This is the text of a talk given at The Sydney Institute earlier this year.

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Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.   
Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.   

Blaise Pascal

I received a text message: “Did you get my email? We’d like you to talk about God.”

There was no indication on the text who had sent it. So, I went through my email searching under the word “God” and found Anne Henderson’s email asking me to participate in this evening’s function. My first thought was “I’m no expert on God! I’m not even a theologian or historian like Paul Collins.”

I am, however, a bioethicist, a member of the relatively new profession of applied or practical ethics, who are the latest group to be accused of “playing God” – they seem to have taken over from doctors in doing that.

(It brings to mind the old joke that the new arrival in Heaven asked St Peter who the man was rushing about in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck and St Peter replied, “Oh, that’s God playing doctors.” Perhaps these days he’s playing bioethicists.)

Ethicists are also sometimes described, often with some hostility, as the “moral police”. That characterization tells us that ethicists exercise power and authority and, like the Pope’s power, this is “soft power” that is power exercised through persuasion and influence in contrast to “hard power”, that exercised through coercion, such as military force or economic sanctions.

A difference between soft and hard power might be that “soft power” is given by the people over whom it is exercised, they choose to be influenced, whereas “hard power” is taken by those exercising it in forcing the people over whom it is exercised to comply or conform. One way that Francis has described this difference is as between helping people to “fall in love” with the Church’s moral teachings as compared with convincing them to “fall in line” with those teachings. But, whether soft or hard, power and authority must be exercised ethically, which raises the issue of what that requires. Interestingly, there is almost no research or literature specifically on the ethics of ethicists. Paul Collins gives us some insights into the ethics – or otherwise – of Popes.

So might one way to view the Pope’s “soft power” be that he is seen as the “Chief Ethicist” in the Catholic Church and his power comes from being respected as such, including by many people who are not Roman Catholic or even religious. As an aside, it’s notable how many younger Catholic bishops and priests have academic qualifications in theoretical and applied ethics, whether in moral theology or moral philosophy, including in bioethics.

Pope Francis focuses on areas such as social justice, poverty, homelessness, the plight of refugees, those harmed by war and violence especially children, and protection of the environment, where we are likely to find agreement on right and wrong, ethical and unethical, that is, we can find some shared ethics. This is important as it allows us to participate in an experience of belonging to the same moral community. It also allows us to start from where we can agree on our values and what ethics requires, rather than focussing just on our disagreements, as is so often the case. Moving from where we agree to where we disagree alters the tone of the discussion that surrounds our disagreements. That discussion is less hostile and more respectful.

Francis also gives strong emphasis to the role of individual conscience, which helps people to see those with whom they disagree, not as the enemy or evil, but as sincere people with different values. Graham Greene explains such an altered perception as arising from the pity or compassion we can’t help feeling when we see another as a person, because we can’t hate those for whom we feel pity or compassion. This means that hate for our opponents results from a failure of our imagination to see those who disagree with us as a person. (The Power and the Glory, Penguin 1971, 131) Indeed, we often depersonalize and dis-identify from those whom we treat in a way that we would not want to be treated ourselves in order to treat them in that way. Torture is a paramount example of this phenomenon.

Might “soft power” have limited “hard power” or even, in some cases, displaced and defanged the latter? Communications technologies, the instruments of “soft power”, operate on a global scale, with almost instantaneous connection and involve huge numbers of people. Counting just Catholics, Francis has over one billion followers around the world.

Unlike “hard power”, “soft power” tends to be non-hierarchical, although despite that it too can be used tyrannically – through naming and shaming, attributing guilt by assertion and not proof, emotional tyranny, and so on. “Soft power” also crosses boundaries that are impermeable to “hard power”. And young people, in particular, are forming online groups to exercise “soft power” – whether to save the honey bees from neonicotinoid insecticides or expose slave labour situations in the cheap clothing industry. I suggest they feel a compatibility with Francis and even see him as a leader.

The Pope is primarily a religious figure and post-modern Western democracies are often described as “secular societies”, so is there a paradox in the Pope being such a powerful, influential figure? That depends on what the term “secular societies” means, which raises a wider issue, namely, what is the proper role, if any, of religion in the public square, in particular, in informing public and social policy, in such societies?

