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

2015 December 1
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.


We need more and better religion, not less, in our schools

2015 June 20
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by Paul Vallely

Scrap the compulsory act of worship in state schools, the headlines said, after a pamphlet was issued, written by the former education secretary Charles Clarke and the sociologist Professor Linda Woodhead. Their document got a significant amount of coverage – perhaps more than might have been expected from a report that was, as its authors admitted in their conclusion, just the private view of two individuals, albeit informed experts.

We learned two things from this. The first was that the media are always eager to give space to views with which their editors privately concur. The idea of abolishing acts of worship chimed well with secular editors whose agenda is broadly antipathetic to the idea of faith in schools at all.

For all their pretence at objectivity, many secular journalists freight their articles with unexamined assumptions of their own. The Guardian carried a leader in support of the proposal, which declared: “Humanism is becoming, if it has not already become, the default position of our society, much as ‘C of E’ used to be in England.”

Humanism can, of course, indicate a rich tradition within Christianity, of which the current pope is a prime example. Or it can mean the narrow anti-religious sentiment for which some aggressive secularists have hijacked the word “humanist” in recent decades. I suspect that there is more of the former around in Britain today than the latter. The real default in England today is, rather, a self-absorbed hedonistic individualism that is far from humanism in any sense.

The second striking element was that the media gave hardly any coverage to the report’s clear defence of the status quo with regard to faith schools. Mr Clarke and Professor Woodhead are unequivocal in their defence of the right of religious families to choose faith schools for their children. They issue reasonable caveats about the need to ensure that school-admission policies are not disguised forms of selection to cherry-pick clever or middle-class pupils. But the right to reserve places for faith members in faith schools is defended. The media failed to headline this.

The document’s authors are stout, too, in their advocacy of the need to improve the teaching of religion in schools rather than dilute it. A proper understanding of what faith teaches is the best immunisation against extremism. There are arguments to be had about how best this is to be achieved. There will be reservations about the authors’ suggestions of a national religion curriculum to be imposed on all schools, including independent ones, which seems to run counter to the principle of devolution which Professor Woodhead advocates over the act of worship, which she wants left to school governors to determine. And there are clear downsides to the pamphlet’s suggestion that parents should lose their right to withdraw their children from state RS lessons.

Yet the central argument – that Britain needs more and better religion – is persuasive. At a time when the nation is worrying about how to combat the seduction of its youth by religious fanatics abroad, the need to know what true religion really teaches is greater than ever.

Pope heads into a storm over climate change

2015 June 14
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by Paul Vallely

Three men will this week present the most eagerly-awaited papal document in living memory. Two are senior clerics. But the third is a scientist. His presence gives a clue as to how explosive will be the row which will follow the publication of Pope Francis’s much-trailed encyclical on the environment.

The clerics are Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican’s department for Justice and Peace, and Metropolitan John Zizioulas of the Orthodox Church. Alongside them will be the controversial Professor John Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Schellnhuber’s scientific credentials are impeccable. He is a mathematician, theoretical physicist and a climate expert who has played a key role, as an adviser to the German government and the president of the European Union, in waking up the world to global warming. A former research director of the Tyndall Centre in the UK, and visiting professor at Oxford, he has been described as “the father of the two degree target”. Schellnhuber insists that if the planet warms more than two degrees the earth could tip into unstoppable disaster.

But he is also known for his aggressive rhetoric. He has described the population of the United States as “climate illiterate”. His presence on the papal platform suggests that Pope Francis intends to tackle head on the phalanx of conservative critics who have subjected his document to a wave of vehement criticism even before it is published.

The encyclical – the highest level of teaching document a pope can issue, short of an infallible statement – will be published on Thursday. No papal document in recent history has been subjected to such intense dissection and criticism before it appears.  An unholy alliance of conservative politicians, free-market philosophers and climate change deniers, most particularly in the United States, have for months been running a campaign of what they call “pre-buttals” of  Pope’s anticipated eco-teachings.

