Pope Francis Should Seek Clarity on Moral Responsibility

One of the consequences of living in an information age is that we are made instantly, and constantly, aware of the disasters around the world, both natural and man-made, and of the enormous suffering that they cause. There are no more far-away lands of which to know nothing, to quote Neville Chamberlain, a man whom nobody would describe as wicked but yet who is the most despised of British Prime Ministers. We are all citizens of the world now.

Knowledge of suffering seems to place upon us an obligation of compassion that is greater than we can possibly bear. We respond in one of two ways: to claim a level of feeling that is greater than we actually can or do feel, in which case we become humbugs; or we harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh. The compassion center in our brain, if such exists (and some neuroscientists claimed to have found the empathy center), is overwhelmed and worn out. A visitor to Mussolini once emerged from his visit exclaiming ‘Too many spats! Too many spats!’; our compassion center, in like fashion, cries ‘Too many famines! Too many civil wars!’ And so we retire to cultivate our garden.

Pope Francis chose Lampedusa recently as his first place to visit outside Rome after his election to the papacy. Lampedusa is an Italian island of 8 square miles with a permanent population of 6000, which so far this year has received 7800 migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan and North Africa, that is to say more than 1000 a month. When the Pope officiated at mass on the island’s sports field, there were 10,000 in the congregation, two thirds more than the permanent population, suggesting that the migrants stay a few months at least on Lampedusa. How far the 4000 non-inhabitants of Lampedusa (many of them presumably non-Catholics) attended the mass for religious reasons, and how many for political advantage, may be guessed at but not known.

In effect the island has been transformed into a refugee camp, not necessarily with the approval or agreement of the original inhabitants. This was a fait accompli imposed upon them by political, historical and geographical circumstances.

Estimates suggest that about 100 migrants a month for the past twenty years have drowned during their clandestine passage across the Mediterranean towards Europe. This being the case, no one could possibly say that the migrants decided on the journey in a whimsical or light-hearted fashion. The attraction of Europe or the repulsion of their homelands, or both, must be very powerful for so many people to risk so high a chance of so pathetic a death. The Pope said that all his compassion went to the immigrants who had died at sea ‘in these boats that, instead of bringing hope of a better life, brought them to death,’ and this was right and proper. Surely someone must be lacking in both imagination and feeling not to sorrow for these poor people.

Compassionate fellow-feeling, however, can soon become self-indulgent and lead to spiritual pride. It imparts an inner glow, like a shot of whiskey on a cold day, but like whiskey it can prevent the clear-headedness which we need at least as much as we need warmth of heart. Pascal said that the beginning of morality was to think well; generosity of spirit is not enough.

In his homily, the Pope decried what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ to the suffering of which the tragedy of the drowned was a manifestation and a consequence. Our culture of comfort, he said, has made us indifferent to the sufferings of others; we have forgotten how to cry on their behalf. He made reference to the play of Lope de Vega in which a tyrant is killed by the inhabitants of a town called Fuente Ovejuna, no one owning up to the killing and everyone saying that it was Fuente Ovejuna that killed him. The West, said the Pope, was like Fuente Ovejuna, for when asked who was to blame for the deaths of these migrants, it answered, ‘Everyone and no one!’ He continued, ‘Today also this question emerges: who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We each reply: it was not I, I wasn’t here, it was someone else.’

The Pope also called for ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity that open the way to tragedies such as these to come out of hiding.’

With all due respect, I think this is very loose thinking indeed of a kind that the last Pope would not have permitted himself. The analogy between the two situations, the murder of the tyrant in Fuente Ovejuna and the death by drowning of thousands of migrants, is weak to the point of non-existence. After all, someone in Fuente Ovejuna did kill the tyrant; no one in the west drowned the migrants. Is the Pope then saying that Europe’s refusal to allow in all who want to come is the moral equivalent of actually wielding the knife?

By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy. This imprecision allowed him to evade the vexed question as to exactly how many of the suffering of Africa, and elsewhere, Europe was supposed to admit and subsidize (and by Europe I mean, of course, the European taxpayer, who might have problems of his own). I was reminded of a discussion in my French family in which one brother-in-law complained to another of the ungenerous attitude of the French state towards immigrants from the Third World. ‘Well,’ said the other, ‘you have room enough. Why don’t you take ten Malians?’ To this there was no reply except that it was a low blow: though to me it seemed a perfectly reasonable response.

The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words; but whatever else they meant, we were to understand that he was on the side of the little man, not the big, itself a metonym for virtuous sentiment. The only specific group whom the Pope denounced were the traffickers in people, those who arrange passage of the migrants in return for money and who are utterly indifferent to their safety; but this denunciation hardly required moral courage because such people have no defenders.

Warmth of feeling cannot be the sole guide to our responses to the dilemmas that the world constantly puts in our path. There was, for example, a sudden influx of Congolese refugees into the city in which I worked as a doctor. Within a short time a ‘community’ grew up and in three or four years the Congolese population of the city went from zero to half a per cent of the entire population.

I had quite a few Congolese patients and although the regulations stated that they were to be treated only in emergencies I could hardly refuse them other treatment, and did not. I soon found that I was giving them advice on all sorts of non-medical matters. I liked them as people; often they had suffered terribly; most of them were determined to do their best in their new country. In many ways they were admirable (admirable people often emerge from the most terrible circumstances). It helped our relations that I had once crossed the Congo in the days when it was Zaire and that I knew something of the country’s history; to meet someone for whom the Congo was not merely a name, if even that, must have been a relief to them in their isolation.

Despite my sympathy for them (how much better their children behaved than the spoilt brats of the local population!), and the fact that I was willing to break some bureaucratic rules on their behalf, I did not think that the government could very well throw wide open the doors of the country to the Congo and let all who wished come, although there was no reason to suppose that those who would be excluded would be any worse human beings than those who were admitted. There was injustice in this, for some would benefit and others would suffer merely by chance and not by merit or demerit. But to right this injustice would be worse than not to right it: hence the tragedy. The nature of human existence inevitably creates conflict between desiderata.

That is one of the reasons why the kingdom of the Pope’s master could not possibly be of this world. And the absence of the tragic sense in the Pope’s remarks allowed him to wallow in a pleasing warm bath of sentiment without distraction by complex and unpleasant realities. Perhaps this will earn him applause in the short run; but in the long run he does not serve his flock by such over-simplifications.