We are all worried about the future and how to stay optimistic, or should it be hopeful? We have plenty to worry about. Currently top of the league for recorded Coronavirus infections is the USA followed by Russia. Brazil has jumped to third place. Astute observers may notice similarities between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, though finding exactly the right word to describe what their leadership has in common is difficult. Shall we just say they are not noted for their overwhelming concern for the welfare of their citizens, nor for their moral scruples. So it is disturbing to find the UK in fourth place. If we use a different measure, Coronavirus deaths per 100,000 , only Belgium and Spain, comparable democracies with a slightly higher median age than UK, are ahead of us. Germany, with a higher median age is way below. Anxiety is justified.
Of course, recorded infections depend on population size, demography and the amount of testing done. But the overall picture puts Britain in a bad light; according to the Financial Times today, in the most reliable measure Britain is the worst in Europe and second only to the USA globally for excess deaths (the increased mortality - above the usual for the period - during the pandemic to date). If we think about our future it is hard to be optimistic. Yet, perhaps a comforting ritual for some, at the end of television interviews with the scientific experts comes the standard question: “So are you optimistic?” and what seems to be the required answer “Yes”. By this they do not mean, as did the 17th century German Enlightenment philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz, that we live in the best of all God-created worlds, or that imperfections in it are designed to draw us towards what is truly good. They mean that the belief in human ingenuity and scientific wisdom, in short, the diffuse idea of ‘progress’, now interrupted, will resume its onward course.
The problem with faith in progress is that scientific knowledge does not bring about change in a vacuum. Things, events, people get in the way. Chinese bureaucrats in Wuhan terrified of being the bearers of bad news to the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party initially supressed and punished the scientific expertise that identified a potential pandemic. British government ministers became so immersed in the task of leaving the European Union that they neglected the necessary measures set out by ‘the science’ for preparing for a pandemic. We are not automatically drawn towards what is truly good or rational but towards immediate competition for scarce resources (PPEs, vaccines), in a narrow nationalism in which there is one rule for the rich and the governing elite and another for the people, and yet another for foreigners. We know it doesn’t have to be like this. We hope for something better.
In this national and global crisis, we want to talk about our present predicament and our future, to hope, but we have lost the language for such a discussion. An important missing ingredient for the discussion is our formerly Christian understanding of what it means to be human. We no longer speak of bad actions, of evil or sin. Instead we make do with ‘misspeaking’ rather than lies, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘mistakes’ rather than intentional acts of deceit or criminality. If actions are really bad we resort to semi-therapeutic words such as ‘sociopathic’. We hardly speak of what a good person or a good society is like. We end up with political leadership being the art of appearing to care about society’s wellbeing.
Being optimistic while equipped only with our etiolated repertoire of moral language and with unchecked governments realising their propensity to use power for bad purposes, is not rational. We need more than scientific rigour. We need to talk about the cultivation of virtue and the purification of desire and we need these habits of mind to be qualifiers for public office. If you baulk at Christian discourse on the nature of true leadership call it integrity if you like, but it is a prerequisite for sustaining genuine hope. The absence of these qualities, or the absence of majority public concern about them, must not be taken as a political given within a secular culture.
Hope, in its realism and refusal to despair but act, not knee-jerk optimism, is the ‘appropriate’ virtue for these times. Hope contains an element of desire for the good, or Common Good, and a – theological – sense of expectation (understanding that the hoped-for future is not going to come by human agency and human desire and expectation alone). For hope to be rational it will inevitably be a hoping against hope, for example, to imagine after Coronavirus a more just and peaceful world with leaders who care effectively for the planet. And who could disagree with that in a world which automatically dismisses the political implementation of such an idea as utopian, a world dominated by two superpowers and one wannabe-again superpower led by Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. Those who have got into the habit of hoping also have reason to agree with another kind of leader, Nelson Mandela. “It always seems impossible until it is done”, he once said, most reasonably. He was speaking not abstractly but from his own experience of leadership and of hope.
See The Article 28/05/20 "How to be Hopeful"
Imagine being a historian with the Vatican Archives, 1939-1948, opened by the Pope, shut again a week later? That’s what happened in early March this year as Italy went into COVID lockdown. The tens of thousands of unexamined boxes promised insights into the Vatican’s relationship with Nazi Germany, European Jewish communities and the US intelligence agencies, and above all, the silence of Pope Pius XII on the holocaust. But it will be many months before the archives are opened again.
