During their June General Assembly America’s Catholic bishops blundered into the US culture wars. Holy Mother Church in the USA seemed about to threaten President Jo Biden over his position on abortion. Quarrels broke out. Bishops openly questioned each others’ motives. They finally decided that work should begin on drafting a formal statement which could contain guidance on moral impediments to receiving holy communion. Such a statement could deny communion to the President, a pious mass-going Catholic who, unlike Trump, shares the Church’s position on climate change, immigration and racial justice.
This was transparently a disunited Bishops Conference, something that Pope Francis and all former Popes sought to avoid. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), failed to find a consensus. Perhaps arguing online didn’t help. The critical vote on tasking “the Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” was 168 to 55 with 6 abstentions. Such USCCB Action Items would normally pass with fewer than ten against or abstaining.
Rather less momentous than Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg you might say. And you’d be right. Though you’d be missing an important point. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit colleague of the Pope and Prefect the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had written in May urging the USCCB to avoid a vote. Pope and Vatican feared the debate would become “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States”. Ladaria reminded the Conference of the ‘prerogatives of the Vatican’ and the rights of individual bishops suggesting they discuss their approach with the bishops of other countries and seek a ‘true consensus’. This, in Vaticanese, was explicit guidance meaning “don’t go there”. That guidance was ignored. Indirectly but surely they were defying the Pope.
The clash between America’s bishops and the Pope had been some time coming and is significant for American politics as well as the Church. Catholics make up 22% of the US electorate. Strong and opposing views on abortion and gay rights are held by Christian communities and by the influential secular women’s movement throughout the USA. Whilst campaigning Trump made much of Biden’s support for a woman’s right to choose.
Over his long career in politics Jo Biden’s position on abortion has changed. In the last fifteen years he has moved from traditional Catholic opposition to abortion to a more supportive if nuanced position, distinguishing his personal views on abortion from a representative political role where he felt he had ‘no right’ to overrule the choices made by the majority of American women. He opposes the 1976 Hyde Amendment which bans federal funding of medical programmes that include abortion provision and is committed to defending as constitutional Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court enabling judgement, a hot issue now the court has a conservative majority.
In 2016, Catholics voters, traditionally democrat leaning, voted 52% for Trump and 44% for Hillary Clinton. But in 2020 with a Catholic candidate the Catholic vote was evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats, though it was racially split with 67% of Hispanics voting for Biden compared to 42% of White Catholics. According to the Pew Foundation, a 2019 survey showed 77% of Democrat or democrat-leaning Catholics thought that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 63% of Republican Catholics believed the opposite. In a tight race every vote counts.
Archbishop Gomez, the President of the USCCB, informed the Bishops conference at their November 2020 meeting that he was setting up of a working group on relations with President-elect Biden, singling out abortion as creating a ‘difficult and complex situation’. The group operated in the shadows - nothing unusual ecclesiastically there. But disbanded after two sessions in February 2021, the Biden working group was behind the Conference’s contentious and admonitory response to Biden’s inauguration. Gomez pointed out “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender”. Five whole paragraphs presented abortion as the bishops’ ‘pre-eminent priority’ – which incidentally didn’t mean the only priority - all in sharp contrast to the Pope’s warm congratulations.
An even more important and politically significant outcome of the group’s work was their recommendation that the bishops should make a formal statement on the general issue of ‘worthiness for communion’. ‘General issue’ avoided any explicit reference to Catholic politicians’ conduct. Whether their policies or voting record put them in a position of grave sin and ineligible to receive communion would be a ‘particular issue’. The official line is now that the document aims to address the declining understanding of the Eucharist amongst American Catholics. But the claim put about by several bishops that such a formal document had nothing to do with Church relations with Biden was, to say the least, disingenuous.
The Vatican’s position on participation of Catholics in political life, expressed in a 2002 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphasises that abortion and euthanasia are not the only “grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability”. Again climate change, immigration and social justice, as well as capital punishment, come to mind. The Bishops of England and Wales have followed the same principle, for example before the May 2015 general election, advising that Catholics’ voting choice “should seldom, if ever, be based on a single issue”.
