6:18 a.m. July 12, 2013

The Pope Can Go Climb A Rope

Newly minted Pope Francis last week visited the tiny island of Lampedusa, condemning the world's ignorance of what has been going on there. It would be churlish to say the pope is entirely wrong. Lampedusa is a disgrace.

Perched almost halfway between Tunisia and Sicily, Lampedusa is a magnet for African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Not everyone who sets out makes it. An estimated 20,000 migrants have perished in attempted crossings to the island over the last 20 years.

I first heard of this septic isle back when I was working for the European press service PressEurop. I like to think I'm pretty unshockable – the only time I've had my stomach turned by news in recent months was a report about organ harvesting in China – but Lampedusa did shock me.

In between publishing translations of the EU holding self-centered conferences and writing blogs about how the EU was an absurd institution (I rank high for insubordination), I came across Italian press reports on African migrants washing up on the island’s shores. That is if they were lucky. If they weren't, then it was their corpses that washed up, or sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean. The migrants that made it to terra firma alive were not rewarded with citizenship and generous social welfare. They did get their basic needs taken care of, though. By being slung into ad hoc prisons.

That this was happening in the early days of the Arab Spring only made it more disgusting. Tunisia revolts for freedom, Libya gets stuck in a civil war in which Europe plays laptop bombardier, and what do we do with refugees? Put them behind bars, that's what. Europe has a reputation for being the smiling face of political power blocs. It can maintain this image because its constituent nations maraud around the world bombing brown people slightly less often than does the US, and because it makes a better fist of covering its own naked self-interest than Russia or China.

So, well done to Francis for criticizing Lampedusa and all who try to stop people sailing to her. As for the rest of his speech, though… the pope can go climb a rope.

Using Lampedusa as his launching pad, the pontiff rehearsed a few familiar themes. Familiar, that is, to anyone who pays attention and doesn't just make jokes about "sky fairies." Sounding like, well, the head of a liberal NGO, the pope inveighed against the "globalization of indifference" and "culture of comfort" that have infected the West. This kind of moralizing is a major theme in the pope's oeuvre. There's no question that poverty is relative, but tell the people of Greece or youth of Spain that they are comfortable and they will, rightly, laugh in your face.

Esquire might think Francis is "kind of awesome." I don't. "The Catholic Church may be the last major institution in the world that makes a coherent argument against total absorption in consumer capitalism," writes the magazine. Indeed so. But this is the socialism of fools. What the pope is against isn't so much capitalism as modernity.

This pope isn't like the previous one. Benedict XIV, at the time probably the most hated man in the world, was an owlish theologian with conservative views and no intention of giving the public what it wanted. Francis has much the same views, but he's much more likely to dance the merengue while condemning people to the not very fiery pits of hell, or whatever it is the church thinks the underworld is like these days. (Incidentally, the previous pope had the same liberal-friendly views on money – they all do, it's called Catholic Social Teaching – it's just that no one noticed because they were too busy making Nazi jokes).

In fact, apart from his remark about the Vatican's "gay lobby" (surely a misnomer, more likely a group of gay clerics who may or may not be up to no good; if it really is a lobby it's the world's least successful one) Francis has barely put a slippered foot wrong. Like his predecessor, he is an intellectual, but unlike his predecessor he is a man with charismatic star power.

This is, without a doubt, a bad thing. The last charismatic pope was John Paul II and he used his smile, contacts in high places and photo-ops with Bono to roll back as much reform of the Catholic church as possible. He also, like all charismatic religious figures, did a disservice to thoughtful believers. Arguably this isn't my problem because I'm not one of them, but the more intellectual members of the church can't have been thrilled by his mysticism. Well on his way to sainthood, he lowered the bar for canonization so much that I'm in with a chance myself. By abolishing the office of devil's advocate he removed the major barrier to sainthood – known in plain English as skepticism – and thus managed to canonize 480 saints, more than the rest of his predecessors combined.

In February of this year Francis canonized 800 in one go, the Martyrs of Otranto, but for my money that's cheating and they have to time-share a single sainthood between the lot of them. He has also announced his plans to canonize John Paul II, and in a sop to liberal opinion, the reforming pope John XXIII, whose work John Paul II spent his time unpicking.