Sources inside the Vatican suggest that these opponents will be deeply unhappy with what Pope Francis will say this week.

“The Pope will back strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions,” one Vatican insider told me. “The encyclical outlines a vision for the future of the planet. It wants to shift investment away from the military and towards low-carbon energy and sustainable development. And Francis will call for the transfer of money from the rich to the poor. Those who are richer have greater responsibilities.”

It will not just be the Pope’s conclusions which will annoy his critics. They will be irked by his analysis. Francis will link environmental problems with world poverty and what he calls an “economics of exclusion” which throws the poorest and most vulnerable on the scrapheap.

“The Pope feels that the indifference of the rich to both the environment, and to the poor, have their roots in the same spiritual malaise,” a source close to the document’s authors in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace told me. “Market forces alone, bereft of ethical values, cannot solve these intertwined crises”. Money has become a master rather than a servant of human good. “Francis will be critical of conventional economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product because they don’t include the cost of the degradation of nature – or of an economy which kills the poorest”.

Such talk is guaranteed to provoke critics like Stephen Moore, the chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think-tank, who has said: “This is a Pope who clearly has some Marxist leanings” who has “embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free”.

The American presidential hopeful Rick Santorum – a Catholic, like Moore – has urged Francis to “leave science to the scientists”.  Bill Donohue, president of the US Catholic League, normally a staunch defender of popes, has even opined that Catholics are not bound by what Francis says except on faith and morals, adding: “No one has ever said that air pollution is intrinsically evil”.

Sources in the Vatican say the Pope is unfazed by this. “It’s not Marxism,” one cardinal told me. “It’s classic Catholic Social Teaching.”

By that he means a tradition which stretches back over a century to when, in 1891, Pope Leo XIII, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, tried to find a third way between communism and capitalism. In the Sixties Pope John XXIII used it during the Cold War to call for a ban on nuclear weapons.  After him Pope Paul VI published an encyclical on how the post-colonial world should develop socially and economically

Previous popes have pronounced on the environment. Pope John Paul II called for action on the depleting ozone layer. Benedict XVI called for cuts in greenhouse gases and was dubbed the Green Pope after installing solar panels in the Vatican and buying into a reforestation project to offset its CO2 emissions.

But none of that caused the stir that Francis is making.

Pope Francis is different for several reasons. None of the papacy’s previous 300 encyclicals have been solely devoted to eco-issues. And Francis has already taken a noticeably harder line on the environment.

“God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment,” he has said. “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain [its] frenetic rhythm of consumption”. “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless”.

His rhetoric is uncompromising: “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, but nature never does,” he has said. “Man has slapped nature in the face”. “A Christian who does not protect creation…  does not care about the work of God.”

For other popes the environment was a side issue. For Francis it is intertwined with his central concern of creating “a poor Church for the poor”. His critics are afraid, one Vatican insider told me, “that with Francis he really means it!”

Certainly, as the first Third World pope ever, he knows first-hand the devastation wrought upon ordinary people by the neo-liberal policies of Washington during Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis – when half the population was plunged below the poverty line. He described St Francis of Assisi, when he became the first pope every to take that name, as “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards creation”.

The title of his new encyclical Laudato si is taken from the famous prayer of St Francis which talks of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and “our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us”. In keeping with Francis’s radical instincts it is the first encyclical in church history not to have a Latin name. It is in Italian, as is its subtitle: “on the care of our common home”.

Francis also has a reputation for close-focus. His last document, Evangelii Gaudium, got down to the detail of criticizing economic trickledown theory. Laudato si will present a nitty-gritty challenge to the lifestyle of individuals, the theories of ideologues and the policies of government alike. Tackling climate change, it will say, needs a moral revolution.

The row may only just have begun.