Meanwhile Tom Heneghan of the Washington Post, the Reverend Professor Hubert Wolf, an enterprising and well-prepared historian from the University of Munster, with a team of seven members of his theology faculty, studied some 120 documents, speed-dating with past Vatican officials. A week’s research produced - unsurprisingly - not a great deal: just enough for an article from Father Hubert in Die Zeit Weekly, 22 April , which was first picked up by the Israeli Haaretz and The Times of Israel, and a piece for the religious press by Heneghan. Neither Wolf nor Heneghan felt that, after waiting 75 years, it might be better to wait a while longer before rushing into print.
But Father Hubert has a track record for spotting a good story when he sees one. His 2015 book The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio delved into an astonishing mid 19th century scandal. Translated as Le Vice et la Grace, as the French title suggests it featured sex and mysticism with murder thrown in for good measure. He must be a popular lecturer.
The story that emerged from the archives to date is essentially as follows. On 27 September 1942, Myron Charles Taylor, President Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Pope, delivered into Pius XII’s hands a report on the mass killing of Jews in Poland, in the Warsaw ghetto and in Lviv (Lemburg). The report had come originally from the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Geneva; the US was seeking confirmation from Vatican sources. The US also hoped the Pope would denounce the deportations, concentration camps and killings. On 10 October the Vatican replied that it had heard of such Polish reports but had no way of verifying the information. But the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptytsky, had brought earlier reports to Rome, and an Italian businessman had brought three photographs and described the terrible slaughter to Monsignor Giovanni Montini, future Pope Paul VI, at that time working in the Secretariat of State. Fr. Hubert unearthed some papal advisers’ reactions indicating that they thought the reports might be exaggerated. Were they in denial? In genuine uncertainty? Or looking for an excuse not to commit? Who knows.
On December 17th 1942, acting on further information provided by the Polish Government in exile in London in a Report, The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland, the USA, Britain, Soviet Union, and ten other allied governments, issued a Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations. They wrote of the ‘bestial policy of extermination’, but Foreign Secretary Antony Eden, informing Parliament, in carefully crafted language cast doubt on whether anything could be done about it.
Then Pius XII, towards the end of an overlong 1942 Christmas Message, cast in customary turgid Vaticanese, spoke about the “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to their deaths or to a slow decline”. He did not mention the Nazis or the Jews by name. But there wasn’t much doubt to whom he was referring. Berlin would have got the message. Hans Frank, a Nazi General hanged at Nuremberg, had as the Governor General of Polish Galicia in August 1942 sent 50,000 Jews from Lviv to the extermination camp at Belzec. Heavy Allied bombing of German industrial plant and civilian areas had begun in 1942 and, safeguarding Vatican neutrality, Pope Pius also voiced concern for the victims of aerial bombardments.
What are we to make of the work of the University of Munster’s team? Was the Haaretz headline “Pius XII deliberately ignored report on the Holocaust” fair comment? The Pope had indeed remained silent about the Polish holocaust until Christmas. But his silence is the longstanding bone of contention, the conundrum, not breaking news. Remember the furore about John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope? Hubert’s recent findings don’t add very much to our understanding.
Following Pope Benedict XV who described the First World War, as ‘the suicide of civilized Europe’ and tried to mediate, Pius XII continued the Vatican policy of neutrality. A key adviser to the Pope, Monsignor Angelo dell Acqua, thought the American demarche was political rather than humanitarian in intent; they had to be careful not to jeopardize Vatican neutrality. A joint Jewish-Catholic team of historians, with no access to key the sealed documents, reported in 2000 that it was not clear if the Vatican realised that the mass killings were the implementation of a planned extermination of the Jews, “the final solution”, genocide. Calculations are not exact but some six million Poles died in the Second World War, three million of them Jews. The inter-faith team of historians could only wonder whether in 1942 there was any clear sense in the Vatican that they were watching the planned total extermination of the Jews, rather than Jews bearing the brunt of killings which included the disabled, the mentally incapacitated, homosexuals, opponents of the Nazis, the Roma and ‘inferior races/nationalities’. Though it is hard to understand the latter as anything other than a reference to genocide by another name.
