Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Pope on the side of the meek? Now that takes some believing

Among all the differences you might expect between a devout Anglican and an equally devout atheist, one thing my grandmothers were agreed about was Catholicism.
Neither, probably, would have used the word, but to both the Pope was something like what a Catholic might call the Antichrist. And when you consider some of the unpleasant old men who held that office during their lifetimes, you might think they had a point.
There have been concerted attempts in recent years to airbrush his record, but it would take a truly creative rewriting of history to remove all the stains from the record of Pius XII. But then, in his anti-semitism, the man they called Hitler’s Pope was only maintaining a long papal tradition.
You might wonder at the thinking behind his successors John Paul II and Benedict XVI moving him in steps along the pathway towards sainthood. But then, more than 200 years after the rational Enlightenment, and a century after Thomas Hardy optimistically proclaimed “God’s Funeral”, the whole business of making saints might seem a trifle old-fashioned. Anachronistic. Superstitious. At best, quaint.
Unless you’re a Catholic. In which case – and this goes for most, if not all, religions – believing six impossible things before breakfast is a normal part of life.
Now I know I have to tread carefully here. My sister is a Catholic, as is my aunt and about a sixth of the world’s entire population.
But how many of those believers really believe in the whole package?
Like the bit about “papal infallibility”, for example. Or the bits that say abortion, contraception, divorce and gay sex are sinful. That priests must be men – and celibate ones at that.
Turns out now, as it happens, that the new Pope himself isn’t totally committed to all that stuff.
Which brings me to what I really wanted to say. Which is that, from all the evidence of his eight months so far in one of the most powerful jobs in the world (arguably the most powerful), Pope Francis is a Good Thing.
 You might dismiss the recent kissing of a badly disfigured man as a Princess Diana-style publicity stunt.
You might say the same of his being photographed with a group of anti-fracking protesters – though for a Pope to take any stand on such an issue is a welcome departure.
And you can see a certain canniness in a 76-year-old who chooses to convey his messages to the faithful via the medium of Twitter.
But you have to warm to a man who prefers to have his old shoes repaired rather than pull on the bright red Pradas sported by his predecessor in imitation of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. And who eschews the Popemobile motorcade in favour of an old blue Focus.
Those may be symbolic choices, but – like his choice of papal name – they are good symbols.
He echoes Francis of Assisi in his championing of the poor as well as his concern for the environment.
And there is something reminiscent of Christ’s overturning of the moneylenders’ tables in his disgust at a global economic order that worships “an idol called money”.
He has tweeted his unhappiness at “unbridled capitalism” and its “throwaway attitude” to everything from unwanted food to unwanted old people.
His attacks on corruption have included moves to reform a self-serving bureaucracy at the heart of his own church.
He made waves in the summer when he asked: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Questioning his own right to judge anything seems an unlikely papal position. Not very infallible.
As also the decision to seek the opinion of ordinary Catholics, via the internet, on issues of family, marriage and sexuality.
For the autocrat of the world’s largest totalitarian organisation to be giving such a lead in democracy is frankly astonishing.
For the best part of 2,000 years the Catholic church has had a pretty poor record in the matter of helping the meek to inherit the earth. For once it now seems to have a leader intent on doing just that.
Whether his popularity leads to a lasting rise in Catholic fervour is a question for the future.
Whether it’s a good thing if so may depend on your view of religion – and on what kind of man the next Pope, and the next, will be.
But it may be that he is better placed than anyone else to take on the dangerous might of capitalist big business.


The RSPB is the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe and must be one of the biggest voluntary-membership organisations of any kind in Britain. Its glossy mag, formerly known as “Birds”, must also be one of the most widely read magazines in the country – and not only in dentists’ waiting rooms, where its stunning photography is usually the best thing on show.
 The rebranding of the magazine as “Nature’s Home” is just one way the RSPB has chosen to flag up a gradual widening of interest away from its original birdwatching brief.
As a long-time member, I’ve just had my opinion on this change of emphasis sought in an online survey.
A statement on the survey pages says: “Much of what the RSPB does benefits all wildlife... Birds will remain the most visible and tangible focus of much of what we do, but we believe our proven conservation model can help save other habitats and species too. We can – and we should.”
That’s a “Strongly Agree” then.
Among the things the survey asks is whether I’d recommend RSPB membership to someone else. If you’re not among the million-plus members already, consider yourself recommended.

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