Paul Vallely is the author of  Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism which will be published by Bloomsbury in August

an edited version of this appeared in The Sunday Times 14 June 2015


How the Catholic Church lost its grip on the Irish people

2015 May 24
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by Paul Vallely

In 1987 the plain people of Ireland were asked in a referendum whether or not they wanted divorce to be made legal in their country. They overwhelmingly voted No. Hardly surprising, everyone said, since Ireland was the most Catholic country in Europe.  No more. Yesterday’s massive referendum vote in favour of legalising gay marriage in the same country charted the profound transformation undergone by Irish society in a single generation.

In less than three decades the Catholic Church has lost its grip on the Irish.  From being one of Europe’s most socially conservative societies Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage – one of the modern world’s defining issues – not from the legislation of a parliamentary elite, but through a poll of the whole people.

The self-destruction of the institutional Church, over less than 30 years, in Ireland has been spectacular. Revelations over the extent of sexual abuse by predatory priests have undermined the moral authority of the Catholic hierarchy and overturned the nearest thing Europe had to a theocracy.  It was not just paedophile priests. Scandals involving regimes of physical and psychological cruelty have been laid bare involving nuns and religious brothers in schools, care homes and the infamous Magdalene laundries set up the Church for single mothers and “fallen women”.

Worse still was the evidence that bishops had sheltered these abusers for decades. The regimens of the abusive institutions were approved by the Church hierarchy. They were often endorsed by government inspectors but, revealingly, the secular state has largely avoided the opprobrium which has attached to the Catholic authorities. That suggests that something more has been going on in Ireland than disillusion with Catholicism over abuse nurtured in the hothouse of clerical culture.

The Catholic Church was the single most powerful influence throughout the Irish republic’s first 60 years. It shaped government  policy through public pressure and clandestine consultations but primarily through the way it set the cultural, political and social norms of Irish society. For decades its self-confident moral authority went unchallenged.

Looking back the high point of its power was the few days in September 1979 when John Paul II became the first pope to visit Ireland. Then one in three of the Irish population congregated in Phoenix Park in Dublin to hear him say Mass. It was the biggest gathering of Irish people ever in one place – and the pinnacle of the influence of Catholicism on the Irish state.

But something else was at work in Irish society. Six years before the Pope arrived Ireland had joined the European Union giving it access to markets much larger than previously when its trade had been predominantly with Britain. That, combined with an influx of foreign investment, transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Its economy grew so powerfully in the 1990s that Ireland became known as the Celtic tiger.

With that affluence,  and an increased engagement with Europe,  came a shift in social attitudes. Emigration, so long a potent norm in Irish society, fell away. Brighter and more enlightened Irish talent no longer looked abroad but remained at home and fostered social change. The Economist named Ireland the best place to live in the world. “Rising material wealth seems to have expanded minds as well as wallets,” as one Irish commentator put it. Secularism became linked in the public imagination with the benefits of urban modernity and religion was relegated to an association with the poverty of the rural past.

Voices began to be raised in public for a liberalisation of laws on contraception, divorce and even abortion. If peace came dropping slow on the island of Ireland social change was rapid. Restrictions on contraception were lifted.  Though a referendum to legalise divorce was heavily defeated in 1986, it was passed in 1995. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993, albeit thirty years later than in the UK. A rift began to grow slowly and silently between the Church and society.

It was, of course, the paedophile priests who sent that relationship into freefall. Sunday Mass attendance, which was over 90 per cent in the 1970s had fallen to 34 per cent by 2013. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, estimates that in the capital the figure has plunged to only 18 per cent. Many in Ireland now describe themselves as ‘post-Catholics’. They are, according to Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper “functionally atheist”.

A stand-off developed between the Irish government and the Church in the face of a continuing denial and lack of action on abuse by both the Irish bishops and Rome. The Irish prime minister said that an official state enquiry had “exposed the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism” in the Vatican. Dublin dramatically broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See for almost three years.

All of which explains why Archbishop Diarmuid Martin decided that the Catholic Church would not lead the opposition to a Yes vote on gay marriage in Friday’s referendum.  He would vote No, he said, but added: “I have, however, no wish to stuff my religious views down other people’s throats”.

