Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is Francis the first non-European pope in 1000 years?

A postcard available in all leftwing bookshops, with the words of Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara, a proponent of liberation theology.  George Monbiot quoted them last week in The Guardian to expose what he calls one of the great fissures in the Catholic church, and the emptiness of the Pope Francis's claim to be on the side of the poor. 

If you're tempted to dismiss the Catholic Church and what goes on inside it as irrelevant, read Monbiot’s article.  On Irish radio the other day a panellist suggested Francis may soon surprise us, and regrets his inglorious role in face of the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina. (See good and bad things they say about him.) I doubt it, but we'll see.

Non-European Pope

Argentina suggests a little digression. In the past couple of weeks countless media columns have observed that Pope Francis is a first in many ways, and the first of these firsts is invariably that he's the first non-European pope in 1,272 years.  A statement based on the year 741 being when Pope Gregory III, born in Syria, ended his 10-year reign. 

Now the question I pose is: back in the year 741, was Syria in fact outside Europe?

And I have to reply no. For the concept of Europe didn't yet exist. I can draw a parallel. I could say that in 1966 Angela Rippon became Britain's first female newsreader in 200 years. A true statement in a way, but pointless, since in 1766 there were no newsreaders, male nor female.

Likewise in 741 there were neither Europeans, nor non-Europeans.  So what was there? What idea in 741 did the intelligentsia carry in their heads that most nearly answers what we think of when we think of Europe?

Non-European popes Francis & Gregory III
The question calls for a whole essay on what we think of when we think of Europe, which I'll spare you, and get straight to the point.  About a century before 741, the answer would have been quite clear: the Roman Empire. Meaning primarily all the lands bordering the Mediterranean.  However by 741 the idea of the Roman Empire was somewhat frayed. Syria, one of the empire’s richest provinces, was now in Arab hands.  I wonder though, in 741 was it yet obvious that this was destined to be a permanent state of affairs?  I think the idea of Christendom was taking over. This is a hard concept to pin down. It meant the community of all Christians; and maybe (I'm less sure of this) carried a vague geographical dimension. In 741, according to my understanding, the majority of Syrians would still have been Christians, even though the ruling élite were Muslims.

So back to the original question. I think the statement that Francis is the first non-European pope since 741 is at best pointless. And at worst it's misleading, because Syria was part of Christendom, indeed one could almost say at the heart of Christendom. And a bishop from there could not remotely have been described as a non-anything, in the way that Francis is described as non-European.

These thoughts are tentative. I hope some historian will read this and put me right. Late antiquity and the early middle ages are a fascinating period to me. I've just started a book recommended by my friend Chris, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (2009) by Chris Wickham. In his introduction he says that even by the end of his period, Europe was not yet born. That's what set me thinking about this first non-European pope business.