Apologists for Pius XII and his unwillingness to unreservedly support the Allied denunciation of the extermination of the Jews still stress his aim of protecting the Church and his fear of making the situation worse. The Pope’s caution made little difference on the ground. Over 400 Polish Catholic priests were killed between Dachau opening in 1933 and VE Day. Bishops in Nazi-occupied countries who denounced the rounding up and deportation of Jews to their deaths fared better. For example, Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas of Montauban, just north of Toulouse, was arrested by the Gestapo for helping French Jewish communities and promulgating a pastoral letter protesting deportations. He was released after ten weeks. He became President of the newly formed Pax Christi in 1945, and was later honoured by Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust, as Righteous among the Nations.
The poignant stories of ordinary Catholics across Europe, and in Rome itself, who sheltered Jews and helped them escape should not be used as a counterweight to the failings of the Pope or his poor judgement. Nor to excuse those Vatican officials who shared the contemporary, demeaning to damaging, stereotyping of ‘races and nations’, stereotypes that today leave them open to the charge of antisemitism. The heroism and martyrdom of lay Catholics should be allowed to speak for itself. The archives will speak for the Vatican. We will have to wait until the archives are re-opened to find out whether they shed more light or leave us no less perplexed and saddened than today.
“The Church seems to have mobilised no-one”. The NHS is our “new national religion”. These two repeated refrains in the media from many who should know better, in different ways, disparage the Churches’ response to the Coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to Christian institutions and their leaders the gloves seem to come off. Is this a bi-product of pervasive anxiety about the pandemic and anger at our plight? Or is discussion of religion a hallowed exception to the convention that words have meaning while conclusions and criticism should be based on evidence, analysis and study?
The NHS does embody, and embodied, the values of care, compassion and human equality shared with the Churches – in a predominantly secular country. Some months ago in a blog, I described the NHS as the most important custodian of, what was then, the subject of considerable public debate about ‘British values’ and thus national identity. That does not make the NHS a ‘new national religion’ - unless the word religion is voided of much of its content. We do not call British troops who have died in combat in the Middle East in poorly armoured vehicles martyrs. We call them heroes just as we call NHS staff, and others, who die in the course of putting themselves in danger, doing their job courageously with inadequate protective equipment, heroes.
True, it is remarkable that the NHS still manages to embody and express British values in the eyes of the public given the pressures put on it in the last decade. It is doubtful that the upper reaches of the Conservative Party really share this view of the NHS. Andrew Lansley as Minister of Health, thanks to the lazy, hands-off acquiescence of Prime Minister David Cameron, was allowed to waste some £4 billion making his destructive mark on the NHS. Out of sight of the general public Lansley dismantled health planning structures, causing several years of chaos, in order to hand over hospital commissioning to GPs. Community care and GP services, the key to good health care, were starved of funding; life expectancy, a recognised measure of health services’ effectiveness, particularly amongst the poorest, began to decline.
After 2010, austerity, underfunding and rising demand accompanied culpably inadequate recruitment of additional nurses and doctors to replace those retiring. Then came the massive distraction of BREXIT ushering in an inexperienced, incompetent and unprepared Cabinet. We now know the consequences. The public, had it been given the full picture, would have had reason to doubt that the Conservatives cherished and relied on the NHS as much as they did. But the Labour opposition was too busy opposing itself. The wonder is that the public and, with great heroism, health and care workers, have managed to cling to the values embodied by the beleaguered NHS at this time of crisis and after this battering. A million people offered their help as volunteer responders with others turned away.
One reason for the failure to acknowledge the extensive pastoral work of the Churches undertaken by small active groups of Christians and Christian-inspired organisations, such a Church Action on Poverty, is that it is below the radar, one which detects only weighty ecclesiastical bodies. The absence of religious correspondents from the staff of nearly all newspapers is a contingent contributory reason. Only Popes, Archbishops, and Cardinals, on the move or speaking out, especially when the media consider they have a right to be saying something, for example at Easter and Christmas, gain attention. And they have been accused of not being sufficiently prominent in making comforting pronouncements about the pandemic. Yet this is clearly a time in which “preach the Gospel with all your heart and mind and sometimes use words” applies.
