In the New Statesman, Rowan Williams—the former Archbishop of Canterbury—reviews two new biographies of Pope Francis: Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots and Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns. One of the interesting points in the review concerns the difficulty of classifying Francis according to the usual American political labels:
Conservative or liberal? The Pope’s record might prompt us to ask whether these categories are as obvious or as useful as we assume. As various commentators have astutely noticed, the Pope is a Catholic. That is, he thinks and argues from a foundational set of principles that are not dictated by the shape of political conflict in other areas. It is difficult for some to recognise that his reasons for taking the moral positions he does on abortion or euthanasia are intimately connected with the reasons for his stance on capitalism or climate change.
The Catholic conservative who has unthinkingly rolled up the pro-life agenda with support for the death penalty, the National Rifle Association, US foreign policy and the uncontrolled global market finds this as shocking as the Catholic (or, indeed, non-Catholic) liberal who thinks in terms of a single “progressive” or emancipatory agenda that the Pope is failing to support consistently. But “conservative” and “progressive” imply that we all know there is one road for everyone on which we may move forward or backwards, rapidly or slowly. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded from time to time that this assumption can be an alibi for lazy thinking. The Catholic tradition of ethics and theology sets out a model of what is abidingly good and life-giving for human beings which does not depend on this model of a single road towards a given future. It is about making choices that bring you closer or otherwise to a particular vision of human well-being; and those choices do not necessarily map directly on to other, familiar taxonomies.
This is a point that has relevance well beyond the limits of the Church. We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)
In other words, it is futile to expect this pope or any other simply to fit the ready-made stereotypes. Pope Benedict “looked” conservative; Pope Francis “looks” liberal. Yet that tells you nothing at all of interest about them. And it obscures a simple fact: Benedict’s theology, though cast in a different and less accessible idiom, is entirely of a piece with all that Francis has said in his major public essays about evangelism and now about ecology. Even the contrast in style between them can be exaggerated a little. Paul Vallely notes that Francis has chosen to sit on the same level as his guests on formal occasions. Benedict did the same at the interfaith event in Assisi some years ago; he was also the first to break the taboo on the Pope eating in public with others.