Last Thursday Pope Francis I, the most recent man to don the Fisherman’s Ring, washed the feet of young offenders at Casal del Marmo, an institution on the outskirts of Rome far from the grandeur of the Apostolic Palace. Three days later, while giving his sermon on Easter Sunday he spoke out against greed and issued a call for world peace. Prior to the Easter weekend he was already being hailed as a humble reformer, a man who unlike any other modern Pope will be able to connect the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to the poor and needy, the very people the Church should arguably be most concerned with.
For many of the billion souls the Catholic Church claims to own such a humble, quite literally Franciscan leader must be a welcome change. The high pomp of the Vatican, something any visitor to St Peter’s Basilica can attest too, makes the Catholic Church arguably the most disconnected of all religions from the reality of the world. While Francis I is by any standards a privileged figure his apparent natural humility and quiet, grandparent like concern about the way his church is perceived and the way it acts are, on the surface, a great encouragement to the faithful.
Yet Francis’s galvanisation of the church is, so far, very much superficial. While the Pontiff’s words may have been heard all over the globe his actions so far have been limited in impact to the world’s smallest sovereign nation. Going ad lib and walking around the streets of the Vatican or refusing to send an aid to pay his hotel bill may provide the media with scraps to digest but the only public act of an international nature Francis has conducted is to phone a newsagent in Buenos Aeries and cancel his newspaper subscription. At a time when the Church is accused of both covering up the abuse of vulnerable people in its care and financial crimes concerning the running of the Vatican Bank (not exactly a stranger to criminality since the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano and the murder of Roberto Calvi) one might expect a new, humble reformer to want to tackle the internal issues that are rumoured to have encouraged his predecessor’s extraordinary resignation. Furthermore after Joseph Ratzinger’s failure to apologise for the Church’s past crimes it is not unreasonable to expect Francis I to have spoken in this regard as well. While insistence that the Church apologises for acts such as the Crusades is absurd, sins such as the support of fascism or forced conversion, as well as historic cases of child abuse and attempts to smother the truth in this regard, are yet to be fully addressed by the Church in the public sphere.
A few days after white smoke rose from the Cysteine Chapel the BBC declared that the ‘eyes of the world’ were turned to a genteel, refined corner of southern England as Justin Welby was enthroned as the new leader of the Church of England. While the BBC may have exaggerated global interest in the Anglican Church somewhat it is true that, like his Catholic cousin, the Archbishop of Canterbury is also seen as a more suitable candidate for the times his Church finds itself in. Welby has, so far, performed well (no pun intended). He may not be burdened with the same kind of problems as the new Pope yet he has managed to make sense on the nature of austerity and called for a measure of levelheadedness on both the ordination of women as bishops and the CoE’s current issue of the hour, the marriage of people who happen to be gay. Yet at the same time his predecessor but one, surely one of the greatest wastes of space ever to sit in the House of Lords, has attacked the current government for ‘aggressive secularism’. Loth as I am to counter any broadside aimed in David Cameron’s direction to make such a claim the ex-Archbishop must surely have missed the Church of England being the only church given specific legal protection from being ‘forced’ to conduct a marriage between gay couples. In truth Cameron has not been secular enough but the fact that a figure in the church hierarchy can, along with many of his former flock, mistake the religious favouritism of the government (and British law as a whole) for secularism shows how out of touch the Church is.
What the cases of both newly appointed shepherds suggests is that both the Catholic and Anglican Churches are guilty of a sin, hubris, older than Christianity itself. As in a Greek tragedy they have enjoyed success from unlikely beginnings, a rise to great power, a period of renown and now, through the most towering of pride, are facing a fall. The hubris of believing they have a monopoly on good, the hubris of assuming right without question and the hubris of stating relevance in modern life while strictly adhering to the teachings of ancient texts are hallmarks of almost all major religions. This is not to say that all the followers or ministers of a faith can be covered in the same blanket but rather that the hierarchy and therefore the policy of most religions are infected by pride. How else it is possible for Lord Carey to ignore the decreasing percentage of British people who believe in his particular god (or any god at all for that matter)? How else can the Catholic Church praise the humility of its new leader while still endorsing the idea that Mother Teresa, a woman who did more to keep people in poverty than help the poor of Calcutta as her legend suggests, should soon become a saint? In a world where the location and circumstance of one’s birth is still the most likely contributing factor to one’s religion the claim of any Church that it, and only it, speaks the truth of god is the kind of egotism that any other organisation would be ridiculed for.
It may be that Francis I’s decision to wear plain shoes not handmade loafers and live and eat with priests of a more ordinary level does bring about change. If so it will be a long process, and one left incomplete while such private humbleness is not coupled with a public willingness to truly admit, or ever discuss, the wrongs of the past and present. Until then, the replacement of a quiet, red shoed conservative German with a quiet, less grandiose, conservative Argentinian will have little impact on the Catholic Church. It, like the Anglican Church, will remain a theme park under new management but where all the rides remain the same. One day the staff will come to work and wonder ‘Where did everyone go?’ but by then it will be too late.