The under-reported reality is a permanent and formidable mobilisation of Christians working in what might be called the informal hospitality sector. Food banks, hot meals from church kitchens and night shelters in parish halls for the homeless, are now so commonplace they have become unnoticed. Another invisible mobilisation is that of the already existing chaplains - from different faith communities - visiting prisons, hospitals and care homes. Then there are the Christian volunteers making sure the elderly living alone are provided for at the level of material and social needs. The ecumenical YourNeighbour.org, for example, is a support hub linking people to a thousand churches responding to local needs created by Coronavirus. And you can add to this the Churches’ continuing work with trafficked people and refugees who are even more vulnerable to levels of exploitation and infection at present.
Thousands of Catholics will be reading the following, or similar words,in parochial newsletters and bulletins this week linking them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society: “SVP - CORONAVIRUS OUTREACH: As this crisis escalates, we want to provide our parishioners with as much support as possible. If you are self-isolating and need assistance with shopping, collecting prescriptions, transport, chores at home or any other tasks, please call our parish SVP phone number and we will organise assistance”.
Scorn is easily poured on the Christian preoccupation with creating ‘community’ but it’s difficult to find another word to describe the groupings of people coming together from different walks of life to keep the poor and disadvantaged alive during the pandemic, local Councils, business leaders, faith communities. Try, for example, the Blackpool Network of Churches now producing three meals a day for 80 people in Operation Need to Feed. Multiply by several hundred for similar work in which the Churches deploy their assets and play an important part around the country. What is that if not community action? And why should there be virtue in the Church ‘going it alone’.
A notable and positive thing about this terrible pandemic is the bringing together of people with outstanding, and sometimes heroic, secular values with people from faith communities reared in different religious ethical traditions. “I’ve been inspired by how our Christian community has responded to this crisis” London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said at Easter. Tendentious, superior jeering at the Church of England, a favourite target, merely perpetuates the tired and facile secular-versus religious divide. When people act for the Common Good, divisions fall away…. That is if they aren’t carelessly promoted.
Every day at 5pm it’s our national Unhappy Hour. The brave and vigilant watch the Coronavirus Daily Update in fascination, shock, sadness and, for some, scepticism. Next to a government Minister who will be “following the science” we may now find a senior Public Health behavioural scientist. Behavioural science is in the news.
For a variety of reasons, many people want to understand, predict and change human behaviour: military strategists, advertising agencies, and political Parties to name a few. Whether or not the knowledge accumulated from a century of experiments on human behaviour is enough to qualify as a science is a moot point. Were it a science, you might expect behavioural scientists to have become millionaires from buying and selling shares, playing poker, or even being successful at profiling serial killers. They aren’t rich and they don’t identify killers as portrayed in the movies. In reality the human sciences find it difficult to produce hard metrics that might point to controlling or predicting people’s behaviour. They have not achieved, for example, anything equivalent to measuring the length of a Coronavirus’ RNA – it’s much longer than that of most viruses - or plotting a space-craft’s trajectory to Saturn. Instead many of us are left with the impression that generalities about human behaviour can be generally unhelpful.
Individual human beings are different. We all recognise that. And we also know that individuals behave differently to groups. People share different cultures which may weight different characteristics and values differently influencing how individuals act. And groups of human beings present different characteristics from each other, some of which can be important, not least susceptibility to different maladies, sickle-cell anaemia or diabetes for example, or living in different sized family groups. The differences are shockingly illustrated by the high death rates from Coronavirus amongst British BAME. Disentangling the causes will be complex.
The biggest established group difference in mortality from Coronavirus is that between rich and poor which means that ‘morbidity’, the rate of disease in a particular community or population, has as much to do with political choices as individual behaviour. This fact, well known and acknowledged in Public Health, has become disturbingly clear to more people thanks to quantitative reporting and analysis of deaths and infections during the pandemic.
Predictions about the reaction of the British public when asked to stay at home and socially distance were incorrect: this misreading seems to have resulted initially in an assumption that the period of lock-down had to be minimal or people would revolt - consequently lock-down was disastrously delayed and infection built up. This is not the wisdom of hindsight. In early March when Northern Italy was getting into serious trouble, how could the Prime Minister have stayed unaware of the gravity of the situation and the potential exponential spread of the virus? Was the government fearful of the implications of people not “following the science” or were they simply choosing from amongst a range of policy responses provided by behavioural scientists? Was the Cabinet too pre-occupied with the economic consequences? The subsequent rules, to stay at home, for weeks, legally enforceable by the police, were hardly an example of “nudging”, using material or social rewards or mild forfeits, to get people to do the right thing. All very mysterious, which is the way government, unchallenged, likes it.