In the USA the abortion issue is tangled up with both the constitutional relationship between individual states and the federal government, and funding for health care, limited by the Hyde Amendment. Under Trump, Republican-governed States increasingly attempted to restrict the application of the key enabling Supreme Court judgement of 1973, Roe v Wade. Several states sought to limit abortion to rape, incest and danger to mother’s health provoking powerful opposition from the women’s movement. The indirect impact of the Hyde amendment was to discriminate against pregnant women who were poor and relying on federal provisions in MEDICAID, while richer, insured, women could afford safe abortions. Hillary Clinton was the first to call for its repeal in her 2016 election campaign.
Jo Biden is America’s second Catholic president but he is the first to be open about the influence of catholicism on his spiritual, moral and political life. What an astonishing outcome if President Biden, who calls slavery America’s ‘Original Sin’ and dares to use Catholic language, should be at risk of condemnation by his own bishops. The Vatican, though, has a millennium’s worth of experience in dealing with troublesome bishops and already seems to be bringing the situation under control. In Pope Francis’ words, the Eucharist is “not the reward of saints but the bread of sinners”.
See TheArticle 27/06/2021
Iran’s elections and their result – a decisive victory for Ebrahim Raisi - open a worrying new chapter in the country’s history. They demonstrate the failure of US sanctions policy. Failure, that is, if the intention was to force Iran to become a more amenable member of the international community. Trump ended all hopes of that by reneging of the nuclear treaty and imposing devastating sanctions. The window of opportunity for Iranians to loosen theocratic repression, the promise of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms, has closed.
The political legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution is a strange, indeed unique, hybrid of clerical rule under a Supreme Leader operating through his Guardian Council, and the institutions of popular sovereignty with an elected Parliament and President. Iran developed parallel political systems, two sets of hands on the tiller, two political elites. But it is the clerics within the religious system, elbowing their way to economic and political power, eliminating their rivals in a fashion reminiscent of the French revolution, vetting access to key public office, who have retained ultimate control. Distinguished service in the revolution, in the terrible Iraq-Iran war from 1980-1988 and within the Supreme Leader’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or links to the new State’s founder and Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, open the way to membership of this clerical power club.
But the USA and the UK underestimate the influence of history on their relations with Iran. The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941, forcing the German-leaning Prime Minister, Reza Shah Palavi to resign, set a precedent. The UK/CIA coup of 1953 got rid of Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddegh, a reformist offering hopes of a democratic future who had the audacity to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – later BP. The coup brought to power the last Shah. The West supported him and his SAVAK torturers against Iranians seeking change. And lastly, as a reaction to the hostage crisis during the revolution, the West backed Saddam Hussein and Iraq against Iran, a war which cost an estimated one million Iranian lives.
When you travel from Tehran to the great mausoleum for Ayatollah Khomeini you pass acres of war cemeteries filled with the graves of young men, the ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq war, poignant photographs on their head-stones. When you meet anyone over-sixty a persistent cough is not a symptom of COVID but a long-lasting effect of Saddam Hussein’s mustard gas whose chemical precursors came from European factories. Yet ordinary Iranians well able to distinguish between governments and their citizens show visitors the customary warmth and hospitality of the Middle East.
Iranians today are living, and have been living, under a sanctions regime so severe it amounts to a form of war on the civilian population. An attack less damaging only than outright warfare itself. Soraya Lennie in her recent book Crooked Alleys Deliverance and Despair in Iran tells the stories of individual lives interwoven with the changes in the revolutionary regime. Her account of the daily pressures of sanctions, desperate relatives travelling to the United Arab Emirates to buy vital medication, Iran’s civil aviation falling apart for want of spare-parts and new airplanes, targeted assassinations by Israel and the USA, spiralling inflation, unemployment, protest and harsh repression, illuminates daily life and brings us close to the experience of ordinary Iranians.
Sanctions are a double-edged sword. They generate economic crisis which heightens popular resistance to government in Iran just as it would anywhere. The Arab-Spring-like ‘Green Movement’ of dissent, suppressed in 2009, brought two to three million onto the streets. Its leaders remain under house arrest. But the impact of sanctions also strengthen the hand of the hardliners looking for any stick with which to beat political leaders promising even the mildest of reforms. The volume of chants ‘death to America’ increase and contact with US diplomats and the West become almost treasonable. In the delicate balance betwen the two political systems, theocrats and reformist pragmatists, the reformists lose out. Before the elections, the Monitoring Agency of the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council was able to disqualify all but seven of the 592 proposed names. Theocracy selects then democracy elects the selected. For this reason many, despairing of change, have shunned the polls or spoilt their ballots.