The tone of the bishops’ rhetoric was lowered extraordinarily.  “Marriage isn’t just about two people falling in love. It’s a much more complex,” Martin said. “My voting ‘no’ is not a vote against gay and lesbian people.”  He carpeted one bishop who used more vivid and divisive language. The Church had in the past treated gays and lesbians in a “harsh and hostile way,” he also said, leaving the opposition on the gay marriage vote to be led by groups of Catholic lay people.

But in the end slogans from the No campaign like “Two Men Can’t Replace A Mother’s Love” could not prove enough to hold the day against an inexorable tide of change.


from the Independent on Sunday

A victory for Pope Francis

2015 May 23
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by Paul Vallely

The assassinated archbishop Oscar Romero is at the final milestone on a tortuous road to sainthood after his beatification by the Catholic Church on Saturday. The ceremony has brought celebrations of the highest order in his native El Salvador. But the event is an occasion for much wider rejoicing – for it reveals a victory over malign influences within the Church and provides further evidence of the radical nature of the revolution Pope Francis is forging in Rome.

Romero was shot dead at the altar as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador in 1980. His assassin was from one of the death squads propping up an unholy alliance between rich landowners, the army and sections of the Catholic Church as the country moved towards civil war. The archbishop’s crime was to quote the Gospel to men in the army and order them to stop killing innocent civilians. The far-right elite saw him as an apologist for Marxist revolution – a defamation which highly-placed individuals in the Vatican nurtured for three decades, and which Pope Francis has now finally squelched.

The chief concern of these opponents was that his canonisation would be an effective endorsement of Liberation Theology which –  throughout the Cold War, and even after – they feared would allow communism to infiltrate Latin America. This was a wilful caricature of the movement which coined the notion that the Gospel carried a “preferential option for the poor” and insisted the Church had a duty to work for the social and economic as well as the spiritual liberation of the downtrodden.

This misrepresentation reached its nadir in the gross calumnies perpetrated about Romero, both during his life and in the years since his murder.

The oligarchy in El Salvador had hoped that Oscar Arnulfo Romero would be a compliant prelate when he became Archbishop of San Salvador. His background was conservative and his spirituality drew on that of Opus Dei. But he became outraged by the growing violence against the poor and those who spoke up for them.

Within weeks of his installation one of his priests – a close friend, Fr Rutilio Grande – was murdered for supporting poor campesinos campaigning for land reform and better wages. A succession of priests were killed thereafter though they were only a small proportion of the 3,000 people being murdered every month by 1979. When a reporter asked Romero what he did as archbishop, he replied: “I pick up bodies”.

Romero looked at Fr Rutilio’s body and knew he had to walk the same path. He became a voice for the voiceless in weekly sermons which were broadcast by radio across the nation. As the violence worsened he became more outspoken, condemning the oppression, and telling the people that they would never be alone because God was accompanying them in their pilgrimage through history.

Romero was no liberation theoretician, but his final years were Liberation Theology incarnate. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the chief advocate Romero’s sainthood,  has called him “a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council” because his decision to “live with the poor and defend them from oppression” flowed directly from the documents of Vatican II.

In all this Romero was no Marxist. He drew his chief inspiration from a pope, Pius XI, who had stood up to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. (When Romero boycotted the installation of the new Salvadoran President, General Carlos Humberto Romero in 1977 he cited the precedent of Pope Pius’s boycott of Hitler’s visit to Rome in 1938.) Indeed in a sermon in 1978, Romero  said: “A Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless” since “Marxist materialism destroys the Church’s transcendent meaning.”

But this was a world in which anyone who raised his voice for justice was branded a communist.  For a peasant even to own a copy of the Gospel was a death sentence in some rural areas. The injustice was so blatant that when Washington sent a new ambassador to El Salvador – with the brief to help the US-backed government there find a reformist middle ground and prevent full-scale revolution – the diplomat, the late Robert E. White, became an outspoken critic of the murders being carried out by army units which had been trained by the US military. White eventually lost his job for his candour.

