Shelley and Pope Francis

In the Mask of Anarchy, Shelley presents the tyrannical government of England as very clearly shown as being propped up by bishops and priests.  Indeed, Shelley once characterized religion as the "hand maiden of tyranny".  He said this because religion is faith-based and encourages people to discard their skepticism and accept things as they are.  This is why the recent mania for "stoicism" is so popular in the alt-right movement. It is probably the LAST ancient philosophy we need to revive today; a point that has been eloquently made by Oxford philosopher Sandy Grant. As tyrants threaten to take the stage around the world, we need to keep a close eye on how religion is being used as a tool to control the people. We are faced by a new administration in Washington well stocked with evangelical Christians, many of whom are hard-line "dominionists"; Stephen Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Betsy de Vos are examples.  Christian dominionism is a radical ideology whose adherents believe that it is their duty to seize control of the civic institutions and rule the United States as a theocratic Christian state.  Dominionists oppose and seek the repeal of the 1st Amendment which enshrined the separation of church and state.

Which brings us to Jorge Gergoglio, otherwise known as Pope Francis. 

Gergoglio is probably a very good man, but as pope, he is very fond of highly symbolic gestures that change very little: for example, on the question of gays priests in the church, he has done absolutely nothing except express the sort of benign sympathy that garners headlines. Here is how a sympathetic, beguiled reporter for the New Yorker reacted:

Who am I to judge?” With those five words, spoken in late July [2013] in reply to a reporter’s question about the status of gay priests in the Church, Pope Francis stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of Popes and bishops. This gesture of openness, which startled the Catholic world, would prove not to be an isolated event.

And indeed, the writer was correct. He did step away from disapproving tones, it eas not isolated; but he has done little more. Another example is his non-action on the issue of women priests. Gergoglio has repeatedly stated that women can not and will not be ordained. More recently, we have his attack on the materialism of christmas. Popular to be sure, but what about the materialism of the catholic church itself? Well, he has said nothing.

Gergoglio the news last summer for more non-action on the paedophile priests and their enablers in the Catholic church.  The Guardian reported that

"Catholic bishops who fail to sack paedophile priests can [now] be removed from office under new church laws announced by Pope Francis.".

There are more than a few problems with this.  The first question has to be, "You are kidding me, they didn't have a rule about this already?" Are we supposed to congratulate the Vatican on introducing a rule that should have been introduced decades ago - or the fact that there even needed to BE a rule?  But then critics of the pope pointed out that yes, there already IS a rule. According to the Guardian,

"While acknowledging that church laws already allowed for a bishop to be removed for negligence, Francis said he wanted the “grave reasons” more precisely defined. However, doubts remain about the Vatican’s commitment to tackling the issue."

So what exactly has Gergoglio done? Well, almost nothing it would seem.  This attention-grabbing move seems to be window dressing designed to distract attention from actions he has taken recently to actually protect priests accused of covering up abuse. The Guardian:

The move comes shortly after the pontiff moved to defend a French cardinal accused of covering up abuse. Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, is facing criticism for his handling of allegations made against Bernard Preynat, a priest in the diocese who has been charged with sexually abusing boys.

Gergoglio also seems to be moving to maintain in office his financial chief, Cardinal George Pell - a man accused of covering up systemic child abuse in Australia. As the Guardian reports, Pell has improbably denied all knowledge of priests abusing children as he rose through the ranks of the Catholic church. As recently as November last year Pell was still refusing the answer questions about the issue and he is still a cardinal.

Which brings us to Shelley.

Over a year ago, a fellow student in Professor Eric Alan Weinstein’s Open Learning course, “The Great Poems: Unbinding Prometheus” posed the following question to the community. 

“I'm wondering what Shelley would've made of the Pope's visit to America (something that was up close and personal for those of you in Philly).   I was jazzed by his remarks about climate change, the war economy, social justice and the widening economic divide in this country. Then, boom, I read that he met in secret with Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis (the elected official who refused to give marriage licenses to gay couples). So I guess the Pope's great compassion for prisoners, refugees, the poor and minorities of all stripes does not extend to gay couples. So much of what he said in public was worthwhile, but what he did in private was revealing and makes me think this holy man has a keen and secular focus on his public image. Interesting to see what was selected for presentation on the outside (I'm not challenging the sincerity of that) and what was kept behind the "veil" that Shelley tells us must be rent.”

I thought this was an excellent question and one that remains worth considering at length. 

Shelley was profoundly anti-clerical and an avowed atheist fond of referring to religion in terms such as: “the hand-maiden of tyranny”. He certainly had no truck with the priests of his day, so what might he had thought about the pope’s visit to America -- particularly in light of the pope's latest propagandistic actions? Given the fawning reaction accorded to Gergoglio by American political leaders and even an otherwise skeptical media, my opinion is that Shelley would have been appalled.

Readers approaching Shelley for the first time are often genuinely confused by what they find. In my article "Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat." What did Shelley Mean?  I have offered a partial explanation - one which I will elucidate in much greater detail in the future.  Most modern readers are genuinely surprised to learn he was a skeptic and an atheist.  The reasons for this are complex, but for the purposes of this article, suffice to say that thanks to centuries of sometimes deliberate mis-readings, modern readers expect a somewhat florid, vapid lyrical poet who wore puffy shirts.  But what they find is radically different: they find an intensely political writer for whom, according to Timothy Webb, “politics were probably the dominating concern in [his] intellectual life."