It is widely assumed that the victorious Sayeed Ebrahim Raisi has his sights set on becoming Supreme Leader when 82 year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he is close, dies. At the moment he is only a Hojjat-al-Islam, a rank below Ayatollah. In the 1980s and 1990s he was Tehran’s deputy-prosecutor. A junior member of the ‘Death Commission’ he was complicit in mass executions that went on for five months in 1988. Thousands of imprisoned Mujahedin-al-Khalq (Iranian revolutionaries who supported Iraq in the war), members of the communist Party, Tudeh, and other political prisoners were shot or hanged. For this reason he is amongst those personally sanctioned by the USA, complicating further future relationships.
The new President was born in the holy city of Mashad, site of the important shrine of Imam Reza, the seventh Imam of Shi’a Islam and descendant of the Prophet. In 2016 Raisi gained control of its bountiful bonyad, a Shi’a charitable foundation, a ‘sprawling for-profit conglomerate’ worth at least $15 billion, controlling thousands of businesses, thus advancing his religious and networking credentials. Since his defeat in the 2017 elections, Raisi has used his Mashad base in the Ravasi-Khorasan Province of North East Iran to stir up opposition to Rouhani. Significantly, the Supreme Leader, who also controls the judiciary, made him Chief Prosecutor in 2019.
Negotiations on the nuclear treaty (JPCOA) opposed by the US Republicans, Netanyahu’s Israel and the Iranian hard-liners, will not get easier. The five European signatory States to the treaty gamely tried to tread water, but their banks and big businesses were too frightened of repercussions from Trump’s America to risk continued trading with Iran. Raisi described the 2015 treaty positively as ‘a national document’ while campaigning in 2017 and supports its re-establishment. On the one hand, he badly needs sanctions lifted. A collapsing economy undermined Rouhani. On the other hand, Raisi’s hardliner support base treated Rouhani’s dealing with the USA as akin to treachery. Even moderates will not easily forgive the drone killing of the national hero, General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Trump’s master-stroke destroying any residual trust in the USA and bringing the two countries further down the path to conventional war. Conservative voters on Friday were turning up at polling booths with his picture.
The Revolutionary Guard will continue promoting pro-Iranian militias where it can and the Supreme National Security Council will stick to its policy of destabilising Iran’s enemies in order to protect its borders. It will take all of Jo Biden’s experience to reverse the weakening of nuclear containment and American influence wrought by his predecessor. Given Biden’s commitment to Israel, Iran cannot expect much sympathy. Biden’s ‘America is back’ is a great sound-bite but, on their side, Iranians will wonder ‘for how long?’
See TheArticle 19/06/2021
Ordinary people versus elites: call it populism, call it what you like, it’s an addictive story especially for politicians. If ‘the people’ decide you are on their side and vote accordingly, you win. In the USA and Europe the story has begun to lose some of its electoral appeal but it has not gone away.
Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit is one of the most important books of 2020. In his 1958 satirical critique The Rise of the Meritocracy the sociologist Michael Young ( later Lord Young of Dartington) introduced the term to describe a political system in which education, ability, talent, hard work and achievement are rewarded with wealth and power. Sandel also argues convincingly that meritocracy generates a sense of failure and exclusion in large groups of people. And that this sense of failure and exclusion fuels popular resentment and anger against elites.
The term meritocracy has rather faded but what it describes has become more prevalent. The populist opposition between people and elites accords with many people’s social perception, experience, and their sense of how things are but lacks analysis of the causes of their strong feelings. Populism’s rise has coincided with the decline of social democracy and its offer of equality of opportunity. That offer brought Tony Blair three terms in office and Obama two but ran out of steam in the last decade. Both Trump and Johnson are able communicators of the populist message “I am on your side against the elites”. But why was social democracy’s offer of equality of opportunity rejected?
Sandel goes beyond saying that for most people since the 1980s the ‘American dream’ has been just that, a dream. He takes the feelings of those whom the dream eludes seriously. If you believe there is a ladder available for you to climb out of poverty which you have failed to climb you feel a failure. Conversely if you’re at the top of the ladder you feel your prosperity is deserved. You earned it by hard work and personal virtue. And those at the bottom suspect that the people at the top blame them, disapprove of them, regard them with disdain, to quote Hillary Clinton, as ‘a basket of deplorables’. It is those feelings that populists exploit.
