Right-wing and Left-wing, traditionalist and progressive, are terms often used to describe the nature of the fault lines in contemporary Catholicism. Millions of Catholics, of course, don’t fit these categories. Pope-centred Catholicism of Right-wing traditionalists, loyal to a fault, is fast disappearing. Open opposition to Francis has broken out.
Catholics believe that the Petrine Office, as the name suggests, was first given to the apostle Simon Peter whom the Gospel writers present as a man who made mistakes. By getting it wrong the reader is shown how to get it right. But on the vital faith-defining and definitive question, “Who do you say that I am? “ Peter expresses his faith: “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God” and receives the response “Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church”.
Catholics are traditionally loyal to their popes. On 19 April 2005, the day Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I was homeward bound waiting on Lille-Europe Eurostar platform. A call came from BBC Radio Ulster. Would I comment live in about forty minutes? Should I say what I thought? That the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger perpetuated Eurocentrism within a global Church, or loyally point to him being a pious, principled and sophisticated theologian? The drum-beat of an Ulster Protestant pipe band beat in my head. Or was it just a stress headache? Eurostar saved the day. The train went into the Tunnel.
From the first moments of his papacy in 2013, Pope Francis, Argentinian of Italian origins, personified a global Church. He brought to Rome a manner and direction derived from Latin America. Its piety, theology and “option for the poor” permeated the Ignatian spirituality of his Jesuit training. It showed in his unostentatious life in Rome, in his inclusive, sympathetic treatment of gay people, and in his open-minded approach to other contested issues in the Church. He was fiercely critical of the clericalism and closed culture he encountered in the Vatican. His first visit was to highlight the plight of refugees on Lampedusa. Within four months of his election, Francis was addressing Brazilian bishops in Rio, highlighting the needs of indigenous people, and praising the pastoral work of the Brazilian Church. Two years later in 2015 came his encyclical Laudato Si on care for the planet which established his global standing as a leader of opinion. There was much traditionalist grumbling but no outburst.
Public criticism emerged a year later. Fear of his weakening the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, an internal matter, surfaced four traditionalist Cardinals who sent Francis a letter with five questions, seeking answers. The Pope had deliberately, and unusually, raised an issue without settling it. On 8 April 2016, Francis published Amoris Laetitiae, (The Joy of Love), an ‘apostolic exhortation’ developing his thinking in the light of the recent Synod on the Family, encouraging ‘pastoral mercy’, in other words compassion - or laxity - depending where you stood. This time 19 Cardinals wrote to challenge his approach. And the letter was leaked.
Conflict, which had never gone away, intensified in 2018. A former Vatican ambassador to the USA, Archbishop Carlos Viganò, published a 7,000 word document accusing the Pope of blatant lies and calling for his resignation, a call without precedent. Viganò claimed that Francis knew that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, a prominent US Church leader with access to Presidents, was suspected of sexual abuse of seminarians, and Francis had been culpably slow in forcing him to resign. Viganò went on to blame a homosexual conspiracy which he alleged had taken over the Vatican. An accomplished conspirator himself, he had, whilst the Pope was visiting the USA in September 2015, snared Francis into a meeting with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who had served five days in jail for refusing a court order to issue a marriage licence to a gay couple. The cultural conflicts of the USA were a communications minefield for the Pope. The meeting, of course, hit the headlines. And Francis sacked Viganò.
In the USA right wing electoral politics chime with right wing Church politics. Not long after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis on 25 May, Viganò sent a public letter to President Trump. In it the Archbishop set Black Lives Matter and the Covid Lockdown in an apocalyptic campaign by ‘the children of darkness’ against ‘the children of light’. Dating from the 4th century, this Manichean imagery of spiritual warfare - unconnected to skin colour - illustrated the mental world Viganò inhabits. Trump tweeted in reply that he was “honoured”.
Opposition to Francis in the USA moved on from a call for resignation to political organisation. The US Better Church Governance Group began ‘political opposition research’ scrutinising Cardinals’ records for what they termed a ‘Red Hat Report’. This year, two books both called The Next Pope were published in the USA. One, by the veteran lay conservative, George Weigel, is sub-titled “the office of Peter and the Church in Mission”. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, sent this book to all the world’s 222 Cardinals (124 are eligible to elect the next Pope) thanking the publisher. The rejection of Francis’ entire approach is not too disguised. The other book, by Edward Pentin, is subtitled “the leading Cardinal Candidates”. Pentin is Vatican correspondent for the US National Catholic Register – linked to the Republican religious mouthpiece, Eternal Word Television Network, ETWN. And the leading candidates are 19 Cardinals opposed to Francis. Do none recognise the inappropriateness of this démarche?