The signs can be confusing in other ways because Shelley often used overtly religious language for decidedly atheistical, secular purposes. Missing the irony in his use of religious terminology, many otherwise astute readers have concluded that he was a closet Christian.

But he was not. Shelley was an atheist; he was a skeptic; and he was a philosophical anarchist.  He viewed religion as perhaps the most pernicious force in society.  As an anarchist and a skeptic he saw religion and its adherence to dogma and tradition as the number one enemy of political reform.  As an anarchist and a skeptic he was an opponent of most forms of state government and all forms of religious tradition and dogma.  He would have viewed the Catholic church as one of the most corrupt institutions on earth - and one of the most dangerous. He would have been appalled to see the coverage of the pope's visit to America, for reasons I will try to elucidate. 

I had exactly the same reaction to the secret meeting pope Francis had with the county clerk as my fellow student did.  There is no disguising hypocrisy that is this bold and this brazen.  It is fitting that what Gergoglio conceived of as, and desired to be, a secret meeting was nothing of the sort as he was almost immediately betrayed by the clerk's lust for publicity and acknowledgement.  It was her own lawyer that leaked the fact the meeting took place - he revealed they planned all along to make the photographs public.  I am sure pope Francis would have been very happy to have that secret meeting remain a secret - which also begs the question of exactly how many other secret meeting there were or have been over time.

But back to Shelley.  Why would he have been so concerned?  Perhaps because Gergoglio's messages were so smoothly, so seductively and so beautifully adapted to the troika of modern woes my fellow student so aptly identified: the environment, the seemingly endless wars we are fighting and the growing divide between rich and poor.  The Vatican has achieved enormous mileage from utterly empty gestures such as Gergoglio’s decision not to wear the expensive red shoes favoured by his predecessors.

Pope Benedict wearing red Prada shoes.

Pope Benedict wearing red Prada shoes.

The announcement that he now has "rules" to deal with bishops who hide paedophile priests falls into the same category.

I believe that the Gergoglio's messages regarding climate change, war, and poverty are important, but they are also dangerous because they operate to distract us from his failure to address the systemic problems associated with the catholic church.  Chief among these is the fact that it is founded on allegedly "sacred texts" that are, as Tim Whitmarsh noted, imagined to be “nonnegotiable contracts with the divine, inspired or authored as they are by god himself.” (Whitmarsh, 28).  The Greeks, to whom Shelley looked as a primary source for his philosophical foundation, had no such concept of books that possessed magical properties and which contained the source of ultimate truth.  Such beliefs are unique to the world’s monotheistic religions. The pope has been accorded a similarly magical status by the church: edicts promulgated by a pope are believed to be infallible – they can not be questioned or altered – ever.

Late in life my father, a converted roman catholic, lost his faith.  The reason for this was the failure of the church to address the systemic sexual abuse of children by priests - and the centuries long cover up. By addressing issues such as climate change and the evils of capitalism, the pope is distracting us from the real problems that are rotting the church.  The Vatican is a walled nation state.  A critic of the evils of capitalism, Gergoglio sits astride an entity that is awash in obscene amounts of money -- all of it gained through the very capitalist system the pope so disingenuously attacks.  The Catholic church owns some of the most valuable property on the planet.

This pope needs to put his own house in order before he comes to the rest of us with homilies on what ails the world.  Gergoglio should act to ordain women, cast out his own capitalistic devils, and don sack cloth in order to crisscross the globe begging forgiveness for what the church did to indigenous cultures around the world. The Vatican should institute a truth and reconciliation commission.  Gergoglio should renounce his papal “infallibility." The church should pay reparations.  Why is it only secular governments that are apologizing to indigenous peoples and paying reparations?  As for the sexual abuse scandals? Why is this still an issue?  The church has the names.  The church knows exactly who did what and to whom.  They have files that must fill warehouses.  Turn everything over to the police.  There is no role for the church in investigating the egregious crimes committed againstchildren. None.  The police have experts who deal daily in sexual abuse matters. The pope has the power to turn over everything to the police. He should do it NOW!

Shelley would be dismayed to think that after the passage of 200 years, people in vast numbers yet approach the subject of religion credulously.  Many of them still actually believe that a ghost impregnated a virgin.

A poem of Shelley's that I would recommend to those who care to go deeper would be "Peter Bell the Third".  This is an unjustly overlooked poem.  Is it EVER taught at university?  I doubt it.   P.M.S. Dawson argues that the subject of this poem is the alienation of society from itself (Dawson, 199). Dawson writes, "The key to this alienation is in Shelley's view the acceptance of religious fictions....Shelley identifies the slavish acceptance of a corrupt religion with devotion to tyrannical social order." (Dawson, 199).  Shelley himself pointed to religion as the "prototype of human misrule."  Dawson: "God, the Devil and Damnation may be absurd fictions, but men's belief in them has also made them sinister and palpable realities." (Dawson, 200)  As Shelley perceptively notes, "'Tis a lie to say God damns."  Why?  Because we damn ourselves.

Shelley very clearly saw men like Gergoglio as part of the "ghastly masquerade" of the Mask of Anarchy. He even has a line which seemed to anticipate him:

"Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,"

                        Mask of Anarchy (ll 14-15, 22-23)

Works Cited

Dawson, P.M.S.  The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Print.

Witmarsh, Timothy, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Knopf, 2015. Print