Sandel while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford was strongly influenced by the communitarianism of his Canadian philosophy professor, Charles Taylor. Sandel’s own communitarianism challenges the individualist conceit that people succeed or fail as lone individuals so that those who succeed deserve their advantages. It is a belief that can only be sustained by ignoring the countless ways in which each person is shaped and influenced by their environment. The middle and upper-middle class have helpful social networks, private tutors and full book-shelves at home. The wealthiest have parents who can pay the fees at public schools which ease their way into Oxbridge or the US Ivy League. At the bottom of the ladder are children whose parents are too poor to take them to the theatre or on foreign holidays, too unsure and fatigued working at low-paid jobs to supervise homework, and may even be neglectful.
Sandel strongly makes the case that the great US divide in income is closely correlated with college education, or lack of it, what he calls ‘the sorting machine’. He demonstrates how admission to the elite Ivy League US universities opens a fast-track to membership of the top 1% of wealthy individuals in the USA. “The children of poor and working class are about as unlikely to attend Harvard, Yale and Princeton as they were in 1954”, he writes. Attempts are made by universities to counter this sorting machine, companies seek talent irrespective of ‘credentialism’, but little has changed in the US measure of merit over recent decades. Polling has shown an astonishing relationship between voting behaviour and educational attainment. The best predictor of a pro-Trump vote was lack of a college education. And who more adept at connecting with the shame and fury of those who felt themselves despised by a ‘metropolitan elite’, the denizens of the “Washington swamp”.
In Britain, it is a Russell Group university education that opens the door to high-income jobs and provides the Oxbridge credentials for a specially privileged minority within a minority. Only 2% of Oxbridge admissions are white working class children. The 7% of children in private education take about a third of Oxbridge places. The Labour Party is losing the working class to Trump-lite politics while gaining the well-heeled and well educated in big cities. When security and prosperity are the ‘merited’ reward for an elite education, coinciding with years of wage stagnation and low incomes, the anger and humiliation of those who are not financially successful become socially and politically significant.
Sandel argues that poorly paid work and its contribution to society are undervalued in every sense. This began to be recognised when, for instance, during the pandemic bus drivers risked their lives to keep public transport going. If wealth remains the reward for elite education too little consideration is given to the emotions of those who do not attain it. Too little consideration is given to human dignity, to what Sandel calls ‘contributive justice’, being acknowledged as playing a constructive role in society with a voice that is listened to, which social democracy overshadowed by ‘distributive justice’. “Finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due”, he writes. We haven’t earned the attributes we are born and grow up with. We need the humility to acknowledge this. A society based on deliberation about the common good at the heart of its politics, rather than individual consumerism, will encourage practical solidarity. A meritocratic society is not culturally predisposed to do this.
So far, so chastening: Sandel with great gusto is sawing off the branch on which I and many friends have been sitting for the last sixty or more years. The G7 leaders who have been meeting in Cornwall need to have some of Sandel’s critical vision of the future. Just an idle thought but it would be good if after all the self-congratulation they tucked into his book on the way home.
See TheArticle 11/06/2021
Much Cummings but no goings last week. Resignations are so yesterday - reserved for traditionalist civil servants. Sound and fury signifying nothing? No, signifying that suspicions are likely well placed. What more have we learned? What must we do? Here are few suggestions.
Poverty, bad housing and poor nutrition are health issues. The pandemic has highlighted long recognised social causes of ill-health, now linked to ethnicity. Sir Michael Marmot’s seminal work on health inequalities is dramatically affirmed by the skewed social distribution of COVID deaths. Our increasing inequalities are not just deplorable, they are positively dangerous.
First: While the economy is being fixed post-pandemic, social justice must not be an afterthought.
Prevention is not just better than cure, it is a lot less demanding on the public purse. The medical consequences of obesity cost the NHS a fortune and now include the results of enhanced vulnerability to COVID. The cost of another major COVID surge would be ruinous. Changing people’s behaviour is not easy. But smoking has been significantly reduced, people wear seat-belts, and drink-driving brings social censure.
Second: MPs must stop talking about hospitals as if a health service is synonymous with hospital care, and they must back public health.