Government’s preventative health policies are not decided in a vacuum. Reducing smoking took years of persuasion, public education, support for quitters, restrictions on marketing and then legislation. All in the face of opposition from the tobacco industry and smokers. Similarly tackling the obesity epidemic, reducing alcohol and sugar consumption, was and is resisted by corporate interests. Up against such odds - and business is already lobbying for an immediate end to lockdown - the smartest of the behavioural scientists faces a daunting task. Meanwhile government can, and does, finesse the problem of the pressure on the NHS by blaming all those who inconveniently live into their 80s and acquire ‘co-morbidities’. And more recently on the scandalous death toll in Care Homes on ‘comings and goings’ – such as the staff.
Now the benighted behavioural scientists are called on to advise about messaging in preparation for the unlock-down. This means finding a way to get the people who are not designated key workers and not in fear of destitution, and who have been encouraged to return to work, to choose to do so. But how to calm public fears and how to differentiate messaging to different groups while at the same time avoiding confusion? How to change behaviour without compulsion? On this occasion we can expect some nugatory nudging; fear of death has concentrated the mind and the British public will decide for itself.
Understanding, predicting and changing public behaviour in response to the threat of coronavirus infection is now at the centre of the political stage. But behaviour is not hard science; it’s often a matter of well or ill-informed opinion. And opinions conflict.
How the public is now going to respond is a matter of contested opinion. The public’s response to the forthcoming government messages will not be determined solely by their content and repetition but by trust, or distrust, of the government, the assessment of its competence or incompetence. Knowing how crucial trust is, Sir Keir Starmer’s approach as Leader of the Opposition has been cautious, or as he terms it, “responsible”. Governments’ relative past failure to heed health messages, their neglect of strong regulation of the food and alcohol industry by appropriate legislation, as well as neglect of creating capacity for the mass manufacture of vaccines, is history. And the Leader of the Opposition is unlikely ever to get a straight answer from the Prime Minister to his question “how on earth did it come to this”.
See also TheArticle 06/05/2020
Traditionally today is May Day, the Workers’ Day. Though it has somehow got moved to May 8th. For almost 135 years the Catholic Church has officially been a seemingly improbable advocate of workers’ rights. Repudiation of Socialism and socialist thinking, partly explain Pope Leo XIII’s famous landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (The Condition of the Working Class) published in 1891. But, with genuine concern for the plight of workers in industrial societies, the Pope proposed what today is called “a living wage”, and put the Vatican’s support behind “workingmen’s unions and associations”, our trades unions. This kind of advocacy of what amounted to workers’ rights was new to Popes.
Until the 1950s, the Vatican saw the ‘social problem’ as essentially a matter of individual behaviour, the relations between employers and employees, between capitalists and labour. The deployment of Christian virtues by both sides, the fulfilment of their reciprocal duties, would bring just socio-economic relationships and a harmonious society. The Church recognised the class structure of industrial society; Marxism was primarily anathema because it promoted atheism and secondarily because of the way it promoted class conflict whilst the Church’s goal was social harmony and order.
The French Revolution’s attack on the Church sowed fear of revolution in general. But in his 1839 pamphlet On Modern Slavery, the remarkable French Abbé and philosopher, Félicité de Lamennais, later to leave the priesthood under Vatican censure, placed the abject dependence of the proletariat on Capital at the heart of social concern. The Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s subsequent ruthless elimination of religion and religious leaders and believers created the further fear of what communism and dialectical materialism meant in practice. For the Church, it confirmed its fear of the proletariat, or at least, the anti-clericalism of revolutionary movements. It became imperative elsewhere not to “lose the working class”, or rather to try to regain it. Only genuine, religiously motivated, concern for workers’ rights and pastoral concern for their human dignity could achieve that. Communism came to sum up for Rome what the Church must combat in its social teaching and practice.
The Church’s rejection of class conflict was in many ways self-defeating. The industrial era had generated a class differentiated society, each class with its different milieu or culture. The Church’s pastoral strategy needed to acknowledge and understand how these different milieux functioned, their language, values, demands, and expectations.
