Pope Francis risks presiding over a split in the Roman Catholic Church – and apparently knows it.

In the nearly four years since he was elected, Pope Francis I has achieved the singular distinction of bringing the Roman Catholic Church within sight of schism. Even if a formal split is still unlikely, the de facto division widens every day his papacy continues. Like Martin Luther, who turned northern Europe into a battleground of Protestants versus Catholics – and whom the Pope, in his uniquely perverse way, made such a point of admiring recently – Francis is causing a rift between those who support him and those who put up with him – for now.  

A Pope arousing the animosity of many of his flock is itself something of an achievement. Roman Catholics have a tradition of loyalty to the Pope, who as successor of St Peter is meant to be a focus of unity. Francis is making the papacy a focus of discord.

His elevation to the Chair of Peter was itself a display of this disunity. Liberal churchmen such as the late Cardinal Martini – a Jesuit like Francis – conspired to have this then little known Argentinian elected Pope when Pope John Paul II died, but the Holy Spirit, who supposedly guides these elections, chose Benedict XVI instead. There is evidence that Benedict’s papacy was undermined by liberals from the start, and when he resigned – worn down by the worldwide scandal of clerical child abuse – Jorge Bergoglio was elected, partly because he wasn’t European and partly because he was seen as a man who could relate the Church to the contemporary world. (Progressive Catholics are always trying to relate the Church to the world, but the world seems perennially indifferent to their efforts. Certainly, their last big attempt, the “updating” of Catholicism by the Second Vatican Council, has been a washout, as shown by the statistics of decline everywhere.)

Once Pope, Francis set out to do two things. One was to project an air of bonhomie and promote himself as a “regular guy”. There was considerable virtue-signalling: much was made of his concern for “ordinary folk” as exemplified in his finding the time to phone his news vendor in Buenos Aires to thank him and say that, well, shucks, he’d had this promotion to Rome so would no longer need the morning paper. The world next learned about his taste for “simple living”: not for Francis the grandeur of the papal apartments in the Vatican. No, in the spirit of the humble saint whose name he’d adopted he would live in a plainly furnished room in a Vatican guesthouse. (Tactfully no one mentioned the cost of the extra security.) His desire to dispense with the papacy’s trappings of state has been further illustrated by his decision to turn his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo into a museum.

To dispense with the trappings, but not with the power. From the start Pope Francis has seen it as his function to lay down the law on anything that enters his head. This brings us to the second thing he has set out to do. He has made it clear that he disapproves of conservative Catholicism. “Conservative” nowadays means the Catholicism that was universal before the Second Vatican Council; as in the secular world, Catholic progressives have managed to shift the centre of gravity leftwards so that what was once the norm can now be presented as reactionary. Francis, who sometimes seem to be a Catholic in the sense that Malcolm Turnbull is a Liberal, has criticised as “nostalgics” those who attend the traditional Latin form of the Mass (and who constitute one of the few growth areas in modern Catholicism). He has suggested that “traditionalist” seminarians should be watched, as they might have the sort of “rigid” personalities that lead some people to join the police or the army. (Coming from Argentina, he’d know all about the police and the army and what they’re capable of – though unsurprisingly there is a veil of silence over his dealings with the sinister exponents of Peronism who ran that country. One wonders whether, as an authoritarian himself, he has a soft spot for dictatorships. He pronounced himself “grieved” at the death of the Church-persecuting, mass-murdering Fidel Castro.) 

He has again thumbed his nose at conservatives by issuing an “apostolic exhortation”, Amoris laetitia (“The joy of love”) in which it is suggested, if rather surreptitiously in a footnote, that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may be admitted to holy communion. Christ stated that those who remarry after divorce are “adulterers” (Matthew 5:32) and it has therefore been the continuous practice of the Church to treat such people as sinners and exclude them from the eucharist. To be fair, Amoris laetitia is probably a confused pastoral attempt to reconcile Catholic teaching with much contemporary matrimonial practice, but it is potentially the Sarajevo moment from which any schism would derive. The four (conservative) cardinals who have asked the Pope for clarification – effectively they have asked him if he is changing Catholic doctrine – have been conspicuously ignored, apart from a snarky aside from Francis against “legalism”. They have intimated that the Pope could be called to account for heresy. If conservative Catholics withdrew their recognition of Francis as Pope, the schism would have come about, and largely because Francis disdained to reply to a legitimate query.

Lately there are indications that Catholic progressives, too, are losing patience with Pope Francis. His non-ecclesiastical utterances are impeccably Leftist – pro-environmentalism, anti-Trump etc. (he follows the secular progressive agenda in never directly criticising Muslim nations for the persecution of Christians) – but spiritually, he is rather old-fashioned. He talks about sin and the Devil, topics Catholic progressives like to play down, and has done nothing that liberals really want – no married priests, no ordination of women; in fact he has affirmed that these things will not happen. Early in his papacy, during one of his ill thought out in-flight press conferences, he was asked for his views on homosexuality. “Who am I to judge?” was his much publicised, shoulder-shrugging answer. Well, he has just judged, by reiterating that gays are not to be ordained as Catholic priests.