It was reckless to underfund and overload the NHS leaving no slack in the system to deal with major shocks. Government policy as a result failed to ‘protect the NHS’ in a meaningful sense. It was overwhelmed. The crisis of acute COVID hospital admissions was dealt with by cancelling non-urgent surgery, building up a gigantic backlog, and transferring frail patients into care homes. Without adequate support, under-protected NHS and care-home staff shouldered an intolerable burden. Over 850 NHS staff died from COVID during 2020. There was no ‘protective ring’ around care homes.
Third: Learning from mistakes in our current pandemic, there must be effective pre-planning and resourcing for all types of emergencies.
Changing public behaviour in response to a major pandemic requires trust in those in authority. Lying to people to hide mistakes, coupled with misplaced morale-boosting optimism, destroys trust. This is not Britain in 1940 when sustaining morale was essential for survival. Trust depends on transparency, and competent, timely decision-making, based on government’s willingness to heed expert advice. Experts must not be pressured to give the advice government wants to hear. They are not special beings immune to human failings such as ill-judged deference to authority.
Fourth: To be trusted and gain public compliance in a crisis government policy must be evidence-based and led by expert advice.
A binary opposition between the good of the economy and protection for the public from COVID infection makes little sense. It is, though, relevant for infected low income workers who should have been given government support to quarantine. The Prime Minister and Chancellor opposed lockdowns on economic grounds. It is now commonly accepted that delays in imposing, and over-hasty release from preventive measures, caused thousands of unnecessary deaths. Owing to exponential growth in infection, a two weeks delay can result in two months of far more economically damaging consequences further down the line.
Fifth: Health messages must be clear, evidence-based and err on the side of caution if economic consequences are to be minimised.
Find, test, trace, isolate and support are important ways to reduce transmission of the virus. Local health authorities responsible for public health have the experience, the knowledge and the necessary relationships in their communities to be effective. The farming out of this vital set of responses to SERCO and other private companies was not just a mistake, it was a mistake motivated by ideology. ‘Private Good, Public Bad’ is a belief dear to the Tory back-benches. £37 billion of taxpayers’ money was poured away as a result.
Sixth: The government must adopt a policy of subsidiarity, acknowledging that the most effective level for action is the level nearest to the problem. Action at a higher level should not be taken unless action at a lower level is ineffective.
The UK’s rate of COVID deaths per 100,000 compared to other similar countries is inexcusable. Perhaps a residue of imperial arrogance, there were no signs that those grappling with the COVID unknowns in the early days paid any attention to the experience of Asian countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore. Consultation with them might have quickly knocked ‘herd immunity’ theories on the head.
Seventh: When dealing with an unfamiliar global problem, in this case a pandemic, consult and learn from those who have successfully dealt with one.
Britain has the advantage of being an island and the disadvantage of being a transport hub. Having left the European Union and talked a great deal of nonsense about ‘taking back control of our borders’, the present Government failed to do precisely that. Variants rampant in countries whose governance is even worse than our own are spreading. The Indian variant may be 60% more transmissible. India was put on the ‘red list’ two weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some believe because the Prime Minister wished to visit India in pursuit of a trade deal.
Eighth: Effective border controls and properly monitored isolation of incoming visitors or returnees must be imposed early.
Co-ordination of medical research, promoted by Professor Dame Sally Davies when Chief Medical Officer, 2011-2019, notably by building up a body of expertise on viruses and vaccines, has given the UK a head-start in genome analysis and vaccine production. This was far-sighted thinking within the NHS, a tangible success for public health in Britain. Ministers ought to acknowledge our debt to this preparatory work on vaccine response to COVID, rather than trying to take all the credit for rapid vaccine roll-out in order to deflect attention from their multiple mistakes.
Ninth: Co-ordinated research bringing together the best brains internationally in the field of immunology and vaccines must be encouraged, well-funded and facilitated by government.
The World Health Organisation has never been more needed than today. It has its faults. Like the UN it is only as good as its members and Syria (still led by the brutal Assad regime) is now on its executive board. But the impoverishment and weakness of health systems in the Global South can only be alleviated by international action. This has become dramatically apparent during the pandemic.
Tenth: Starting with the coming G7 meeting, Britain must play a much bigger role in the WHO, especially leading on the dissemination of research findings and supporting centres dedicated to vaccine development and immunology.
The Independent Inquiry announced by the Prime Minister starts in Spring 2022. Dame Deidre Hine who undertook the swine-flu report estimates that it will take at least 2-3 years to complete. Well after the next general election.
See TheArticle 01/06/2021