A young Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn, later made a Cardinal, founded the J.O.C. Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique (JOC), Young Christian Workers in 1926. Its see-judge-act methodology introduced to the first JOC organised groups a way of deciding on what action to take respecting their particular mileu. Instead of a paternalist and essentially individualist approach, calling for social justice for workers from virtuous employers, Cardijn sought the immersion of lay activists in the worker milieu and mobilisation of workers to procure their legitimate goals and rights.
Immersion in the life of industrial workers, or agricultural labourers, revealed to the young participants that class conflict was an undeniable reality. Young Christian Student groups were drawn into supporting workers in their demands. The same experience befell the post-war French worker priest movement of the 1950s, begun by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Emmanuel Suhard. His Mission de France – to evangelise the working class – put committed priests into situations where they inevitably became militantly engaged, sometimes in leadership positions, in trades unions. The movement was banned by Rome in 1954, not very successfully and worker priests still exist today. Suhard’s worker priests had created an almost irresolvable conflict between parish ministry, contained within the episcopal, hierarchical structures of the Church, and worker ministry which made radical demands on the priests involved tending to place them – uncontrolled - outside parish structures.
Latin America proved fertile ground for Catholic action based on Cardijn’s methodology. Here the dynamics were different from Europe. Except for Chile and Argentina, a well -developed industrial working class was only just forming. The Church in the 1950s began to combat communist mobilisation of agricultural labour and peasants. This endeavour was most advanced in rural areas of North-East of Brazil. And at first, it involved educational approaches, through Catholic radio stations. But the pastoral strategy evolved, much aided by Paulo Freire’s radical educational methods – described in his famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed - into mobilisation of peasant groups and creation of Basic Christian Communities. Unlike Europe, a small but critical mass of bishops were involved and supportive of the progressive theologians, led by the diminutive bishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara . A similar process was underway in the Philippines.
The Brazilian experiment had emancipated itself by the 1960s from being a reaction to communism and had become a comprehensive pastoral plan of action. Agricultural workers’ rights became inextricably linked with questions of land tenure and ownership, the plight of landless peasants, and opposition to imported US ideas about development and modernity rapidly encroaching on Brazil’s national politics. Out of this ferment came a key strand in the origins of Liberation Theology which started with the conviction that in the divine plan the poor must ‘make their own history’ even in the midst of brutal military repression. It was a theology that drew on a distinctly Latin American experience and a variant of Marxism associated with the writings of the Peruvian José Maria Mariátegui. There was a linear path traceable to the creation of the Workers’ Party (PT) that took power in Brazil under Ignácio Lula da Silva in 2003.
Despite the savagery of military dictatorships in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil, for example, in which trades unionists and leaders of peasant movements were brutally repressed, the rejection of class conflict, or at least the desire to seek other ways of realising human rights, continued amongst most Latin American bishops and in Rome. Conservative bishops, the Vatican and powerful evangelical Churches lined up to attack the liberation theologians. But on the side of communists and socialists there was a thaw: a growing acceptance of radical Church organisations in Brazil, with the murder of Church workers and leaders - such as Oscar Romero - threatening to make Marx’s ‘opium of the people’ claim about religion redundant.
Reflection on the development of thinking on workers’ rights in the Catholic Church should give pause for thought this May Day. There is a lot more to think about than how St. Joseph the Worker ran his carpentry business. But I doubt if sermons will be preached this weekend about workers’ rights in the gig economy and in the post-Covid-19 world. It is time to send out a mayday call: Catholicism is distorted when treated as necessarily the natural ally of capitalism. This assumption must be historically called in question.
“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
A few years ago, I was being driven south to the coast from a hospital in the town of Makeni in Sierra Leone, when I suddenly noticed a brand-new railway line paralleling the road. I asked the driver where it was going. “Beijing” he replied. It is a puzzle why Africa, dotted with Chinese construction sites and Chinese investors of one sort or another, was late in catching COVID-19. More likely that China shut down travel early so that Africa’s relatively few diagnosed infections came first from Europe.
