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“No one is saved alone,” writes Pope Francis in Let Us Dream, a short book of Covid-related reflections published last month. Those words carry an obvious Christian resonance. But the meaning that the pope intends to convey is primarily secular. The pandemic, he believes, has underlined our shared vulnerability and mutual dependency. By shocking us out of everyday indifference and egotism, our present troubles can open up the space for a new spirit of fraternity. A fresh emphasis on looking out for each other, claims the pope, can become the theme of a more generous and caring post-pandemic politics.
Let Us Dream is a pastoral, spiritual book that aspires to address a lay audience as well as a religious one. In its emphasis on civic solidarity, tolerance, concern for the poor and the environment, it is also the latest attempt by Pope Francis to shift the dial of 21st-century Christianity away from the culture wars that have consumed it.
There is an obvious temptation to respond wryly: “Good luck with that.” In a number of high-profile ways, 2020 was another depressing year for liberal-minded Christians. The Polish Catholic church worked hand in glove with the state in an attempt to effectively ban abortion and trample over LGBTQ+ rights. The strong disapproval of a majority of Poles, who have no wish to live in a theocracy, cut no ice. In neighbouring Hungary, the Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic churches kept stumm as Viktor Orbán’s government continued to bully minorities in the name of “illiberal Christianity”. During the lead-up to November’s US presidential election, Donald Trump’s cynical weaponisation of the abortion debate helped ensure strong Christian backing for the most profane, religiously illiterate president in the country’s history. And this week, Pope Francis himself indicated his disapproval of the legalisation of abortion in his native Argentina.
But this stark summary of the church at odds with the liberal world does not tell the whole story. In Britain, as elsewhere, Christian churches, alongside mosques and synagogues, played a frontline role in the community activism that kept people and families afloat during months of acute uncertainty and hardship. It is from that wellspring of fellow feeling and altruism, the importance of which is suddenly front and centre in our lives, that Let Us Dream believes a “new humanism” can emerge. For those who share that aspiration, whether secular or religious, there are genuine grounds for hope in 2021.
A liberal Catholic
The election to the White House of Joe Biden, a Democrat who is also a practising Catholic, is the best news liberal Christians have had for a long time. In a book published last month, the conservative Australian cardinal George Pell said Mr Trump was “a bit of a barbarian, but in some important ways he’s ‘our’ (Christian) barbarian”. The end of that cynically transactional relationship between Mr Trump’s White House and the religious right signals new possibilities. In his victory speech, Mr Biden quoted from Ecclesiastes, saying that for a divided America, “it was a time to heal”. When he has discussed his faith, the president-elect has tended to talk about altruism, decency and personal integrity, steering clear of provocative dividing lines.
Mr Biden has backed access to abortion and same-sex marriage. He will, as a result, be relentlessly targeted by conservative Catholic critics and evangelicals. The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, José Gomez, has convened a working group to address the “difficult and complex” situation of dealing with a liberal Catholic in the White House. But the Catholic vote was split evenly between Mr Biden and Mr Trump. And, crucially, Pope Francis is likely to have the new president’s back.
This relationship could constitute an important new axis of liberal influence in the west. After a recent phone call between the two, a statement from Mr Biden’s transition team said the president-elect “expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind, on issues such as caring for the marginalised and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities”. This was to more or less tick off the list of priorities the pope has attempted to set, while under constant assault from religious conservatives. The disruption of the recent alliance between Christianity and rightwing populism carries significant implications not only for America, but for the battle against global poverty, the climate emergency and the migration crisis.
Fraternity as the new frontier
Mr Biden’s election is not the only hopeful sign for Christians who long for their leaders to look beyond the narrow preoccupation with reproductive rights and sexuality. This year was marked by two significant theological documents, one from the eastern church and one from the west. Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, published during Lent, is a radical clarion call for Orthodox Christians to engage with deepening inequalities in developed societies, and to confront wealthy nations with their moral obligations to refugees. The tone is set by the opening words of the text: “Our spiritual lives … cannot fail to be social lives.” Endorsed by Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church, the document recalls that “[the] early and Byzantine church had a bold voice on social justice”. This, it states, must be revived and renewed.
Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All), was written in the same spirit. Ideas of fraternity and friendship are developed as a necessary complement to the familiar political categories of liberty and equality. The argument is summed up in Let Us Dream, where the pope writes: “Without the ‘we’ of a people, of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests, life … becomes a battle for supremacy between factions and interests.”
Intriguingly, variations on this theme have been explored in a string of recent publications, both secular and religious. In his valedictory work Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, the late chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, criticises the modern priority of “I” over “we”. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing and Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit both attempt to map out a civic territory that avoids the twin dangers of selfish individualism and illiberal populism.
In recent years, Christian leaders have too often been silent, complicit or cravenly proactive, as the Bible has been deployed as a weapon in conservative culture wars. The image of Trump marching through teargassed streets to brandish a bible outside a Washington church encapsulated a kind of capitulation. But in the new year, liberal Christians have grounds for cautious optimism. In the necessary project of carving out a new space for a less polarised, more fraternal public square, they have a vital role to play.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on liberal Christians: is this their moment? | Religion