How times have changed. In 1982 Pope John Paul II received a hero’s welcome on his visit to the UK. The previous Pope, whose doctrinal opinions were in fact very similar to Benedict XVI’s, was an international superstar. The current Pope on the other hand seems to court controversy wherever he goes. Of course the world has changed a lot since 1982; September 11th brought the role of religion under suspicion. The Vatican has not been immune from this trend. In his five-year stint as Pontiff Benedict has managed to offend Muslims, Jews and Anglicans amongst others. His recent visit to the UK was a case in point. Things started badly in April when there was a leak of a spoof Foreign Office memo suggesting that the Pope bless a gay marriage and open an abortion clinic as part of his official program. There were threats of a citizen’s arrest. For former agony aunt Clare Rayner Benedict was public enemy number one:
“In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature”
Richard Dawkins also gave a warm welcome:
“Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality, and don’t come back.”
Even Germaine Greer got in on the act:
“Catholic art was once the domain of Titian. Now, we get Susan Boyle”
Of course the Vatican came out with its own take-no-prisoners strategy. Just before the visit Cardinal Walter Kasper called Britain a third-world country. Not to be outdone the Pope compared extreme atheism to Nazism. (This is so intellectually lazy. I hate when people try to settle an argument by bringing the Nazis into it. The idea I suppose is to try to spread guilt by association. The Nazis were in favour of smoking bans, building motorways, and keeping fit. The fact that the Nazis supported these policies does not make them either right or wrong.)
When you analyse an organisation, I think that you need to look at the good and the bad. The Catholic Church can boast many positive aspects. There is a real sense of community, which is now missing from much of society. They do a lot of amazing charity work and the religion gives many of its believers’ lives a powerful sense of meaning. Let me give you some personal background here. I was raised a Catholic but at the age of 15 I stopped believing. I consider myself an agnostic and have never felt the slightest inclination to go back to Catholicism or become a follower of any other religion. I felt a certain hostility in those days but now I have a more balanced perspective. Dawkins seems to lack this sense of balance:
“Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” It is wrong to mix up these two things makes no sense to me. Child abuse is an abomination. But to be exposed to ideas is not in any way comparable. We are bombarded with a lot of opinions ideologies etc as we grow up. Many of them are illogical but ultimately we have to decide for ourselves what we believe. I was by no stretch of the imagination abused in any way growing up as a Catholic. We are not empty vessels who simply absorb propaganda. We often reject those ideas as I was able to do.
Having said that does not mean that Catholics are above criticism because they are a religion. There is a worrying tendency for people to portray themselves as victims. I have never been a fan of the word Islamophobia and I get the impression that we will soon have the term Catholicophobia. I do feel that the tone of the criticism used against Pope Benedict would not be used against an Islamic religious figure. But religions must also be subject to scrutiny. However, I would rather engage in specific criticisms than come out with blanket denunciations. I gave my opinion about gay rights in a previous post; so now I want to look at two other divisive issues.
The child abuse scandal has been a disaster for the Holy See. Maybe some statistics we see in the media are exaggerated – this is an inevitable fact of life. But this abuse has wrecked far too many lives. These scandals were known about in the 1960s. One solution was suggested by the Rev Gerald Fitzgerald, the head of the Servants of the Holy Paraclete, an order based in New Mexico; he proposed buying an island where priests attracted to men and boys could be segregated. He even made a $5,000 down payment on a Caribbean island. Two priests were sent to check out the island of Tortola, is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands. However this plan was vetoed by the Archbishop of Santa Fe. What I cannot accept is the use of the arcane canon law to deal with priests. These were criminal acts. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the man in charge of parallel system of justice for nearly 25 years. There were cover-ups and many whistleblowers were treated shamefully. It’s a bad sign when you put the blame on homosexuals, Jewish conspiracies etc. The impression one gets is that the Vatican has been more interested in the reputation of the Church than the suffering of the victims. Now finally we are getting heartfelt apologies but the Pope will ultimately be judged by his actions.
The other area controversial area is birth control. I do find it hard to understand the church’s position here. I have never really understood why the rhythm method is good and condoms are bad. I have no problem with abstinence but with the universal human desire to copulate condoms are essential in the fight against AIDS. The policy of the Vatican is wrong but Africa is a complex continent. It is not just a question of Africans blindly obeying Rome’s diktats. (Nor indeed do European Catholics.) There are also Muslim and indigenous traditions that play an important role. Some of the Vatican critics seem to have a view of Africans as blank slates incapable of thinking for themselves. Moreover, the African countries most affected by AIDS have minority Catholic populations.
I think it is really great that we debate these fundamental questions but I feel that the new atheists’ reaction has just become too militant and too aggressive. What is wrong with live and let live? The reaction to the visit seems a strange way to promote the idea of tolerance. I believe in free speech – I just think there are better ways of expressing disagreement. I don’t think we need this verbal violence – it is counterproductive.
I fear that with this article I will have alienated both atheists and Catholics. But it’s how I see things. I would also like to passionately defend a secular society. It is the glory of such a system that it permits everyone to practise whatever religion they want – or indeed no religion at all. We do not have a Thomas More burning Christians at the stake because they happen to have a bible in English or Catholic priests having to hide in holes because if they are discovered they will be executed. We now have Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs Buddhists and Scientologists free to practise their respective religions. We may be having very acrimonious debates but we are living in a golden age of religious tolerance. That is surely a cause to rejoice.