The Pope vs the populists
Fire spreads through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday 15 April - Photo:
While some urge the Church to ratchet up its culture war against Islam and the secular world in the wake of the Notre Dame fire and Sri Lankan bombings, Pope Francis has instead become something of a lone voice against right-wing political parties, fuelled by the global surge of anti-migrant populist nationalism
Holy Week 2019 played out the drama of the Christian story in a visceral, public way not seen in years. Rarely have the soul-burning events of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection been felt with such intensity, and in so many different contexts, as they were at Easter.
The Notre Dame fire on the evening of the Monday of Holy Week and the bombings in Sri Lanka six days later might seem completely unconnected. Yet both have highlighted the contested position that Christianity occupies in the modern world, in which religion is increasingly being manipulated by groups and individuals wishing to foment hatred for political purposes.
Holy Week this year also threw into focus Pope Francis’ vision of a vibrant, living Catholicism in solidarity with all those suffering, or persecuted or living on the margins – a “poor church for the poor” – that he pointedly contrasts with those for whom belief is, in the words of his homily at the Easter Vigil, a “museum faith”, preoccupied with doctrinal purity and ideological battles.
For some, the way the fire in Paris was reported and the probable jihadist motive for the bombings in Sri Lanka bolstered a culture-war narrative that emphasises the ignorance and hostility to Christian values among liberal elites and the threat to the West from the Islamic world. For others, the fire at Notre Dame was a disaster solely because it is a “must see” in every Paris guidebook – a “tourist mecca” in one particularly clumsy choice of words – while attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka can be rationalised as an almost inevitable reaction against the cultural and economic imperialism of the West.
While those on the populist right are ready to exploit the Cross for political gain, some secularists would like to reduce Christianity to a purely private pursuit with no voice in the public square.
In fact, both events – and the reactions to them – confirm that religious belief cannot be dismissed as something that society has “moved on” from. The only way to grasp the significance of the events in Paris and Sri Lanka in Holy Week is to view them through the prism of faith. An understanding is particularly pressing in the light of the global persecution of Christians.
Last week, the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, who has been commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to investigate the problem, produced his interim report. It confirmed what has long been known – that a third of the world’s population suffers from a form of religious persecution, and that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is close to a genocide.
A shallow understanding of the complex place of religion in society risks fuelling the analysis, pushed by Steve Bannon and others, that “Judaeo-Christian values” – a problematic phrase, given Christian Europe’s long history of persecution of the Jews – are under attack from outsiders and must be defended.
President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist is regularly seen in Europe these days, promoting his brand of anti-immigration populist nationalism. Bannon – a Catholic – repeatedly targets Pope Francis, who has put reconciliation between Christians and Muslims at the centre of his papacy.
The development of a better understanding of the complex relationship between religion, culture, identity and violence is essential if foreign ministries and policymakers are to work out when political or economic forces are exploiting religious faith, or when a conflict assumed to be about religion is actually about something else. It will help to avoid the error that religion is the cause of most of the conflicts around the world, always part of the problem and never the solution.
The religious illiteracy of policymakers is concerning. Holy Week also exposed the Western media’s yawning knowledge gap when it comes to religion. Former BBC employee Catherine Utley pointed out how News at Ten managed to report on the fire in Notre Dame without a single mention of the words Christian; Christianity; Catholic; worship; worshippers; sacred; Mass or Holy Week. The New York Times had to run a correction to a report on Notre Dame that described the Blessed Sacrament as “a statue of Jesus”.
As the blaze raged in the cathedral, the Blessed Sacrament had been saved by a brave priest. Later, Archbishop Michel Aupetit explained that Notre Dame had not been built to house treasures but as a symbol of faith. “It is for this Body, veiled under the appearance of a crumb of bread that this cathedral was built. What is more precious? The cathedral, the treasure or the breadcrumb?”
Judging by reactions to the fire, the answer to this was not entirely clear. As news channels and social media live-streamed the cathedral spire collapsing, an apocalyptic sense was in the air. The outpouring of grief for the wounded building pointed to a latent sense of Christian identity in supposedly secularised France. Inevitably, the culture warriors’ analysis, much of it emanating from the United States, seized on the fire as a symbol of the West’s decline into rampant secularism.
“If this was an accident, it still symbolises what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony,” Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, wrote in his blog on The American Conservative website. “What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization. It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite.”
A few days later, a human tragedy struck on a different scale. Early on Easter Sunday, the news filtered through that more than 250 people had been killed in bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, described as “cruel violence” by Pope Francis. Christians in Sri Lanka are a minority. They make up around 7 per cent of the population and are known for being a united, peaceful and relatively integrated community, including both Tamil and Sinhalese speakers. Again, some of the snap responses to the bombings appeared closer to ideological point scoring rather than grounded in the evidence.
