Press: The geopolitical implications of a holy kiss

11 January 2019

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INA sweepstake for the most unlikely story to make the front page of the Financial Times, you’d feel confident if you drew any ticket that started with the words “The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew” — until last Saturday, when he made the splash.

Admittedly, he was helped in this by the photograph of him all gorgeously caparisoned and kissing the equally resplendent Metropolitan Epiphany (Epiphanius) on the cheek. But the story dealt with the geopolitical implications of the kiss: the ceremony was to mark the formal declaration of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church and its consequent freedom from Moscow (News, 21/28 December). This will have consequences probably for centuries — especially as it has led the Moscow Patriarchate to break off relations with Constantinople. As The Guardian’s leader on the subject remarked, this is ultimately about who blesses the guns of which armies, and that matters even in the world of finance.

Parenthetically, isn’t “Metropolitan Epiphany” the perfect name for a Betjeman tribute band?

THE TIMES also had a story that stood in complete contrast to the FT’s Ukrainian one, from the headline onwards. For a start, there was the headline — a glorious scrambled dog’s dinner of mixed metaphor: “Women ready to break stained glass ceiling by winning race to be next Archbishop of York”. The content was simply a warmed-up bookies’ press release. You cannot blame the paper’s religious-affairs correspondent, Kaya Burgess, for this: we make the bricks with the straw that we are given. And I suppose that the story does tell us something unobvious, which is that most of the public interest in the next appointment will be about the gender of the winner.

THE WASHINGTON POST had a throwaway line with an excellent British angle, in a story about the fashionable society priest who converted Newt Gingrich, among others, to Roman Catholicism. Mr Gingrich, who left one wife while she was undergoing cancer treatment, and then left her successor for a much younger woman, and who is now the United States ambassador to the Vatican, is a particularly vivid reminder that Pope Francis is right when he says that he leads a Church for sinners.

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Now, it emerges that Fr John McCloskey, the priest who converted him and several other prominent Republicans, has come down with a very timely case of Alzheimer’s after his order, Opus Dei, made a payout of $997,000 to a woman whom he sexually assaulted while counselling her, about 15 years ago. I wonder how that figure compares with the money spent over the years by English Evangelicals on helping John Smyth survive, after he had to leave this country in a hurry. Smyth, of course, was sent to Africa in his disgrace. Opus Dei decided to hide Fr McCloskey in England after his pay-off.

THE other American story, also in The Washington Post, was less startling but more serious: an interview with Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the founder of the political organisation the Moral Majority. It sets out clearly an ideology that I suppose we should call “National Capitalism”.

The country, he says, has a leader who cannot do wrong. Is there anything, he was asked, that President Trump could do that would endanger your support, or that of other Evangelical leaders? His answer was one word: “No.” He was prodded to expand on this. “I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically ‘conservative’, but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.”

The German word for this is Führerprinzip. It was still not the most startling part of the interview: this came when he was asked why he believed that President Trump was the right leader for the country. “What earns him my support is his business acumen. Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business.”

When it was pointed out that the deficit had increased under President Trump, he did not miss a beat in blaming it all on the Democrats. Even more than the clip of the prosperity-gospel preacher who gave his wife a Lamborghini, which I wrote about for Christmas (Press 21/28 December), this seems to show the literal worship of Mammon.

On poverty, too, Mr Falwell gave the impression of a man too busy in his career as a spiritual leader to read the Bible. “Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.”

Of all the schisms in the world, I think that this may be the most important. Such attitudes to money and power are wholly irreconcilable with anything that the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury would teach.

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