In secular societies, most people support every person’s right to freedom of religion – the right to choose one’s religion and not to have a religion imposed on one by the state or to have a state religion. They also support freedom for religion – the state must allow the practice of religion within the law and not interfere in purely religious matters. In the last twenty or so years, however, there have been strong claims by secularists that there is a right to freedom from religion, that is, that religion has no valid voice in the public square and the views and values of religious people, whether lay or clergy, should be excluded.

The flaw in this argument is that everyone, including secularists who argue for the exclusion of religious voices, has a belief system – a “world view”, indeed, secularism is a “secular religion” – and in a democratic society every voice has a right to be heard in the public square. It is as wrong to exclude “religious voices”, as it would be to exclude “secular voices”.

A common strategy used to dismiss the arguments of people with conservative or traditional values is to label the person and their values as religious and propose that, therefore, they should be excluded from public or social policy decision making. The corollary strategy is not employed. That would be to dismiss the arguments of people with so-called progressive values by labelling them and their arguments as atheist and, propose that, therefore, they should be excluded from public or social policy decision making.

The big values divide in our Western societies, at present, is between those with conservative or traditional values and those with progressive values. My most recent book, “Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars” (Montreal: MQUP, 2015) examines various examples of that values divide.

As I explain in the book, there are major differences between the “two sides” – although there are in fact multiple camps, not just two sides. Progressives tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual person and take into account only what will be the impact of their values decisions in the present – an approach I call “presentism”. In contrast, while conservatives also take into account impacts on individuals and in the present, they look, as well, at what history, “collective human memory”, can teach us and what warnings our “collective human imagination” can provide with regard to future consequences of the values we adopt and the laws we pass or actions we engage in, especially in relation to ensuring protection or otherwise of the “common good” and of vulnerable people.

I am a strong believer that First Nations people, who, for us in Australia are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, have much wisdom to give us in these respects. For instance, they regard their values as present through time – past, present and future.

I would suggest that the Papacy, which is currently personified in Francis, also represents this “wisdom travelling through time” approach and is one basis for the power of the Papacy – Popes are seen as the leaders of a community of faith “travelling through time” right back to the Hebrew story. It’s a recognition that the past is not just about the past, but it’s also about the future and, consequently, that it is a serious mistake on the part of progressive values advocates to dismiss the past as having any relevance in the present.

Another factor contributing to the Pope’s “soft power” is that people are longing for an experience of transcendence – the feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves and that what they do matters to more people than just themselves. Most people used to find this experience in religion, today many look elsewhere. We need to bond with others to have this experience – religion comes from re ligare, to bind together. Francis’s pronouncements have made many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who otherwise felt excluded, feel that this bonding is possible for them. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the huge crowds that attend Francis’s weekly public audiences in St Peter’s Square.

I would also suggest that Francis’s power comes from his being perceived as a person of integrity and not tainted by corruption, as, sadly, many leading world figures are. He is seen as humble, kind and genuinely humane and empathetic. Francis is not working for his own aggrandizement or to attain selfish goals, but for the welfare and wellbeing of others especially the weakest, most in need, most vulnerable of our fellow humans.

I was walking down an aerobridge to board a plane recently and there was a poster, if I remember correctly, advertising the HSBC Bank. The poster had a message promoting respect for animals and a quote from Francis: “They are God’s creatures too”. It brought to mind what an extraordinary reality and gift all life is and a theme I’ve been working on that science and religion are not in opposition, but complementary. I suggest that Francis helps many people to see that, in part because he is joyful about Creation.

If we view the knowledge that science opens up with amazement, wonder and awe, and we avoid cynicism, we can experience hope and act ethically. I call it the “wonder equation”: AWA – C = H + E. We need to keep in mind Socrates advice that “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”. I suggest that so many people respond to Francis because he makes hope and ethics seem attainable. If you were a Catholic you would see this as the working out of the Holy Spirit’s master plan.

So, I hope that I’ve persuaded you that the first quote from the philosopher Blaise Pascal at the beginning of this short article, that men of religious conviction do evil, does not apply to Francis, and that you feel confident that the second quote does apply to Francis by his using the power that Paul Collins has told us he has to promote justice.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Father Tom Ryan SM for helpful suggestions for improving this article. The responsibility for its content remains entirely mine. This article was first published in The Sydney Papers of The Sydney Institute.

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...