Some optimists suggested that COVID-19 doesn’t like a temperature of 31C. But what about Philippines, Australia, India? In Africa the rainy season ushers in the onset of malaria and its high fevers. More likely the onset wasn’t that late - weak health services have been poor at identifying the presence of the disease in amongst other respiratory infections. Senegal has 1 doctor for 10,000 people, Italy 41.
It is right to fear for Africa during the coronavirus pandemic though Sierra Leone has some advantages over other countries. When I visited Freetown’s main medical centre, the Connaught Hospital, I was impressed by its cleanliness and clinical professionalism compared to many African hospitals, but also by the relative absence of medical equipment. On the plus side Sierra Leone has some outstanding doctors, nurses and a battle-hardened Ministry of Health.
Sierra Leone’s government health record is good. It has managed to bring in free maternal and child health care, and to reduce malaria deaths, working with religious leaders to educate people on the causes of malaria and how to prevent it. Of course, it also experienced an Ebola outbreak, another even more terrifying invisible killer, and during the civil war, the visible lethal armed variety. So the people of Sierra Leone have already faced the agony of being deprived of the normal way of caring for the sick and burying their dead. They may be better prepared culturally for responding to the pandemic than some Londoners.
Malaria may seem to be an irrelevance in the face of an Ebola or COVID-19 assault on a population. Not so. Researchers have found that levels of HIV rise in patients suffering from malaria. It is as if the immune system has been diverted or weakened by centuries of combating the malaria parasite. This finding matters particularly in pregnant women because the presence of malaria increases placental transmission of HIV to the baby in the womb.
A further danger of malaria emerged in the Ebola crisis. Until rapid diagnostic kits were more widely distributed by the WHO, patients with malaria were sometimes sent off to Ebola centres for triage and dying as result of the initial misdiagnosis. Widely available and rapid testing for COVID-19 is going to be vital. Although deaths from malaria worldwide have reduced from a million in the last two decades to an estimated 425,000, 92% of malaria infections still occur in Africa.
On Africa’s side is its youth. The median age is 19.4 years. Resilient youth may not be badly affected. But malnutrition and overcrowding in the poorest countries will reduce the effectiveness of even young people’s immune system. Some African countries have been quick to take preventative measures against COVID-19 while infections were still low: the better developed such as Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana. South Africa quickly tried to move into shut-down. Measures have included school closures, checking for raised temperature, restrictions on travel and social gatherings. But once infection enters crowded and poor townships and ‘informal settlements’, spread will be very difficult to contain and treat. Some 400,000 young children die annually of ‘ordinary’ pneumonia in Africa already. Oxygen for medical use is in chronic short supply. Will poor African children with the coronavirus induced variety get off as lightly as young children in Europe?
Coronavirus has shed an extraordinary spotlight on the importance of good governance, and the impact of inequality and poverty on people, both around the world and within nations. Governments that can, and energetically strive to turn well-formulated health policies into reality within their health systems, provide the gold standard. Governments that sustain endemic corruption sacrifice the lives of their citizens. Ways of putting pressure on governments depend on democracy. We in Britain count the number of ventilators in thousands and lament how few. But African doctors 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.
Inequality and poverty cause poor health outcomes wherever you live. Pandemics accentuate dramatically pre-existing inequalities and poverty. Poor Africa has not yet suffered the most from the current outbreak. But this is just a matter of timing. The continent faces a catastrophe once the virus takes hold. Immediate international assistance is needed.
There can be no better target for DfID’s £14.3 billion budget than strengthening Africa’s health systems and helping its population get rid of corrupt leaders. Their commitment to an international response to this global crisis should be championed around the world by wealthier countries and their NGOs.
International development agencies have come in for a hammering recently: repeated denunciations of alleged ‘wasteful funding’ from the Tory back benches - with an eye to plundering DfID’s £13.4 billion budget - ambassadors and High Commissioners given authority over DfID’s country programmes, a prominent Times leader calling for the resignation of the Save the Children CEO for his handling of staff sexual misdemeanours, and the cry of ‘Charity begins at Home’ ever more resonant. It helps in evaluating this onslaught to understand what development is and isn’t.
Does the public actually have a clear view of what development agencies actually do, where they came from, and the origin of their values? It’s a surprising story. The concept of development took shape in the first half of the nineteenth century within the context of the industrial revolution, and serious economic crises which threatened the social and political fabric of European states. A complex of allied themes, interrelated problems and fears: Progress, Corruption, continuity and change, evolution and revolution coloured thinking.