The response of the Church in Sri Lanka has been more measured. “These acts created great anger in us, but we have washed this anger away with our tears, and with the sentence in the Bible of Jesus on the Cross, ‘They do not know what they do,’” Fr Niroshan Vaz, 39, a Sri Lankan priest studying in Rome told reporters last week. Fr Vaz later told me that the Church was doing all it could to “control the situation”, to avoid causing more problems “around Christians and Muslims”.
Muslims are also a minority in Sri Lanka, and both communities have experienced discrimination and occasional outbursts of violence from extremist Buddhist groups. “The Church assures Muslims it will not allow any revenge attacks against them,” the Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, told journalists. The cardinal has become arguably the most prominent public figure in the country since the attacks.
He is also pressing officials for answers. Catholics in Sri Lanka see some “invisible hands” behind the bombings, linked to powerful vested interests in the country. They want to know why defence officials ignored intelligence warnings about a possible attack.
There is also puzzlement about what IS might have been trying to achieve – if IS was responsible – by attacking a Christian group, given that Christian-Muslim relations are generally strong. The attacks resist easy analysis or a neat fit with a culture war narrative.
Pope Francis has become something of a lone voice against right-wing political parties fuelled by the global surge of populist nationalism, which often seek to co-opt the issues of hostility to Christian values by social liberals and the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries to their cause. “A state that gives rise to nationalistic sentiments of its people against other nations or groups of people will fail in its mission,” the Pope told a conference on nation states in the Vatican last week. “We know from history where they lead. I think of Europe of the last century.”
He returned to this theme in Bulgaria this week, urging the centre-right government, which has been criticised for its treatment of asylum-seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors, not to close its eyes to their suffering.
At the same time, there has been a danger when the Church becomes entirely preoccupied by the protection of its own institutional interests. That has often led in the past to its leaders cosying up to ugly regimes. The attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are a reminder that persecution and suffering – not power and prestige – are foundational elements of Christianity. “There is no negotiating with the Cross: one either embraces it or rejects it,” the Pope said on Palm Sunday in St Peter’s Square.
The Cross, the suffering of Good Friday, is followed by the new life of Easter Sunday. It is the promise that something new can be built out of the old. But resurrection is not the same as restoration. For some, Notre Dame should be restored to its old self. That is an impossibility. Twelfth-century timbers are irreplaceable; the spire which collapsed dates to the nineteenth century.
There are also Catholics who argue that the Church itself should undergo a restoration to recreate the glories of the past. “It is an overpowering temptation to think that restoring the past will improve the future,” Christopher Jamison said in his Easter Sunday homily. As the Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, which includes communities facing devastating revelations of sexual abuse having taken place in their schools and, in certain instances, an arrogant denial of the extent of the problem, Jamison speaks from experience: “When life is destroyed, the future is to build life anew on the foundations of the old. Resurrection is harder work than restoration.”
It is something the Pope talked about during the Easter Vigil. “To return to a lively love of the Lord is essential,” he explained. “Otherwise, ours is a ‘museum’ faith, not an Easter faith.” The Notre Dame fire can be read symbolically, although not in apocalyptic terms. Yes, parts of the Church are on fire. A clerical establishment has grossly mishandled child sexual abuse; cardinals have received criminal convictions related to abuse, and at least one has been laicised. A certain model of the Church is falling way. At the same time, the Holy Spirit, symbolised by fire, burns, cleanses and refines. It brings new life, and renewed faith. For this to happen, it requires humility, and a willingness to reject a “spiritual worldliness” that dulls the Church’s message.
After celebrities flooded social media with their support for the cathedral, French billionaires then pledged €600 million (£514 million) to support the rebuilding, although the cathedral is owned by the French state.
There has been some scepticism in Rome about the donations of the billionaires. “The tradition of donations is that you give a brick to build the church, a brick to the house for the poor opposite,” one official told me. It is out of suffering and by being united with outcasts that the Church flourishes. It does not grow through special pleading, political lobbying, fomenting hatred against other faiths or by investing millions in the conservation of buildings. “This was an attack against humanity,” Fr Vaz told me about the Easter Sunday bombing. “In a way, the victims have become martyrs, and this can create another revival. We are traditional Christians now. And in this sense, the blood of martyrs can be seeds of Christianity.”
There is a simple message for the Church that can be drawn from Holy Week 2019: if it can take up its Cross, however painful and shameful, it will rise again.