So what, you say? Why should I care about the antics of the Catholic church? Fair enough, when it comes to whether or not it canonizes St. Block of Cheese or Saint Martin Luther you probably shouldn't. At the end of the day, it's no different to Mormons baptizing the dead, up to and including Holocaust victims: a bizarre but well-intended and, frankly, meaningless gesture. There are other reasons to pay attention, though, and one is how the church's rhetoric feeds into one of the most diabolical and decadent ideas in the world today.

Since his investiture much has been made of Pope Francis's commitment to the poor. Despite a few people moaning about the Vatican's art hoard, this isn't actually untrue. Francis is an obviously humble man and he has already done away with much of his predecessor's pomp and ceremony. There is a wrinkle, though: Christian love of poverty doesn't raise living standards. In fact, poverty and piety have always gone hand-in-hand, and at a time in Europe when criticism of austerity politics is running high, it's worth asking if this champion of the poor really has what's best for them in his heart.

Catholics say the election of Pope Francis has given us a first glimpse of a humbler and more pious church and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. This is reason enough to ask if love of poverty is really the prescription for our social woes.

Anyone who has read Umberto Eco's novel “The Name of the Rose” will know there has long been a battle between those who affirm the poverty of Christ and those who seek an expression of holiness through power and riches. Historically minded readers will also know that the book was as much about divisions in twentieth century socialism as the mediaeval church.

In fact, in affirming the poor, who are after all "always with us," the pope is very much a modern man. Loud complaints about European governments' austerity policies don't mean growth skepticism is a thing of the past. The fact that growth is the only thing that working class voters have given the hollowed-out rotten labor establishment does next to nothing for them anymore. The credit-fueled boom in the 1990s and 2000s is hardly to be uncritically celebrated, but its collapse has been disastrous for low- and middle-income earners.

This is not to slander churchgoers. All of us are acutely aware of the good done by religious people. Likewise, no one can say that the work of many Christian charities are insincere or fail to help those in desperate circumstances. Not every religious work of charity is akin to that of Mother Theresa, who loved the poor so much she did everything she could to make sure they stayed penniless. Nonetheless, it requires an act of intellectual gymnastics to deny the fact that there is a strong Puritanical streak in both sides of the austerity debate, something a pious pontiff can only contribute to.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, years of relative comfort in the West, we were assailed with warnings that wealth was changing us, and not for the better. Whatever the costs of the boom, surely few now think we would be better of stuck in perpetual slump?

What is unconvincing about revolting European youth is not that it is angry – it should be – it's that its cure is worse than the disease. Despite the clamor of voices opposed to austerity, there is a disturbing undercurrent of people who prefer the authenticity of penury to the gaucheness of economic growth.

If you'll allow me a brief local diversion, on his inauguration as Ireland's president, Michael D. Higgins approvingly quoted Eamon de Valera on the subject of a better nation. Higgins may well feel discommoded by conspicuous consumption, but does he really think de Valera was right to say, "The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul"?

A strange cause. One might expect this from a conservative politician, whose primary interest is in maintaining the "natural order." Indeed, British prime minister David Cameron pioneered a national happiness index. This risible idea was filched from the mediaevalist former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who claimed "Gross National Happiness" was more important than Gross Domestic Product. One suspects Wangchuck is not short of cash, but it's just as well he cares more about smiles than salaries given that over 25 per cent of the Bhutanese population live on less than US$1.25 a day.

"Frugal comfort" as Ireland's newly minted Labour party president put it in his inaugural speech, sustainability, piety and the rest of the jargon used to put lipstick on the pig of poverty cannot disguise the fact that progress, technological, economic, industrial and social, is better than charity. It is precisely this growth that frees us from the shackles of nature and gives us the capacity to choose our own destinies.

Politicians would do better to concern themselves with the material world and leave psychological and spiritual questions to the private sphere of individual life. Priests, meanwhile, should probably concern themselves with their flocks' eternal souls and if their social teachings mean they feel compelled to stick their holy oars into politics, the rest of us should be aware they don't always mean what we do. Religious objection to usury may sound appealing when the banks have screwed us, but it's worth remembering that the clerical objection to usury was that credit allowed people to rise above their place in the supposedly natural order of the universe.

What we need to do is to challenge poverty and to rise above our stations. That is precisely what those desperate migrants aiming for Europe via Lampedusa, 8,000 of them this year so far, are planning to do.