El Salvador’s social, military and ecclesiastical elites were deeply unhappy. The 14 families who controlled the economy, and who made big cash donations to the Church, sent a constant stream of letters and telegrams of complaint to Rome. They accused Romero of meddling in politics, blessing terrorism and abandoning the Church’s spiritual mission to save souls. Associations of wealthy Catholic women fabricated stories against Romero and had them published them in newspapers. Four bishops alarmed that the archbishop was questioning their cosy complicity with the oligarchy began to speak out openly and virulently against him.

Romero’s copious diaries give the lie to all their claims. So did the dossier he took to Rome to give to Pope Paul VI in a private audience which ended with the Pope taking both of Romero’s hands in his and urging him: “Courage! Take heart. You are the one in charge”.

Yet the next day, in a series of meetings with bureaucrats in the Vatican Curia, Romero got a very different message. A year later he was summoned by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, head of the Congregation of Bishops, to “a fraternal and amicable dialogue”. It was no such thing. The cardinal said he had had a quite unprecedented volume of correspondence and complaints regarding Romero. The charge sheet was full of wild allegations and pernicious distortions of facts but Romero was distressed by the fact that Baggio clearly believed them. Again he went to the Pope who this time said: “Proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”

But the following pope, John Paul II, had little knowledge of Central America and relied on the advice of curial officials hostile to Romero. Baggio sent a Vatican inspector to El Salvador who recommended Romero be stripped of his duties. Romero went to Rome again. A hostile Curia tried to block him from seeing the Pope. When he finally obtained an audience John Paul II said he could remain as archbishop but that his brief should be “courage and boldness tempered with the necessary balance and prudence”. Yet, when Romero left, the Pope told Vatican officials to moderate their attitude to the besieged archbishop.

After Romero’s murder, however, when the people of Latin America made him a saint by acclamation, Romero’s enemies began three decades of manoeuvring to prevent him being officially declared a saint. A succession of blocking tactics were deployed, led by the man who had been given the role of championing Romero’s cause, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian conservative close to Opus Dei and deeply opposed to Liberation Theology. Years passed while Vatican officials scrutinised Romero’s sermons and writings for doctrinal errors. When they found none critics shifted to arguing that Romero was not killed for his faith but for his  “ancillary political statements” which were not part of authentic preaching the Gospel.

Supporters of Romero blamed conservative popes who were antagonistic to Liberation Theology. But that is unfair.  In 1997 Pope John Paul II bestowed upon Romero the title of Servant of God and in 2003 told a group of Salvadoran bishops that Romero was a martyr. In 2007 Benedict XVI called him “a man of great Christian virtue’. And he added: “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt”. (This last sentence was strangely cut from the interview transcript placed on the Vatican website.) Pope Benedict, just a month before he resigned, gave orders that Romero’s canonisation process should be unblocked.

It was the arrival of Pope Francis – who promptly engineered a rapprochement between the Vatican and Liberation Theology – which finally brought action. Romero’s cause, he told reporters, had been “blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘for prudence’.” But he added “for me Romero is a man of God”. Following that lead, the appropriate body of Roman theologians universally declared that Romero had not been killed for political reasons but had indeed died in odium fidei – in hatred of the faith. Pope Francis promptly officially declared him a martyr and the path to sainthood was opened.

For Francis this was a no-brainer. He had said on his second full day as pontiff that he wanted “a poor Church for the poor”. And he had written in his papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium: “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor”. The beatification of Oscar Romero is therefore a cause for double rejoicing. It honours a man whose love for justice and focus on the poor was a direct manifestation of his faith in Christ and his faithfulness to Church teaching. But it also reveals that, with the arrival of Pope Francis, some of the dark forces which lurked inside the Vatican in recent decades have at last been vanquished.