The right wing of the Catholic Church has learnt lessons on impropriety from US secular politicians. Viganò writes of the “deep Church…. that betrays its duties and forswears its proper commitments before God”, the invisible enemy within, modelled on the “deep State”. You would be forgiven for thinking that the Republican/Catholic Right coalition can’t wait for the Pope to die and that their aim is to control the election of the next Pope. The traditionalist view used to be that this was the role of the Holy Spirit in the papal conclave.
The Catholic Left is often charged with ‘meddling in politics’. But they remained loyal over the years despite censure. The American Catholic Right has binned traditional loyalty. It is now introducing the methodology of politics as well as the ideology of the Right into the Church.
Francis will be 84 on 17 December. Ad multos annos.
See TheArticle 28/07/2020
the poisonous states
The surreal poisoning of the Skripals in March 2018 shocked Britain. I became aware of the threat of nerve agents in 1989 after apartheid police, using Paraoxon (made from the lethal insecticide Parathion), attempted to assassinate a friend of mine, Reverend Frank Chikane, then general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches. It later emerged his murder was signed off by the Police Minister, Adriaan Vlok.
Frank was a victim of Project Coast the regime’s secret biological and chemical warfare unit led by a sinister cardiologist, Dr. Wouter Basson. During a visit to Namibia, to ensure maximal absorption through the skin, a set of his underwear was impregnated with lethal organophosphate nerve agent. After recovering in South Africa, Frank paid an official visit to the USA and went to Madison to see his wife at University of Wisconsin. Here he suffered again from outbreaks of vomiting, loss of muscle control and acute respiratory problems. He would have died had he not been admitted to St. Mary’s, the University Hospital. The FBI analysed his clothes and found Paraoxon. Swift treatment saved him.
Frank played a leading part in the story of Christian participation in the struggle against apartheid. He was close to Nelson Mandela and later became Director-General in the Presidency, Thabo Mbeki’s chef de cabinet. But he was also part of another story, that of States manufacturing nerve agents, a class of poisons known as ‘cholinergic’: inhibitors of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which destroys the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and cause disruption of the entire nervous system with dire consequences. Parathion, an early cholinergic poison, was first made as an insecticide in Nazi Germany during the Second World War by Dr. Gerhard Schrader.
In 1938, Schrader inserted cyanide into an organophosphate creating a new compound. In his recently published and authoritative Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents , From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia Dan Kaszeta writes that “a quantity as small as one thirtieth of a grain of rice could kill a (experimental) Barbary macaque”. The Nazis had other targets than monkeys in mind. With the help of Otto Ambros, an executive of the chemical conglomerate IG Farben, and the Wehrmacht’s chemical warfare unit, ‘Tabun’ (taboo), as it was nicknamed, joined Mustard Gas and Phosgene in the armoury of the Third Reich.
By inserting a fluorine atom instead, Schrader hit the Nazi jackpot. The new compound created was highly toxic, odourless and more easily volatilised. It killed rapidly by inhalation rather than contaminating ground like the ‘persistent’ Tabun. In the right conditions a kilogramme could kill many thousands of enemy troops. And your own troops were able to advance. Enter ‘Sarin’ - still in use today.
It was one thing to make a small quantity of nerve agent in the laboratory, quite another to mass produce it. Manufacture demanded complex fabrication of precursors, sequentially creating new contaminants. Nerve agents proved deeply corrosive, due to impurities or reactivity and so difficult to deliver whether in a bomb, a rocket or from aerial spray tanks. Millions of deutschmarks were spent on building different production sites.
Finally the Nazis had a stockpile of Tabun. But Hitler was afraid that the Allied had the capacity to retaliate with even more sophisticated chemical weapons. Otto Ambros, production kingpin, informed him that the Allied programme was probably advanced. He was wrong. And Hitler was deterred.
During the Cold War both sides made similar miscalculations about the enemy’s capacity. The Allies had seized most of the Nazi chemical scientists but encountered the same problems of mass production and delivery. Nuclear weapons dominated the strategic landscape. In 1969, President Nixon shut down US production of a potent new British-developed agent, VX.
