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What Corbyn and the Pope share

02 October 2015

Both have dilemmas over redefining servant leadership, says Paul Vallely

WHAT do Jeremy Corbyn and Pope Francis have in common? Both are offering their followers warmth, authenticity, and personal integrity. But there is more to it than that. Both are trying to redefine leadership. And both are finding themselves caught in a seeming contradiction between process and substance. Let me explain.

Take two of the things that Mr Corbyn wants for his revitalised Labour Party. The first is that party members should take part in the formation of policy. A second is that Britain should refuse to renew the £100-billion Trident nuclear-defence programme. The bind in which Mr Corbyn finds himself is that party members voted not to discuss the issue at this week’s Labour conference. That could be a precursor to the Party’s — and almost certainly a majority of its MPs’ — refusing to back their new leader’s policy on the issue.

Pope Francis is in a similar predicament. He, too, wants to change the way his Church makes its decisions, which is why he has revitalised the Synod of Bishops. But he would like it to come to a particular decision on divorced and remarried Roman Catholics’ receiving communion. As I reveal in my book on Pope Francis, several individuals who had been summoned to talks privately with him on the issue told me that he wants the current ban lifted. The problem is that not everyone in his Church agrees with him.

At the equivalent of his party conference — the Ordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome, which begins next week — the issue will not, however, be deferred from discussion, as Labour’s Trident stance has been. Remarried Catholics, and gay Catholics, were the subject of a heated debate at last year’s Extraordinary Synod, where a majority voted for change — but not the two-thirds that is traditionally required for Synod consensus.

Since it is Mr Corbyn’s first year, he has been able to postpone facing up to this dilemma until next year, or certainly until the next General Election, when the party will have to present a settled policy in its manifesto. It is a finely balanced question, and one outcome is by no means inevitable.

The Pope’s response may be to engage in some nifty footwork, of the kind that he so deftly demonstrated in the United States last week. A pope is allowed to hand-pick more members of the Synod, in addition to those elected by bishops’ conferences around the world, or who participate by virtue of holding some Curial office. Some arch-conservatives, such as the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, have been removed by the Pope from positions where they automatically qualify as Synod members. In contrast, others, some of whom share the Pope’s reconciliatory views on gay or remarried Catholics, have been added to the Synod.

Old-style leaders, political or ecclesiastical, would have avoided the need for such subtlety by simply laying down the law. But if service — or majority will — is a key component of your avowed model of leadership, then things can get a little more complicated.


Paul Vallely’s book, Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.

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