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


Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester and is the author of Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism which will be published in September by Bloomsbury US


Oscar Romero – a beatification and a confirmation

2015 May 22
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by Paul Vallely

After his first confirmation class our 15-year-old son came home and announced that he had been asked to choose a name under which to be confirmed. Ordinarily I might have directed him to a dictionary of saints for inspiration, but fortuitously next day we had a dinner guest who had worked for decades in Central America and held us spellbound with vivid first-hand stories of his encounters with the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero. By the end of the evening it was clear from our son’s engaged questioning that the dictionary would not be needed.

Tonight, when our son steps forward to be confirmed, his sponsor will announce to the bishop that the confirmation name he has chosen is that of the man who will be beatified in San Salvador tomorrow who inspired almost all those who met him – and many who did not – to a vision of what it means to live the Gospel.

I say “almost all” because, though he has long been acclaimed as a saint by the ordinary people of his native land, there have been those who have sought to put very obstacle they could conceive in the way of Romero’s progress to sainthood.

The opponents were not just influential figures from the old social, ecclesiastical and military elites in El Salvador. A succession of key prelates in Rome have, for the past three decades, vehemently opposed it, fearing it would be seen as tantamount to a canonization of Liberation Theology. Romero may have had personal holiness, was the most recent of their arguments, but he was not a martyr for the faith. He was murdered for subversive politics.

The idea that it is “subversive” for a clergyman to speak out on behalf of the poor – and to call on ordinary soldiers in the army not to obey orders to murder the priests and political activists who work with the poor – is clearly not something which makes much sense to Pope Francis. The canonisation process “was blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘for prudence’, the Pope told journalists in one of his impromptu airborne press conferences. But he added “for me Romero is a man of God”.  Following that lead the appropriate body of Roman theologians universally declared that Romero had indeed died in odium fidei – in hatred of the faith.

Tomorrow’s beatification in San Salvador, and in its own much smaller way this evening’s confirmation in our own parish church, illustrate one great truth. What was immediately obvious to the plain people of El Salvador, and to a 15-year-old boy after a single evening’s impassioned testimony, took inordinately longer to be acknowledged by the institutional hierarchy.  The poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel and to defend the poor is to defend the faith. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium: “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.” Or as my son Thomas wrote it in his confirmation presentation: “Oscar Romero preached the Gospel, defended the defenceless, and gave a voice to those who had none.  For that he gave his life.”

Pope Francis – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism by Paul Vallely will be published by Bloomsbury in September.

Can Pope Francis complete his mission in time?

2015 March 11
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by Paul Vallely

Can Francis complete his mission in time? That very much depends on what we think the 78-year-old Pope’s mission is. If we accept him at his own word it is threefold. It is to take the Catholic Church out of the sacristy and on to the streets. It is to share a Gospel that brings joy rather than judgment. And it is to be a poor Church for the poor on the peripheries. In some ways he has already achieved much of that; in others there is a long way to go. Reform, in structures as in attitudes, is essential to the whole project.

The early debate – as to whether the new Pope was just style or substance – has been settled. It was a secular question in any case. In a Church with sacrament at its heart the two are indivisible. For Francis to say Mass at an altar on the hull of a wrecked boat in Lampedusa – where desperate migrants in their thousands are washed up on Europe’s shores – was more than a potent piece of politics. And when he embraced and kissed Vinicio Riva, a man whose entire body was covered in repulsive disfiguring growths – without knowing whether the man might be infectious – he was showing the world that there is a difference between curing, which merely removes a disease, and healing, which brings us into wholeness. It was not just Vinicio who was healed; we healthy onlookers were healed, too. That part of his mission is already complete.

This is a lesson that bears constant repetition, of course – which is why he spelt out for the curial cardinals and archbishops at Christmas the 15 spiritual diseases which afflict men of power and position. “Who am I to judge?” may have become the single most celebrated sentence of his pontificate to date (though he has been quick enough to judge “savage capitalism” and much else). But his message is that while Christians should not judge others, we should each be swift to judge ourselves. We can only progress on our Christian journey if we are capable of judging ourselves first, as Francis said at his morning Mass at his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, just the other day.