After the Cold War ended, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 29 April 1997 prohibiting production – including precursors – stockpiling and use was one of its first fruits. 193 countries have signed and ratified the Convention. Israel signed but has not ratified. North Korea, Egypt - with a longstanding production programme - and South Sudan have not signed. After 1997, about 96% of chemical weapons were subsequently destroyed. The threat of nerve agents seemed to recede.
Saddam Hussein possessed Tabun, Sarin and VX. During the war with Iran he had used nerve agents in March 1988 against Iraq’s Kurdish population at Halabja, killing between 3,200-5,000 people with 7,000-10,000 injured, mainly civilians. He also used Mustard Gas on Iranian troops. The slaughter of Kurdish civilians in Halabja, an act of State terrorism, became the model later adopted by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in massacres in Khan Shaykun and al-Lataminah and at Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Nothing sophisticated: bomb civilians into underground cellars, drop bombs containing Sarin, heavier than air to seep into their shelters, bomb them again when they emerge confused, gasping for air, and dying.
In Toxic, Kaszeta attempts to explain Russia’s flagrant use in the UK of A232, a Novichok (literally ‘newcomer’) from their Foliant Programme. It returns us to apartheid’s Dr. Wouter Basson, and National Security States’ belief that they can do anything they like. As in Frank Chikane’s case, absorption of the poison was through the skin and onset of symptoms took time. Early administration of Atropine reverses the action of the nerve agent. The Skripals survived. Dawn Sturgess who found the perfume bottle used by the two Russian GRU assassins was sadly not so lucky.
However difficult the manufacture of nerve agents they are not guaranteed to remain in the hands of State actors. In March 1995, an apocalyptic cult, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyô, made a crude but deadly Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Underground. The movement actually had ‘ministries’, behaved as if it were a state within a state, and employed skilled members. It managed to make a small amount of impure Sarin, enough to kill twelve people and severely injure fifty more, with 1,000 others showing symptoms.
One final disturbing thought. International order is weakening. North Korea has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Kim Jong-il has already used VX to murder his brother Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. And there are a number of terrorist organisations which would only be too happy to buy some. We should be grateful for the advanced research on treatment and counter-measures that Porton Down provides.
See also The Article 20/07/20
Persia figures strongly in Western Europe’s imagination. We know it as an ancient great Middle Eastern Empire, the liberator of the Israelites, the enemy of the Greeks. And a coup planned and executed by Britain and the USA against its Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, ensuring enmity for decades.
My own first experience of Iran’s political culture was as a member of a delegation. The meeting was to negotiate the restoration of some property confiscated after the 1979 revolution. It took place in Tehran. A senior Hujjatu-l-Islam, one rank below Ayatollah, was presiding. We sat in a half-circle. Respectfully we focussed our well-rehearsed brief on him, though he wasn’t forthcoming. The occasion was stiff and formal. All were smartly dressed. Except that is for a man in his thirties in jeans lounging opposite me.
Translation slowed discussions. We were getting nowhere when suddenly, the lounger straightened up and in near perfect English explained how we needed to understand that this was a difficult and sensitive subject. And so on. I assumed he was from the intelligence services. We’d been addressing the wrong part of the Iranian governmental system.
The second was when the Iranian embassy in London invited me to visit them. I’d published an article on Iran. I thought it had been balanced: human rights violations mentioned alongside the Iranian casualties in their fight against the drugs trade. To lighten the story I’d ended with my failure to find two newly announced traditionally dressed Iranian dolls, male and female, in the Tehran bazaar. There were only Barbies whom these new, official, dolls were meant to replace.
I was ushered into a very large hall furnished only with a table and a pot of flowers where I assumed the microphone was placed - and two chairs. Here I was gently upbraided for my article’s ‘typical’ anti-Iranian attitude, with sighs at how Iran suffered from such misunderstandings. I awaited my ‘entry-refused’ papers. Instead my host reached under the table, produced Sara and Dara, the two official Iranian dolls wearing traditional Persian dress and presented them to me. Wrong again.
I remembered the traditional dolls when I watched Samira Ahmed’s wonderful recent three part series, Art of Persia on BBC4. Remarkably she had got permission to film in Iran and had criss-crossed the country in pursuit of its pre-Islamic as well as Islamic cultural heritage. I felt resentful that on our officially guided visits we had only seen Isfahan’s beautiful central square with the exquisite early 17th century Shah (Abbas) Mosque (renamed Imam Mosque). We had to insist on visiting the Armenian Christian community in Isfahan’s Jolfa quarter. Official visits and delegations were tightly controlled by the Iranian government.
