The Guardian’s praise of Pope Francis as the ‘un-Benedict’ reveals some odd thinking

Singing from the same hymn sheet: Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis (Photo: CNS)

The Guardian has something good to say about the Pope in an editorial, which you can read here. This is to be welcomed, and makes a nice change from much of what has gone before. It is good for them, and for us, not to have to endure endless carping at the Holy Father, and hear something positive. But I do have to lift an eyebrow when I read this:

Not that his position on abortion, or homosexuality, or women priests, differs substantially from Benedict XVI. He remains socially conservative. But the mood music is altogether different and not just because of his personal charm and the decision to eschew all the fancy ecclesiastical haberdashery and grand palaces. Pope Francis has regularly excoriated economic injustice and the global inequalities created by unrestrained capitalism. And his message on Syria has been unusually direct in opposing the prospect of US intervention. On Saturday he told a congregation praying for peace in the Middle East: “Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!”

The present Pope’s words on unrestricted capitalism are more or less identical to those of Benedict XVI and John Paul II; and his message on Syria, surprise, surprise, is more or less identical in theology and tone to that of John Paul II at the time of the Gulf War. In fact his Syrian message recalls what Pope Paul VI said at the United Nations in New York back in 1965.

Readers of the Catholic Herald will be familiar with the concept of tradition, and the hermeneutic of continuity as opposed to rupture. For those who are not, it can be expressed in this demotic phrase: all popes sing from the same hymn sheet. They really do.

The Guardian’s appraisal contains two basic errors of misunderstanding. The first is that ancient error that was so prominent at the time of the Reformation – the idea that if we get rid of vestments (or “ecclesiastical haberdashery”) then some how or another we will usher in an epoch of social justice and equality. Yeah, right. Let us remember that the Reformation replaced monks in habits with landed gentry as administrators and landlords of large swathes of the county. The landed gentry’s haberdashery was noted for its flamboyance, and they were a lot less kind than the monks – in fact they were the forerunners of the oppressive capitalist rentier class that the Guardian and the Pope have such misgivings about.

Jesus our Saviour, let us remember, wore an expensive and beautiful seamless robe. This was stolen from him by the men who crucified him, who then threw dice to see who should have it. So, those who wish to remove vestments from the body of Christ line themselves up with the men who nailed that same body to the Cross. The Guardian should really think twice before it makes snarky comments about vestments, because I am sure they do not want to find themselves in such bad company.

The second basic error the Guardian makes it to see the Pope as a social conservative. First of all the editorial seems to imply, without advancing any evidence for this view, that social conservatism is a bad thing. Letting this pass, it equates opposition to abortion, women priests and homosexuality with social conservatism. That is at best simplistic. What is progressive about abortion? What is progressive about women priests? Are societies where women priests and abortion flourish good places? Should those two things even be in the same sentence?

The Pope, like all popes before him, is in fact a social radical, as was the One who appointed the first pope, St Peter. Infanticide was common in the Classical world, and Christians were against this, we know, from the testimony of several Church Fathers. A world without abortion would be a radically better world than the world we have now. Likewise a world that was chaste. The editorial seems to think that social progress is largely a matter of ditching traditional morality, but that morality is traditional because human nature does not change much over the centuries; and morality is not just the safeguard of progress, its existence is the essential precondition of progress. There is no advance in the human condition without advancing towards the goal of goodness.

I realise that whoever wrote this editorial was restricted by space, as indeed am I, and all who write. But one should try and avoid clichés, which can betray lazy thinking. And the editorial ends with the biggest cliché of the lot, that Francis is somehow the un-Benedict. He isn’t. People who say that do not know Benedict; and neither, interestingly, do they know Francis.