So it mightn’t be only conservatives who’ll be happier when this papacy is over. That might be a while: at 80 Francis is healthy and energetic. And apparently he knows exactly what he is doing. The German magazine Der Spiegel reports that just before Christmas he told his inner circle: “It is not to be excluded that I will enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church”. Pope Francis is playing with fire.

25 January 2017
Published 7 January 2017 in The Spectator Australia


Malcolm Turnbull’s shilly-shallying before deciding to go ahead with the gay “marriage” plebiscite is what we have come to expect from a prime minister whose bumbling, if it continues, will soon deserve the epithet Gillardian, but worse than that it was anti-democratic. We need more plebiscites and referendums, not fewer.

Democracy, said Winston Churchill in 1947, is the worst form of government except for all the others. Leftists and other authoritarians tend not to like it because it gets in the way of their social engineering schemes and “world action” on climate change. But the real problem with democracy has always been how to include the entire demos. We can’t all fit into parliament.

It was hard enough in the Greek city-states. When Anglosphere democracy evolved in the thirteenth century it was still only democracy of a sort. The propertied classes sent one of their number to London to represent their interests in a leisurely sort of way, not minding much whether he lined his own pockets in the process. The unpropertied didn’t get a say until Australia led the way in the nineteenth century, but the enfranchisement of the whole adult population was not universal even here until 1962. Yet still now, under what the Soviets used to sneer at as our “two-party dictatorship”, not every voter who cares about an issue will necessarily have his opinions represented in parliament. Until recently there was nothing that could be done about that. Democracy was imperfect. But now we do have a way.

The difficulty with referendums and plebiscites in the past has been that they were cumbersome to organise and costly to implement. Information technology shows that they need no longer be. With social media you know overnight what large numbers of people think on any public issue, without the taxpayer spending a cent. Is it beyond the wit of man to adapt this technology to the process of voting in a referendum? In a sense a start has already been made with the collection of census information online. That this was hardly a spectacular success is no refutation of the principle.

But aren’t decisions on national or state policy what we elect parliaments to take? Of course they are, and it would be chaotic to delegate all the minutiae of decision-making to a technological public consultation. But referendums and plebiscites have traditionally been reserved for issues of such moment that elected representatives themselves feel that the whole electorate should make a decision, not they alone as its delegates. Conscription, the republic, constitutional change and now something as fundamental to civilisation as the nature and definition of marriage - these are decisions not for MPs who are here today and will be gone tomorrow but for the whole nation that will have to live with the consequences.

The nation is not only people who are interested in politics. Here is another flaw in parliamentary democracy. People elected to parliament tend to be people who like playing politics. They like the sound of their own voice, they were good at debating at school and in university political clubs, they enjoyed the scheming and intrigue of backroom union and party deals, of jockeying for influence and power, of pushing themselves ahead. Naturally, they do it with the noblest of motives and probably persuade themselves that their ascent to parliament is an unalloyed benefit bestowed on their fellow-citizens. But they are interested in politics, as people are interested in stamps or the novels of Jane Austen; politics with a large or small p is their pastime in a way that it is not for the vast majority they aspire to represent.

Generally, this majority can live or put up with, even be unaware of, the decisions taken in parliament by the politicophiles. But certain issues will affect them more than others and it is to decide on these that true democracy demands that the unpoliticised should be roused from their indifference. Referendums and plebiscites take the temperature of a nation in a way that transcends party politics.

The fact that there is such strident opposition to the same-sex marriage plebiscite from one side confirms the democratic desirability of going ahead with it. The gay and lesbian lobby wants to deny a voice to anyone who disagrees. The plebiscite will give them one. This is essential because the Left-liberal media, which increasingly means the commercial media and not just Fairfax and the ABC, don’t give much space to the arguments against same-sex marriage, choosing instead to babble on about equality and justice. They were just as unashamedly one-sided before the republic referendum, cheering for a republic as though there were no intellectually respectable arguments against one. It turned out that the nation at large, whose opinion would never have been known without a referendum, thought differently.

The real reason for opposition to the plebiscite is that the proponents of gay marriage fear they will lose it. All the talk about the pre-plebiscite campaign becoming a forum for “hate speech” and of adolescent gays committing suicide because of the shocking things they will hear said about themselves by the “No” campaign is humbug. Judging by public and social-media utterances already made, the really vile nasty things will be said by gay-marriage supporters about their opponents.

A second reason gay-marriage activists oppose the plebiscite is because they know it would be much less troublesome to have the change enacted in parliament. They could easily have the legislation rammed through on a conscience vote by browbeating wavering MPs and threatening to denounce them as “homophobic” or worse. Even middle-of-the-road Coalition MPs are sensitive to that sort of accusation. But put the decision to the whole nation and the outcome is less certain. Anecdotal evidence suggests the proposal will pass, but that’s no guarantee. Anecdotal evidence convinced David Cameron that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union, otherwise he wouldn’t have called the referendum; no serious commentator expected the Leave side to win, neither did the polls. It could be the same with gay marriage. The same-sexers’ worst fears about the plebiscite might actually be confirmed.