Art of Persia revealed an Iran that I’d missed by talking just to Shi’ite scholars, especially the poetry. Poetry above all has sustained Iranians’ sense of themselves as a nation with their own moral and cultural priorities. Ferdowsi’s national epic poem Shahnameh, written between 977-1010 is Persia’s founding epic and intended to be so. Its mythical and semi-historical stories of Persia’s heroic kings and princes like Rostam and Sohrab, their failings and successes, the epic battles before the arrival of Islam, are both reading for generations of children and performed in public for adults. Wonderful new editions of the Shahnameh illustrated by miniaturists in stunning detail and colour followed. They established miniature painting as one of Persia’s artistic jewels, a tradition that lives on today.
As seen through the eyes of Samira Ahmed, Persia produced at least one outstanding poet per century. Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131, came from a major centre of Zoroastrian religion, Nishapur. His Rubiyat, well known in the West after Edward Fitzgerald’s translation in 1859, touched much of human experience, fear, regret, doubt, and the need to escape from the quest for material pleasures. Saadi, 1210-1291, born in Shiraz, wrote in the same national tradition. His Bustan, The Orchard, illustrates virtues such as justice, modesty, magnanimity, and contentment, and has been compared to La Fontaine’s fables. Golestan, The Rose Garden, has chapters on love and youth, on weakness and old age and on the advantages of silence. In the 14th. Century comes Hafez who lauded the joys of love and wine and targeted religious hypocrisy.
President Obama quoted Saadi in a video message on Iran’s national day, Nowuz, in 2009: “The Children of Adam are members of a whole, since in their creation they are one essence” (there are numerous translations). President Rouhani tweeted the same message at Nowuz in 2014. Was there mutual understanding of this cultural signalling. Who knows?
Art of Persia highlights the staying power of Persian identity derived from its culture. Rulers might change, Mongol hordes from the steppes might conquer, but all at some point had to come to terms, to assimilate themselves to some degree, to become Persian. The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Palavi, both mistrusted and tried to use this cultural heritage. In 1967, he staged a lavish party to celebrate his crowning as Shahanshah, King of Kings, Cyrus the Great’s title 2,500 years ago, liberator of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Iranians were not amused. Punished by opposition from a pious Shi’a community to his social reforms, and hated because of the torturers in his intelligence service, SAVAK, he paid the price twelve years later. The austere, avenging puritan Ayatollah Khomenei returned.
Iran today is a divided country, divided by the required strictness of religious adherence, most notably between rich and poor, with young and old rejecting puritanism and the repression of the velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the clerics. If you think you understand the complex interactions within government and civil society between Iran’s powerful nationalism, religion, poetry and culture, you are almost certainly wrong.
And do we really understand our own society and cultures? Art of Persia carries some lessons here. Poetry and the Arts configure the soul of a nation. The BBC produces outstanding cultural programmes with two types of presenter, the Mary Beard expert and the Samira Ahmed journalist both bringing a passionate engagement to their task. The BBC is a great promoter of our own Arts. Rishi Sunak’s £1.57 billion life support for our Arts, large and small, national and local, is timely. It will play an important part in our nation’s recovery.
See TheArticle 10/07/20
July 10th, 2020
One in Four American adults identify as a born-again or evangelical Christian. At 22% of the population Roman Catholics are almost as numerous. An insidious US Christian nationalism is abroad. Religious influences amongst almost half the voting population in November 2020 will matter.
Exit polls at the 2016 Presidential election, commissioned by the respected Pew Foundation, showed 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump; for White Catholics it was 60% and Hispanic Catholics 26%. Compared with Obama in 2012, Hillary Clinton lost between 3-8% of such voters. Overall, Trump’s White Christian vote was older, poorer and less educated. His support increased with reported frequency of church attendance. Piety can be plausibly linked to voter behaviour.
How, you might ask, can this be? Does the Christianity of White America make no difference to the kind of person sought as President? Not entirely. Two thirds of White Catholics in a March 2020 Brookings survey thought that the statement Trump ‘fights for what I believe in’ corresponded well, or fairly well, with their beliefs, notably about abortion and gay marriage. They also believed they were winning the ‘culture wars’, but unsurprisingly had mixed feelings about Trump’s personal conduct. But evangelicals tended to discount his conduct on grounds that God often chose flawed people for his purposes. Some, echoing Israel’s Netanyahu, compared Trump to Cyrus the Great who liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity some 2,500 years ago.
