From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: A Covid Encyclical

December 1.  A literary question:  Who is the author of this concluding passage of a book published today?

“By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings.  By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way.  By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food, we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better…. By making the restoration of our people’s dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions.  To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.” (132-3)

You might search amongst the leading ideologues on the left in Britain and the US, but the answer is Argentina via Rome.  They are the words of Francis, 266th pope of the Catholic Church, in Let Us Dream.  The Path to a Better Future.

I would not expect to find myself reading such a text amidst the widespread commentary on the pandemic. I was raised a methodist and have no sympathy for religious hierarchies and rituals.

More broadly, organised Christianity has been notably quiet in this crisis.  There are accounts of individual clergy playing active roles in the plenitude of community support groups that have sprung up around the country.  However as institutions, the churches have been marginalised.  Their guidance is not sought, their views are rarely cited.  The drama of illness and death, of caring and curing, has been largely secular.  There have been polite protests by bishops at the controls placed on church services, and occasional acts of publicity-seeking disobedience by evangelical congregations, but little contribution to the main public discourse or programmes of action.  It is a disjuncture that separates this plague from all that preceded it.

In England, the Catholic Church has been further distracted by the continuing fall-out of sexual abuse scandals.  Most shockingly, the leading Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth, where Cardinal Basil Hume was a pupil and teacher, has just been forbidden by the Department for Education to admit any new pupils following a series of damning reports on its performance and management by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  The school is appealing the decision but is fortunate that an over-full news agenda has not given the event more publicity. 

The pope admits in his book to a collective responsibility: “As I will not tire of saying with sorrow and shame, these abuses were also committed by some members of the Church.” (25)  Further he is aware of his many conservative critics who by arguing that “there is too much ‘confusion’ in the Church, and that only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body.” (71)  Nonetheless he is determined to use the pandemic to reassert his long-matured views on social and economic reform. 

The engagement with the detail of Covid-19 is slight.  There are no statistics of infection or  investigations of particular experiences.  Rather it is viewed as a revelation of the true fraternity of mankind and “a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” (6)  Sundry biblical texts are cited in support of his case but so also, for instance, are the views of the economist Mariana Mazzucato in her recent The Value of Everything

Let us Dream belongs on one side of the divide between those who believe the pandemic will be followed by a return to normal, with all its minor comforts and major inequalities, and those who see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the agenda for radical change.  “Today” it argues, “we have to avoid falling back into the individual and institutional patterns that have led to Covid and the various crises that surround it: the hyperinflation of the individual combined with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a very few.” (45-6)

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