“Remember that the future has a memory. So try to bring the future, to memorize the future, to anticipate the future, with science, of course. Use social sciences, ecology, economy, health, politics, security, projections, but also use your imagination.” This was the advice from Pope Francis to a 50-year old Argentinian priest from Buenos Ares, Father Augusto Zampini Davies, Adjunct (supplementary) Secretary to the Vatican department for promoting issues of social justice and development. Francis had appointed Father Zampini in early April to lead a new Vatican Coronavirus Response Team. One of its roles is drawing on the Catholic tradition to start imagining and planning for the post- Covid-19 world. This team will report directly to the Pope.
The Prefect of the Vatican department for promoting Integral Human Development, which houses this team, is a Ghanaian Cardinal, Peter Turkson, formerly Archbishop of Cape Coast. I first met him at his home in the city of Cape Coast where, accompanied by the Archbishop of Accra, Charles Palmer-Buckle, they sang a very creditable rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for his visitors. Cardinal Turkson’s father was a carpenter and his mother sold vegetables in the local market. He knows what poverty is and holds some controversial views. He has not been wary of ruffling feathers in Rome by promoting the need for economic structural change and reform of the international financial system.
A close colleague who worked with Cardinal Turkson for six years after founding the African Jesuit AIDS network and coordinating Jesuit efforts to combat HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is the Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny. During 1990-1991 he courageously stepped into the shoes of one of the Jesuits murdered by the Salvadorian military at the University of Central America to lead its Institute for Human Rights.
Bureaucracy is not noted for prizing imagination highly. And the Vatican, of course, is nothing if not a bureaucracy. But the members of the Integral Human Development department and of Pope Francis’ Response Team do not do fit the stereotype of the Vatican official.
There is also something that feels a little outside-the-box, but comfortingly home-grown, about Father Zampini. He served as a priest in a Pimlico parish, Holy Apostles, not far from Chelsea Bridge in London, strongly influenced by the developmentalist, Amartya Sen, he took his Master’s Degree in Economics and Development at the University of Bath in 2010, and later did research at the Margaret Beaufort Theological Institute in Cambridge, a centre for lay theology. He has honorary degrees from Durham, Roehampton and Stellenbosch. I first met him at Roehampton trying gamely to convince his audience that Argentinian ‘theology of the people’ was based on popular piety and so should not be mixed up with liberation theology which drew on Marxist thought.
Why all this personal detail? Well, stories about the Churches usually provide little insight into the people behind official roles and titles. They are presented as figureheads doing bad things the reader will deplore or good things the reader is expected to applaud. But Church officials do not necessarily fit the stereotypes which shape readers’ expectations. Personality matters.
The Pope’s sense of the pivotal importance of the current moment is evident here. Zampini reporting on the task of the Response Team given him by Francis said “He (the Pope) also says this has to be an opportunity for something, for the common good, for what we call the common good,”
What can be expected of this Vatican Response Team? CARITAS INTERNATIONALIS, the Rome-based global umbrella body for national Catholic agencies serving the poor, will be supporting the initiative. But Zampini’s team is only the size of a small department in a medium size NGO. It will need to work with like-minded bodies such as the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact and with experts in different disciplines in a variety of universities and institutions. But when it comes to imagination, size is not determinative. Indeed creativity sometimes thrives on solitude, or is generated by small teams with vision.
Imagination which is in short supply in normal times sometimes flowers in a crisis. The history of the Catholic Church is a story of innovation and imagination clashing with or at least worrying bureaucracy. A radical Jewish sect becomes a Global Faith, Religious Orders oppose Rome, Worker Priests, Liberation theologians oppose the conservatism of religious leaders, Women Religious escape their confinement and pioneer educational, medical and social services, and so on. The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once said that we should “drink from our own wells”, not an advisory to stay at home, but to draw on the wealth of experience, ethical reflection, spirituality and tradition in the Church. And this implies, amongst other things, significant redistribution of wealth, transfers of money from military and armament expenditure, as well as more comprehensive debt relief for poorer countries.
As Father Zampini says, we “can't go back to repeating mistakes of the past, when crises were exploited to reaffirm the superiority of some at the expense of others. That's what happened in the 2008 crisis, when we saved the banks instead of the investors.” He has a daunting task ahead of him but a popular Pope behind him. We should wish him well.
“It is time to put global conflict on lock-down and focus together on the true fight of our lives”. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, live-streamed this appeal to the world as Britain was going into lock-down. The Coronavirus pandemic could “open precious windows to diplomacy” and help create “corridors for life-saving aid”. The two-week cease-fire in Yemen declared by Saudi Arabia is a promising sign. A former Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, the Rt. Hon. Alistair Burt in a paper to the Defence and Security Forum has recently elaborated on the possibilities inherent in the Guterres appeal.