Engels was writing about the condition of the British working class in Manchester at the same time John Henry Newman was considering the development of Christian doctrine. It was Newman, grappling with the problem of continuity and change in the Christian Church, rather than Marx, grappling with capital accumulation as the dynamo of flawed Progress, who was to arrive at something close to the modern understanding of development and tease out its diverse meanings.
In his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman used development of doctrine not merely as an explanation of his joining the Roman Catholic Church but as a positive feature of its commitment to the Truth. Then, surprisingly, ‘development’ broke out its religious frame and became the healer of the depredations of social disorder, unemployment, immorality, old and new corruption, all the destructive aspects of Progress. “Is it not a remarkable thing”, Rev. Mark Pattison, a clergyman and supporter of the Social Sciences Foundation, wrote to Newman in 1878, “that you should have first started the idea – and the word – development, as the key to the history of Church doctrine, and since then it has gradually become the dominant idea of all history, biology, physics, and in short has metamorphosed our view of every science, and of all knowledge”. This effusive attribution may have been excessive but Newman’s influence in the Victorian world was prodigious. It shows the close link between God-talk and the origins of development talk.
After the Second World War ‘development’ began to mean significant, sustained and organised action by governments and civil society to improve the lot of the poor. In 1945, Christian Aid began providing relief for European refugees. In 1942, OXFAM (Quaker influenced) took shape and began campaigning for food relief to pass through naval blockades to Nazi-occupied Greece. The wartime Sword of the Spirit produced the radical Catholic Institute for International Relations.
In the 1960s the newly independent countries were calling for a New International Economic Order based on humanistic values and opposed to the economic dominance of the West. This was accompanied by a further Christian contribution to development, the promotion of the idea of integral human development, a transcendent humanism. In 1967, Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio) took forward the Church’s reflection on the challenge posed by respect for human dignity in the context of contemporary, Western-directed, international development and an incipient new wave of globalisation. It set out unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian community to work for a just form of development. It was to be the charter for Catholic development agencies and the international network of these organisations called CARITAS.
Paul VI analysed causes of poverty before proposing solutions. And prominent amongst the causes were socio-economic structures. The Pope demanded radical structural changes, “bold transformations in which the present order of things will be entirely renewed or rebuilt”. His message was “the economy should be at the service of man”. “The universal social bonds of the human family [interdependence] require everyone to commit themselves to the promotion of development”. Ernst Schumacher, a Buddhist and best known for his 1973 book Small is Beautiful, reflected this theme of the book’s sub-title “Economics as if People Mattered”.
Development aid inevitably entailed political choices. Populorum Progressio was political. It repudiated contemporary approaches that defined development simply as growth in GDP. Colonial and neo-colonial solutions to problems of poverty and injustice were rejected. All peoples and nations should be “artisans of their own destiny”. Pope Paul described life itself a “vocation” to development and fulfilment – but always in particular cultures and societies. In other words, people develop themselves; others cannot do it for them, and for this they needed literacy and education.
Populorum Progressio’s emphasis on unequal power relations and fair trade, are still relevant today, as are an economics of “enough”. It coupled “the material poverty of those who lack the bare necessities of life, and the moral poverty of those who are deformed by selfishness”. It asked “are we ready to pay higher taxes, are we ready to pay more for imported goods which are fairly traded?” We know the answer. The seeds of conflict with the political Right were sown.
Paul VI’s successors continued to speak about poverty, its causes and remedies. In response to accelerating globalisation, Pope John Paul II spoke of solidarity, a favourite NGO word, as a virtue. “When interdependence becomes recognised in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue’, is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are really responsible for all”. Whilst echoes of “an economy of enough” re-emerge in Pope Francis’ reaction to climate change and the care of the ‘global commons’.
God talk and development talk have historically been engaged in a creative dialogue. Its outcome and rejection of unrestrained competition and greed has not been music to the ears of Wall Street. Perhaps those in the Tory Party who want to curb Britain’s longstanding substantial contribution to international development might reflect on the values which inspire it. Maybe they have and reject them. The radicalism of developmentalists, both secular and religious, makes it unlikely the current attack on development aid will cease.
See also The Article 18/03/2020