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Leninist thinking in the Vatican?

04 July 2014


THE news that Jesus would have supported gay marriage among the clergy came to us from Sir Elton John, a man with excellent celebrity contacts. It made the front page of Metro. The singer also had kind words for the Pope: "He has stripped Christianity down to the bare bones and said it's basicallyall about love and inclusiveness. That has to be encouraged by the Church of England, too."

Of course, none of this is actually true, but it's a very interesting glimpse of the impression that Pope Francis has made. I think that many people inside the Church underestimate the appeal of love and inclusiveness, not just because they're difficult. (Forgiveness is a different matter. "What is Sweetest? Sweetest is to see your enemies repent and their women acknowledge your headship," as I'm sure that Genghis Khan would have said.) But there is a kind of religious temperament which relishes the consciousness of sin and awkwardness.

I was talking earlier this week with someone who has been doing research into conservative Evangelical churches, and they pointed out that the sheer weirdness of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement makes it seem credible in today's society: anyone who believes in something so out of kilter with the moral sense of the world around them will tend to feel a little ashamed, if not guilty, all the time, and this in turn will lend a feeling of credibility to the doctrine that we are all intrinsically rotten. A loving and inclusive Church wouldn't do that job at all.

THIS brings us once more to the curious case of Pope Francis and his bifurcated reputation. The Economist's excellent blog on religion, Erasmus - which is the consistently best source of thoughtful and thought-provoking angles on the world's religious scene - had picked over the Pope's recent interview with a Spanish-speaking paper, and concluded that he was a Leninist in his view of war.

This is a much more nuanced and interesting point than the theropod harrumphings of American blowhards such as Glen Beck. "By positing a link between capitalism and war, [Francis] seems to be taking an ultra-radical line: one that consciously or unconsciously follows Vladimir Lenin in his diagnosis of capitalism and imperialism as the main reason why world war broke out a century ago," The Economist wrote.

This conclusion was backed up with a long and fair quote - "After denouncing the 'atrocity' of youth unemployment, Francis observed that: 'We are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can't hold up any more, a system that to survive must make war, as all great empires have done. But as a third world war can't be waged, they make regional wars. . . they produce and sell weapons, and with this, the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrificeman at the feet of the idol of money, are resolved.'"

So you can see where the charge of "Leninism" came from. The Economist, naturally, believes that capitalism is not a particularly warlike form of social organisation, and certainly not a uniquely warlike one. But that isn't quite the argument that the Pope was making, nor, I think, the one that Lenin made. That was about a link between capitalism and imperialism rather than capitalism and war in all its forms. Again, it is possible to make counter-arguments, though they would have to deal with the existence of American military bases in almost every country of the world today. At the risk of sounding like a proper Communist, I suggest that it is not a coincidence that the largest capitalist power in history is also the largest military one.

But, in any case, it was an interesting hare to start; and the story came back to life when the Pope himself responded to the blog post, asked about it by an Italian newspaper. According to The Independent's report, "The 77-year-old pontiff. . . said: 'I can only say that the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the centre of the Gospel.'

"He made the comments after being asked about a blog post in The Economist magazine that said he sounded like a Leninist when he criticised capitalism and called for radical economic reform.

"Citing Biblical passages about the need to help the poor, the sick and the needy, the Pope said: 'Communists say that all this is communism. Sure, twenty centuries later. So when they speak, one can say to them: "but then you are Christian".'"

IT WOULD be fascinating to know what The Daily Telegraph had to say about this - but, as part of its recent sackings, it got rid of Damian Thompson; so the reasoned defence of war and imperialism as consistent with all the best liturgies will have to appear somewhere else.

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