But in other areas Francis’s mission remains incomplete. At the last consistory his council of nine cardinal advisers tabled a fairly modest proposal. It was modest, at any rate, by comparison with some of the radical ideas it had been suggested they might deliver. The brief they had been given by the Pontiff was to rewrite completely the constitution that governs the way the Vatican bureaucracy is run. Pope Francis told them not simply to revise the current system, as set out in Pope John Paul II’s 1988 document Pastor Bonus; he told them to start afresh. It was a measure of how dysfunctional the Roman Curia was widely reckoned to be. Cardinal after cardinal had said so in the discussions before the conclave that elected Francis. The new Pope saw that as a mandate for reform.

When the cardinals gathered in Rome last month they were presented with a plan to merge a number of pontifical councils – the Vatican equivalent of think tanks –

into two new Congregations. These more powerful decision-making bodies would encompass a range of areas concerning first, the laity, and secondly, various issues under the broad sweep of justice and peace.

But if the Pope and his advisers thought that this little organisational reshuffle – as an appetiser, perhaps, for more profound changes to come – would not scare the horses, they were wrong. A number of cardinals raised objections. Some were concerned about organisational effectiveness. Others seemed to be seeking to protect vested interests in ways that the Pope would criticise as clerical careerism. This was going to be more difficult than Francis and his advisers had perhaps anticipated.

Reporting on the event, the veteran Vaticanista John Thavis – who was for 25 years  head of the Rome bureau of the US Catholic News Service – concluded that it was time to “downsize expectations”. The consistory had been offered only “a vague outline” of a proposal to combine “six or seven” pontifical councils into two new Congregations, and yet resistance was immediate. Vatican insiders concluded that “it could take years” to complete a full programme of reforms. Comparison was made to Pope John Paul II’s modifications to the Curia, which took 10 years to design and implement, with multiple stages of consultation and approval. “I’m not sure Pope Francis has 10 years to dedicate to this project,” Thavis observed drily. The enterprise might never get beyond the “endless study” phase without “some forceful leadership moves” by the Pontiff to advance the reform agenda.

Though curial reform may seem to be stumbling, there can be no doubt as to the efficacy of the far-reaching changes Francis has wrought in other spheres. Take Church finances. The scandal-ridden Vatican bank has been swept clean from the top floor to the bottom of the former med­ieval dungeon that houses an institution which was, until very recently, a byword for Mafia money-laundering, tax-dodging and shady dealing. The Pope’s shrewd appointment of the pugnacious Cardinal George Pell to take charge of Vatican finances has been important. But Francis has also brought in a whole range of important personnel – many of them lay experts in banking, compliance and systems management – to cleanse an Augean stable.

The Pope has resolutely backed Cardinal Pell despite a succession of dirty-tricks stories planted in the Italian media by a curial old guard out to discredit the bulldozing reformer. Whatever happens next, it is hard to imagine how some of the changes Francis has put in place could be unpicked. Vatican departments now have to compile budgets, monitor expenditure and publish audited accounts. It seems impossible that Francis’s Mission Accomplished on such  matters could be overturned by self-serving survivors in the Curia in years to come.

Big challenges remain. Pope Francis needs to turn the same resolute scrutiny and urgency to the question of clerical sex abuse – and episcopal cover-up.

Francis has endorsed Benedict XVI’s “zero tolerance” policy towards clerical abusers and created, after a puzzling delay of almost a year, a pontifical commission to combat abuse, two of whose members are abuse survivors. But it took him 16 months to meet abuse victims at the Vatican. Progress on all this has been inexplicably slow. Were Francis, in his own words, to be “called to the House of the Father” before creating some mechanism to discipline bishops who cover-up sex abuse, then he might be deemed to have failed in dealing with one of the biggest problems he inherited.

