, while the head of Greenpeace greeted it as “a welcome rebuke to climate-change deniers”.

The second revelation is more interesting.  It is that Pope Francis – whom many regard as an icon of simplicity and humility – is actually a wily and sophisticated politician of the highest order. And he has produced one of the shrewdest church documents for many decades.

In the days before the publication of Laudato Si’ those involved with drafting the encyclical were much exercised about how the text would be received by conservative critics, most particularly in the United States. Pope Francis by contrast, Vatican insiders have told me, was unfazed.

That was why he chose the climate change scientist Professor John Schellnhuber to join the panel of those presenting the document at its official launch in Rome. Schellnhuber had previously described the United States as a “climate illiterate” nation. It did not seem that papal compromise was in the offing.

The Pope was secure in the vision outlined in the encyclical not least because it was rooted in a lifetime of Jesuit spirituality informed by 18 years of living among some of the world’s poorest people as ‘Bishop of the Slums’ in Buenos Aires. He expected the rich to feel challenged by he perspective of the poor.

Yet he was also confident that he had put in place a raft of defences against the accusations that he was some kind of maverick romantic loner whose previous papal text, Evangelii Gaudium, had been branded as Marxist by some US conservatives.

His new encyclical on the environment takes its inspiration, like its name, from the writings of Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint who like his 21st century namesake combined a love for the poor, for peace and for nature. But the Pope’s theology is traditional. Moreover he took care to locate it firmly in the substantial body of teaching set out by the previous four popes including two beloved by US conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis also made a point, highly unusually, of referencing the extensive eco-theology of the Orthodox Church as well as citing no fewer than 18 teaching documents from Catholic bishops’ conferences all round the world. That gave new papal endorsement of their doctrinal authority. But it also demonstrated the Pope’s acute awareness of the importance of skilful alliance-building on such a major issue.

The message to his opponents was clear: You are not just dealing with one man here.

Francis took similar care over the science in the document. There is an irony to the admonition by critics, such as presidential candidate Jeb Bush, that the pontiff should stick to religion and leave science to the scientists. That is exactly what Francis has done. He has accepted the view of the 97 per cent of actively-publishing climate scientists who say global warming is almost certainly man-made.

True, he inserted a few nuances and caveats into his writing, but he argues unequivocally for a cut in the burning of fossil fuels – and for rich countries to bear most of the cost of cleaning up the climate mess our industries have created over the last century.

His political acumen was also clear from the way Francis timed the encyclical to target three important upcoming United Nations summits – one in Addis Ababa next month on aid finance, one at the UN General Assembly in September to fix sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, and the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

But there is a third truth, and a more profound and subversive one. The Pope told his closest advisers in Rome on day the encyclical was published that Laudato Si’ was not an environmental encyclical but a social one. Global warming is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise.

The real problem, he says, is the myopic mentality which has failed to address climate change to date.  The rich world’s indifference to the despoliation of the environment, in pursuit of short-term economic gain, is rooted in a wider problem. Market economics have taught us that the world, and other people, are a resource to be manipulated for our individual gain. This has led us into unjust and exploitative economic systems which Francis calls “a throwaway culture” which treats not just unwanted things but also unwanted people – the poor, the elderly and the unborn – as waste.

Capitalism may maximise our choices, he observes, but it offers no guidance on how we should choose. Insatiable consumerism has blinkered our vision and left us unable to distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The market has tricked us into confusing technological advance with progress. It has reduced our politics to a maximisation of our individual freedom and choice. It has clouded our vision of the long-term. We have forgotten the common good as we have our common home, the earth.

This is why Pope Francis is seen as such a threat by many conservatives. He is saying that the environmental crisis is really a crisis in liberal laissez-faire capitalism. And he is saying that the answer is a profound change at all levels – political, economic, social, communal, familial and personal. This is not Marxist, for it lacks a materialist view of history. But it is revolutionary – and deeply disturbing to those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Previous popes have said something similar. The idea that our hearts need an “ecological conversion” was first coined by Pope John Paul II. But it was merely a side issue in other papacies. For Francis it is central. He is the first pope from the global South and from the outset he called for “a poor Church for the poor”.

That perspective is rooted in his lived experience. He saw half the population of Argentina, including many in its middle class, plunged below the poverty line when Washington consensus neo-liberal policies imposed adjustment austerity on his native land. And he saw how outsiders’ industrial pollution and destruction of the rainforest created short-term financial gain for a few which resulted in long-term pain for the many in both environmental and human terms.

All that created another quality that the Pope’s opponents fear – his passion. Laudato Si’ is full of fierce phrases like: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” or “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”

Added to that is the specificity of his engagement. At a global level he baldly rebukes world leaders by saying: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been.” At a technical level he dives in to the detail on carbon trading, which he fears with promote both financial speculation and continued over-consumption by the rich. On an activist level he advocates consumer boycotts saying: “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act”.

That opens him to criticisms on his detail. (He ignores the fact that millions have been raised out of poverty by global capitalism. And he seems to have a blind faith in the efficacy of state solutions and big government.) But it gives his message great punch. He is unafraid to get into the nitty-gritty. He wants us all to use less heating and wear warmer clothes, avoid plastic, use less water, cook only what we can eat, sort and recycle garbage, use buses or car-shares, plant trees, avoid air conditioning and turn off unnecessary lights.

Ecologists have been saying all that for decades, with limited success. But Pope Francis is delving to a deeper level in the human psyche. Such “simple daily gestures”, he says, will “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”. And he says it without hectoring but by asking “every person living on this planet” to stand before God, or our own consciences, and acknowledge the consumerist lifestyle we do not want to relinquish and pray to “avoid the sin of indifference”.

The man who is today probably the most prominent person on the planet may just succeed. After all he is not asking his followers to do anything he has not done himself. Before he became Pope he lived out just a lifestyle – eating simply, rejecting a chauffeur-driven car for the bus and subway, wearing second-hand clothes and choosing to spend his time in the slums with the poor rather than amid the luxury of the rich.

All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education, he says – families, schools, universities, media and churches. In the US bishops have already said they will encourage priests to preach about the encyclical over the summer. Across the globe there are 400,000 pulpits from which the message will be proclaimed to 1.2 billion Catholics.

Pope Francis knows that if ordinary Catholics can be persuaded to adjust their life choices even a little that could create pressure for the world’s politicians to change gear too.  Climate change deniers may well find that in Pope Francis they have met their most formidable opponent to date.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.  His book Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism will be published by Bloomsbury in September.