In America’s swing States the percentage of evangelicals becomes important: 29% in Florida and Rust Belt Ohio and 25% in Michigan. In 2016 Trump won Michigan by less than 50,000 votes. A recent poll in North Carolina where 35% of the population are evangelicals showed voter intentions are complex. Participants were asked about a range of issues, including healthcare, environment, immigration and gun control. On abortion 63% of evangelicals preferred the Republican Party compared with 36% of non-evangelicals, but this did not necessarily translate into Party registration. A significant number of evangelicals who voted Democrat preferred the Republican position on abortion. And this creates vulnerability for Catholic Joe Biden who performed a U-turn to support ‘reproductive rights’ to win the Democratic Party nomination.
Benefiting from voter preferences may be behind the nine Republican States - seven of them in the South - pushing through restrictive abortion laws in 2019. Some, the ‘heart-beat bills’ aimed at ending abortions after 6-8 weeks. But photo-ops of Mr. Trump brandishing a Bible and eyes shut as pastors prayed with him may not be entirely cynical. Trump watches a lot of television and in 2002 learned about the Prosperity Gospel from the televangelist Paula White. At the time, he was buying prime real estate with the multi-million inheritance from his father. The Prosperity Gospel with its promise of faith bringing rich financial rewards rang a bell. A firm believer in spiritual warfare, with demons later manifesting in anti-Trump activists, Paula White undertook Bible readings with him. In 2017 she delivered the invocation at Trump’s inauguration then, in October 2019, he appointed her to lead his White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.
Evangelical voters also explain why Trump’s public support for Netanyahu, the symbolic move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and his partisan ‘peace plan’, all aimed at Jewish voters, appealed to a further audience. Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an umbrella body founded in 2006 by John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone church in San Antonio, Texas, claims some seven million members. In Jerusalem Countdown published in 2007, Hagee plays on the Christian Zionist theme of Armageddon, the final battle being fought out in Jerusalem with, according to him, the head of EU as the anti-Christ. Hagee also calls for a pre-emptive strike on Iran as a precondition for the desired Second Coming of Christ. Though CUFI has since tried to move away from such eschatology. Here is Vice-President Pence’s speaking to CUFI about Trump: “a president who is fighting every single day to defend faith, restore freedom, and strengthen America’s unbreakable bond with our most cherished ally, Israel”. Not so much a dog-whistle, more a clarion call.
US evangelicals cut across denominations and are far from homogenous in their beliefs and political attitudes. Many are traditionally compassionate in their social attitudes. There are also rising numbers of politically engaged groups of ‘progressive’ US evangelicals who point to work for social justice and peace as central to the Gospel message: for example Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, magazine and community, whose mission since 1971 is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice”, Dr. Rick Warren pastor of the 30,000-strong Saddleback megachurch in California whose global peace plan to promote social justice was launched in 2005, and Vote Common Good started in 2018. Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice represent another strand. Each wing of the evangelical movement has its advocacy groups, pastoral action, think-tanks and publications. But there is no denying that the evangelical infrastructure supporting Trump, with its thousands of radio stations and televangelists, is part of the biggest religious ecosystem in the USA today, and represents the highest level of political organisation and ambition, promoting a Christian nationalism sometimes synonymous with White Nationalism.
How will the Trump campaign play these final six months? He’s in trouble with Coronavirus and his reaction to Black Lives Matter, trailing Biden. His evangelical vote dropped 15% from March to May and Catholic support by a hefty 23%. He has been hitting the conservative evangelical Christian Broadcasting network and the Catholic EWTN (Eternal Word Broadcasting network) last week. Will Trump star in TV ads as saviour of America’s soul, a – flawed – Emperor Constantine? Too risky. But there will surely be a Cambridge Analytica- style deployment of extensive mined data targeted on evangelical voters. Evangelical and Catholic Democrats who show the strongest signs of approval of Republican positions on abortion and gay marriage will be digitally singled out for attention. Older black and Hispanic Christians, possibly detachable from Biden, will be wooed.
It’s dangerous. The evangelicals in Trump’s court erode the separation of Church and State. Appeals to religious ideals and emotions are powerful and rarely yield to fact and argument. In a concerted, powerfully appealing ecumenical response, US Church leaders must clearly, passionately and theologically counter the Christian nationalist power seekers who support Trump. He fights not for evangelicals, not for Christian values, but for himself, bringing shame on America.