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Pope Francis

Agnostics Anonymous

Agnosticcolumn.jpgPlenty of reasons to prefer the new Pope to the old one: he's not too aged and infirm to take the office; he wasn't actually a member of the Hitler-Jugend in his youth; and he hasn't yet been accused of conspiracy to cover up institutional child sexual abuse on a global scale. On the whole, a breath of fresh air. And he has signalled his wish for a clean start for the Papacy by naming himself after St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis is one of the few saints whose references still read well in the modern world. The standard saint's CV is short, improbable, and mostly taken up with the extended details of a gory martyr's death. St. Francis, on the other hand, comes with multiple contemporary testimonies to his lovable character, and a portfolio of hymns and prayers. These writings include praise for nature and animals, themes that seem benignly uncontroversial today but were radical at the time.

The beauty in nature was not self-evident to medieval Christians. Nature is the fallen world, the realm of sin and the devil. St. Francis' Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures) has been described as European literature's first good word for nature per se (rather than for its Creator); one of the very few antecedents for the great explosion of nature-worship that happened in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. In medieval depictions of the apocalypse, you can sometimes see animals falling into the lake of fire. Soulless brutish automata, animals are destroyed with the rest of the material world. St. Francis preached the gospel to birds.

He wanted to imitate Christ and the simplicity of early Christianity. Brothers of the Franciscan order  he founded were to follow Christ's example by embracing poverty and living on charity.  But it rapidly gained wealth and power, and within a century of the saint's death, Pope  John XXII had condemned the notion that Christ and his disciples lived in poverty as a heresy.   It's popularly held that the 'SCV' on the license plates of Vatican City cars stands not for 'Stato della Citta del Vaticano', but for 'se Cristo vedesse': 'if Christ could see it…'  The implication being the first-century Jewish carpenter's son from Galilee would not be unequivocally delighted with what is done in his name.

Mrs Thatcher quoted Francis on Downing Street after winning the 1979 election: 'where there is discord, may we bring harmony'. That went well. If Francis could have seen Thatcherism he may have hesitated to give his celebrity endorsement to an ideology that made the rich richer and charity a dirty word. But however enlightened the individual, they have no control over their legacy. Religious institutions live in the fallen world. As Francis' namesake will find, they cannot simply regain their innocence.