But completion is too bald a concept to evaluate much of what Pope Francis has set out to achieve. There have been paradoxes aplenty about a Pope who acts unilaterally in the cause of collegiality, who centralises to achieve decentralisation and who seeks to undermine the model of papal monarchy by bypassing established systems. He seems untroubled by such inconsistencies.

With his wilfully imprecise way of speaking, he has set out to devalue the currency of papal utterance with a plethora of interviews, press conferences, homely homilies and pastoral phone calls whose details are sometimes leaked. It is part of what in Rome they are now calling “the scandal of normality”. As Francis himself has said: “The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”

Reducing the status of the Pope from infallible emperor to “first among equals” in the College of Cardinals – or, indeed, the Synod of Bishops – is what this is all about. At the same time, Francis is seeking to persuade the bishops to be more bold. When a Brazilian prelate asked if married men might be admitted to the priesthood to address his problem of having just 27 priests for 700,000 faithful in 800 church communities, the Pope responded: “You tell me.”

Francis is attempting the same thing in unleashing the debate around the family. First, in an unprecedented move, the laity were asked what they thought in a questionnaire. Then Cardinal Walter Kasper was selected by Francis to provoke the cardinals with his thoughts on lifting the ban on Communion for the remarried. Next, the bishops were told at the extraordinary synod to “speak boldly” and “listen with humility” – with some of them clearly better at the former than the latter.

The free debate that ensued stood in contrast to the attempts at previous synods to restrict discussion to along approved lines. Francis relished the resulting furore. “It’s healthy to get things out into the open,” he said. Different points of view were “not something dirty”. Animated discussion was better than “stealthy mumbling”. He insisted: “I am not worried. It all seems normal to me. If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn’t be normal.”

Where this will all end, Francis does not know. But he wants the Holy Spirit to blow through the whole Church, eddying in what were once airless corners.

In one sense, that part of Francis’s mission is already accomplished, too. He acknowledges to those close to him that he wants to see the remarried readmitted to Communion. But more important to him is that the Church changes the way it reaches such decisions, which is why he has not so far issued a liberalising fiat on the subject.

Conservatives often accuse Francis of being a stealthy liberal. But scrutinise his major episcopal appointments – as in Cologne, Sydney and Chicago – and he has appointed more conservatives than liberals. The defenestration of the arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke is part of Francis moving the Church back to the theological centre rather than to some progressive utopia.

But it is more than that. “Francis plays on the same team as us but he kicks the ball in an entirely different direction,” one cardinal memorably said to me. Pope Francis sees the same world through a different lens, that of mercy. He cares more that his new bishops, like his new cardinals, should be compassionate and collegial than that they hold particular doctrinal positions – or prestigious metropolitan sees. They should be pastoral rather than judgmental.

Given enough time, Francis could remake the College of Cardinals – and a future conclave – in a rather different mould. But he may not be granted the years to do that. The witness of the Pope who takes the bus and eats in the Vatican canteen has allowed the faithful to pose some awkward questions

to bishops of bling or those whose heads sometimes swell to fit their mitres. That could revert with a papal successor of a different style.

Yet some things cannot be changed. After a philosopher and a theologian in the Vatican, we now have a pastor. More than that, we have a pastor who said to the world’s young people gathered in Brazil that they should

get out and cause a stir – or make a mess, depending on which translation of the Spanish lío you prefer. For Francis, this is a model not just for the young. It is a model for his own mission.

What this has done, after two papacies of philosophically precise, restrictive deontology, is to legitimise an alternative. Pastoral warmth can be preferred to doctrinal particularity. A balanced Church needs love as well as discipline, the local as well as the universal. Disagreement is not dissent; it can be the essential prerequisite for discernment.

The years to come may offer much more. But already Francis has shown us not just a different way of being pope, but also a different way of being a Catholic.

Paul Vallely is currently working on a second edition of his best-selling biography Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. It will be published by Bloomsbury later in the year

from The Catholic Herald