The Pope and the Emperor

This subject is a bit of a minefield, and I may tread on toes as well as mines…

The title of this post sounds like the old Investiture Contest revisited, with medieval Pope pitched against medieval Emperor. But before that, in 800AD, in Rome, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, and now  – a kind of role reversal – the city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital (all of 1200 years ago), has awarded this year’s Charlemagne Prize (given for contributions to European understanding) to the current occupant of the Holy See, Pope Francis.

One problem of course is that for many the papacy is a tainted source. Polly Toynbee (Guardian columnist in case you didn’t know!) for one: she took exception to the Pope’s comment that someone insulting his mother could expect a punch, in the context of freedom of speech and cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, all in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. ‘Every religion has its dignity… In freedom of expression there are limits,’ had been the Pope’s response to a journalist asking him about the cartoons. ‘Punch’ may have been the best choice of word. But I wouldn’t expect the Pope to do other than argue for the dignity of his religion. Nor would I expect for a moment that dignity to be in any way enshrined in law, or even in convention. We need, on this as in so many things, to find a middle way between apparent opposites.

For good measure there’s this, going back 400 years, from Shakespeare’s King John (Toynbee keeps good company):

‘Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name/so slight, unworthy and ridiculous/To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.’

Vituperation against the Papacy would fill many volumes.

On the other hand… Pope Francis has been a powerful advocate for compassion at the heart of the Christian message, and has broken ranks with the old hierarchies in a remarkable way. There’s much I may not support or agree with, but I’m on his side.

I was reminded of his work in the slums of Buenos Aires, when archbishop there, while watching David Beckham’s TV documentary, For the Love of the Game, which follow Beckham round the world playing a football match on every continent. In Buenos Aires it’s a priest who works with disadvantaged youth who helps Beckham set up the match. There’s a remarkable and radical worker-priest tradition with the Catholic Church, especially in South America.

Back to the Charlemagne Prize. The citizens of Aachen would have had in mind the Pope’s address to the European Parliament just over a year ago, when he encouraged MEPs

‘…. to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.’  (Source: The Economist.)

And also the Pope on the European refugee crisis: ‘Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the capacity to weep.’

The Economist reminded the Pope that creating strong job-creating economies has also to be a part of the European project. I’d agree – jobs and wealth creation at an individual and national level are an integral part of man’s dignity. We shouldn’t disparage man as an economic agent.

But the Pope’s vision, for man and for Europe, is one I’d share.

I’ve tried to tread lightly through this minefield, where politics, hierarchies, dogma, personal faith and experience, and much more, are all confounded – more maybe a battleground than a minefield, where everyone has an opinion, and some opinions are held with a partisan passion. And I’ve probably failed.

2015 and 1968

In the wake of last month’s massacre in Paris, and the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year, there’s good evidence that the new millennial generation in France has found a powerful voice. Scroll down for extracts from Lucy Wadham’s article in Prospect.

What intrigues me – more than intrigues – is how their experience, their voice, marries up with the new generation in England, supporters many of them of Jeremy Corbin, but with few links to the old Left with which he’s strongly connected.

Almost fifty years ago, in the middle of the Cold War, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation still very real, the Vietnam War building rapidly to become a defining issue, I was part of a new generation with a similar sense of crisis in the world, and we were then as now looking for solutions, finding hope in crisis. Though nothing as immediate as the Bataclan massacre.

How, I wonder, do the two generations compare? Not just France and England, Paris and London, but 2015 and 1968? Can the relative failure of our hopes back then provide any pointers for the current generation? How can their hopes be turned into reality? (I say ‘relative failure’. In many ways the world hasn’t done too badly. We’re still here, and arguing, but the old problems of enmity and disadvantage have been cast in new forms, and we have a new threat to the planet in the form of climate change.)

As a powerful contribution to the argument I’d  like to quote from an eloquent and impassioned article by Paris resident, Lucy Wadham, in the current edition of Prospect. For the full article see:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/pariss-bataclan-generation-this-is-our-struggle-not-yours

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She quotes her son, Jack, describing Saturday evening, the day after the attacks of 13th November, in the Place de la République:

“It felt as if the whole world was there, present and in harmony, wondering what to build and how to connect… The calm, the particularly gentle energy, was indescribable. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

She continues: ‘This was the kind of phenomenon Jeremy Rifkin, the American social theorist and one of the great gurus of Jack’s generation, had written about in his book The Empathic Civilization. Jack had believed in, but never before experienced, this kind of empathy: “Our fear of each other,” he concluded, “and of death, felt completely surpassed, annihilated.”’

She quotes Pierre Servent, author and a colonel in the Army Reserve:

“I have confidence in this generation,” he said. “They don’t have the anti-militarist prejudices of the old French left… They’re hip, open, international, collaborative, but they’re not weighed down by the post-colonial guilt that has prevented such a large portion of my own generation from seeing the growing threat that is salafi-jihadism.”

She also quotes Le Monde asserting earlier this year that l’esprit Charlie is “a liberated tone, a satirical humour, an irreverence and pride built around solid left-wing values where the defence of secularism (laïcité) often comes first.”

No. In her own words: ‘I’m pretty sure that this is not the definition my children’s generation would give of l’esprit Charlie. For them the whole point about the extraordinary show of national unity in the aftermath of the 7th January attacks, and the thing that made the million-strong marches across the country that followed so unique and uplifting, was their apolitical nature and the spirit of tolerance towards France’s religious minorities, a tolerance that had been absent from mainstream public discourse.’

She contrast that with the views of  Alain Finkielkraut:

‘….members of the ’68 generation such as France’s principal bird of ill omen, Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher. Finkielkraut was interviewed in the wake of the attacks by the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, under the headline “We’re living the end of the end of History.” “His rigorous words,” Le Figaro declared by way of solemn preamble, “find a deep echo in the collective unconscious. How he is listened to. How he is read.”’

Wadham continues: ‘Not by the next generation he isn’t. For them, thinkers like Finkielkraut howl in the wilderness that is the past, still railing against an enemy that no longer has any teeth: the third-worldist leftists of the same generation. As Servent pointed out, Generation Y is not anti-militarist and does not suffer from post-colonial guilt. They’re a generation of pragmatic humanists who can see the world around them for what it is—multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multifarious—and they have a deep mistrust of grand ideas and highfalutin’ rhetoric.’

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Much to think on – and to agree or disagree with. We were once the next generation. Can the millennial generation engage with the world at a practical day-to-day level, and seek to change it as we did – and maybe with a little more success?