Alistair Burt’s thinking derives from his experience of the Middle East with its intractable conflicts, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, US-Iran, Israel-Palestine-Iran. No-one can make concessions or they will ‘lose face’ or appear to be weaker than their opponent. No-one trusts their adversary as a negotiating partner. A bitter stalemate prevails. “A ladder to climb down” would be a game-changer. Covid-19 offers one to the warring parties, Burt suggests. The belligerents with whole populations trapped between them face the uncontrolled spread of the virus. The combatants can cease fire and co-operate or many more will die. ‘All win or all lose’.
Years ago I travelled from Jordan into Israel by – what was then called – the Allenby Bridge. There was a hold up. I watched ambulances pull up on each side of the bridge. A patient from the Jordanian ambulance was carried out on a stretcher and handed over to the Israeli ambulance crew. The two ambulances moved off. It somehow summed up the divisions in the Holy Land but also how the medical world in its basic humanity and solidarity can overcome them. But Guterres’ appeal, Burt’s diplomatic vision, though, go wider than this.
Alistair Burt’s short Defence Forum paper joins a contemporary plethora of reflections about the world as it might be post-Coronavirus. The pandemic is what in biblical Greek would be called a Kairos moment, a time of great danger but also of great opportunity and possibility for fresh vision. The combination of authoritarian rule and advanced cyber-technology, AI, combine to create the danger of China using its strategy against the pandemic to further entrench the surveillance of its population to near 1984 proportions. But the sharing that has taken place offers of its COVID-19 expertise with other countries also provides the opportunity to open up a new chapter of international co-operation.
“These days of pain are bringing many hidden problems to the surface”, Pope Francis tweeted today. Coronavirus has revealed and cast an extraordinary spotlight both on the importance of good governance, and on the impact of inequality and poverty on people around the world and within nations. Governments which can, and do, energetically strive to turn well-formulated health policies into reality within their health systems, provide the gold standard. Governments which cannot or will not, sacrifice the lives of their citizens. Only in democracies can citizens hold their governments to account and know with some certainty what is happening. Inequality and poverty cause poor health outcomes wherever you live. Pandemics accentuate dramatically pre-existing inequalities and poverty.
Whilst we in Britain count the number of ventilators in thousands and lament how few, African doctors, for example, treasure the medical equipment sent by a parish in Europe, an x-ray machine donated by Rotary, HAZMAT clothing brought by WHO and international medical charities. The world’s refugee settlements are even more in need of international support. Like the Victorians, in UK the realisation is dawning that “we are all in this together” when it comes to health, and that this need not be only a defensive government mantra during war and pestilence but the basis for policies promoting social justice and equity.
The longed-for time when Coronavirus is controlled will offer a moment for renewed vision, an opportunity for changing direction. The choices are obvious. Either persist in an economics that disadvantage the poor, or an economics “as if people mattered”, promote a nationalist ‘beggar your neighbour’ foreign policy, or foster international co-operation, might is right or promotion of human rights, walls to keep desperate refugees out, or all take a consistent fair annual quota, accept a silent creeping genocide of the poor around the world in the next decade, or wealthy nations aid the reconstruction of the poorest economies.
Government emphasis on being ‘in this together’ must apply a fortiori to climate change. Before Coronavirus the idea that lifestyles must become simpler, radical changes had to be made to the economy, with coordinated efforts made globally to reduce carbon emissions and bring about effective carbon capture, whilst acknowledging that we are running against the clock, seemed either utopian or were criminally ignored by governments - according to your viewpoint. Now nearly all these changes are imposed on us to control the pandemic. We didn’t choose clean air – or clean waterways in Venice, nor to drastically reduce damaging air travel; both are the bi-product of economic collapse. Is it utopian to believe that having been forced to cut our carbon-based energy use we might in future choose to do so with a new determination and efficacy? Will Alistair Burt’s ladder also provide a way down for Trump, and the less obvious foot-draggers, from blocking action against climate change? Time will tell.
The choices that will have to be made are becoming more obvious. It does not mean we will necessarily make the right ones. Now is the time for all people of goodwill, leaders of the faith communities, International NGOs, campaigning organisations and governments that treasure social democracy and a just international order, to create the kind of coalition that can ensure that the right choices are made. “Beggar my neighbour” or a genuine “Politics of Solidarity”? The G20 Riyadh meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia this November could be the first place for such a coalition to make a major impact on a post-Coronavirus world.
See The Article 10/04/2020