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Compassion is fashionable again. Thank the Pope

(Oh, and the widening wealth gap)

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

There was something poignant about the decision of L’Wren Scott, Mick Jagger’s American girlfriend, who committed suicide in New York last month, to leave everything she had to him in her will. Maybe it was out of gratitude for his help in keeping her foundering fashion business afloat; or maybe it was just a mark of her devotion to the man she referred to in the will as ‘my Michael Philip Jagger’. But whatever her motive, it was a decision very much against the spirit of the times, one that will further widen the gap between rich and poor by adding property worth £5.5 million to Jagger’s already estimated personal fortune of around £200 million. He is hardly the most needy recipient of such largesse.

The growing wealth gap in society is a matter of widespread and mounting concern, as is the plight of its poorest members. Compassion is now fashionable again, and this is in large part thanks to the popularity of Pope Francis, who announced early in his reign that he would like to preside over a Church ‘which is poor and for the poor’. Setting an example by moving out of his ornate papal apartment into a modest Vatican guesthouse, he warned other members of the Roman Catholic clergy against showing undue extravagance. ‘It breaks my heart when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model of car,’ he said last summer. ‘Cars are necessary, but take a more humble one. Think of how many children die of hunger.’ (He himself swapped the papal limousine for a Ford Focus.)


Since then, the Pope has accepted the resignation of the German Bishop of Limburg, the so-called ‘bishop of bling’, who had angered his congregation by spending more than €31 million on the beautification of his residence; and he has unleashed something approaching panic among the highest-spending prelates in the United States. The Archbishop of Atlanta, Wilton D. Gregory, who had chosen to build himself a new $2.2 million residence with money and land bequeathed to the Church by a nephew of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, announced last weekend that he was putting it up for sale; he had earlier apologised for failing ‘to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services’. Gregory is only one of several American bishops recently to have faced sharp criticism for overspending on their houses by lay Catholics citing the example and the teachings of Pope Francis.

In Britain this week, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, joined Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in launching a joint campaign to highlight the plight of the poor. The Cardinal called it a ‘disgrace’ that there were still destitute people in a country as rich as Britain. And last month the Queen herself had caused a stir by saying on a visit to Royal Holloway, University of London: ‘Poor people and their problems don’t get reported often, and they need all the assistance they can get.’ Although the Queen was accused in some circles of constitutional impropriety (as her uncle Edward VIII had been when he declared on a pre-war tour of depressed Welsh mining villages that ‘something must be done’), it would be hard to detect criticism of the government in either her or the archbishops’ remarks.

Nevertheless, this high-level focus on the poor serves to sharpen the controversy over the Conservative leadership’s revival of its plans to raise the threshold at which people pay inheritance tax to £1 million. It will at any rate help strengthen the resolve of Nick Clegg and his friends to resist such a step, and the Lib Dems can look for moral support across the Atlantic to two of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who believe in inheritance tax as a means of preserving the American ideal of a meritocracy in which everybody starts life with the same opportunities. Gates and Buffett belong to the school of thought that children shouldn’t have things too easy or they could end up being useless good-for-nothings. That could be so, but the poor, of course, are just as likely to end up that way.


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