Of course a “No” vote would be received with the usual ill grace but at least the plebiscite is to be held. It is in the interests of widening participation in democracy that it should be. Having at last taken one contentious decision, the federal government might now invest some time and effort into working out how the nation as a whole can be given a say, efficiently and cheaply, on a wider range of divisive issues. 

17 September 2016

Published in The Spectator Australia


We all know, because we have been told a thousand times by authoritative publications such as The Age’s “Epicure” and the Gourmet Traveller, that Australian restaurants are the best in the world. Forget Paris, New York, Rome etc. Nowhere overseas offers an excellence of cuisine to compare with Australia’s or such a variety of culinary traditions. That’s not just the standard ones – the tiniest and remotest place on the globe seems to be represented somewhere in Australia by a restaurant where you can, in theory anyway, enjoy its cuisine.

Food is food, not history, and any unsavoury associations the country of origin might have is no reason not to appreciate its cooking. Australians blithely ingest the cuisine of a country that, if it had had its way, would now be ruling them from Tokyo. The millions slaughtered by Mao cause no loss of appetite to the antipodean connoisseur of the various cuisines of China. German food is less popular, but that is not because of the horrors of Nazism but rather to its being seen by the self-obsessed as stodgy and unhealthy. Nachos and paella are consumed with no qualms about their origins in Spain and its brutal empire. Mussolini might not have existed for all Australia’s spaghetti-eaters care. As for Pol Pot – have you heard about the really groovy little Cambodian place down by the harbour?  

Food is not history, except in the case of one country, which a certain loud minority of Left-leaning, Twitter-babbling Australians is incapable of regarding with the sane cosmopolitan detachment they imagine themselves to show towards the rest of the world. That country is Great Britain, fons et origo of Australia’s national institutions and of the forebears of most of its population and still, to the chagrin of the Leftist, seat of its monarchy.  

Great Britain has on its history the indelible stain of not only having had an empire like the Germans and Japanese, but of having had an empire that thanks to two generations of Marxist-derived indoctrination in schools and universities is now known to have been just about the greatest force of evil in the history of the universe. There’s no point in saying other empires have been worse. Australian Leftists can’t argue rationally where the British are concerned. The  detestation of “imperialism” instilled by post-colonialist history courses is compounded by the chippy republican anti-Britishness long present in this country, inherited from Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century.

So when, in the course of widening ever further the horizons of our national culinary outreach, a restaurant opens in Brisbane calling itself the British Colonial Co. and announcing as its inspiration “the stylish days” of the British Empire, there are shrieks of protest from the self-appointed sages of social media. The offence is compounded by the new restaurant’s description of its cuisine as reflecting the  exotic” dishes brought back by “imperial travellers” “from the Caribbean, India, the Far East and Africa.” “Racist”, that portmanteau term of Leftist disapproval, leaps from a thousand keyboards. By choosing a colonial theme, according to one historically illiterate user of the restaurant’s Facebook page, the restaurant has “romanticized colonization with no respect to the fact that generation (sic) greatly suffered in Australia because of it." A wit chimed in, suggesting a visit to the restaurant if you are “in the mood for imperialism and genocide for dinner". Someone called Reuben Acciano, a “social media manager”, boasted, “I fixed British Colonial Co.’s ad for them.” Like a street graffitist, his infantile intervention consisted of daubing words such as “genocidal” and “enslavement” over the restaurant’s home page, and adding the phrase “plundered culinary traditions” – that’s pretty rich in a country like ours with no national cuisine of its own (and have a look at Reuben’s Instagram page).

The British Colonial Co., as is always the way, has caved in to these bigots, replacing its website text with some blather about “the adventure of east meets west” and saying it is “upset and saddened” that its “brand is causing offence and distress to some members of the community.” This is touchingly naïve. These “members of the community” take offence in their sleep. They don’t really care about anyone who has “greatly suffered” under colonialism or any other oppression, past or present. Many are themselves keen restaurant-goers Leftists love exotic food, a) because of their commitment to multiculturalism and b) to show their disdain for the boring British diet of two chops, watery vegetables and rice pudding they allege everyone ate in Australian till migrants with more exciting cuisines turned up to show us how to eat decently. Feeding their well-fed faces on the recipes of the world (not “plundered” when they’re doing the eating) chardonnay sophisticates of tis sort spend hundreds of dollars on a meal and when they leave the restaurant step over people sleeping in the street. You only have to look around you in any large Australian city.

The British Colonial Co. should have the courage of its convictions and carry on as it began. There are still plenty of people in Australia, a majority even, who admire Britain and its traditions. "Nothing wrong with being proud of the Empire. Britain did more to elevate the standard of living in more places around the world than any of the natives ever did," said one brave soul on Facebook, impervious to the risk of vituperation.

The sound and the fury will soon subside as the offence-takers transfer their outrage to something else as easily as they move from cuisine to cuisine. History too has moved on from the empire at the heart of the fuss. Someone once called it the empire on which the sun never sets. Whoever it was could have not foreseen that half a century later it would not be on the empire but on inarticulate Leftist hatred of it that the sun doesn’t set.

28 September 2016

Published in a shortened version on The Spectator "Life" site