The shock resignation of His Holiness Benedict XVI is an occassion for reflection on the stature of a man who I feel has been an impressive religious leader. In Britain, however B16’s reputation is impossible to seperate from a rising tide of anti-Catholic feeling, which has obscured any real examination of his substantive record. The hostility manifested itself through enraged liberal opinion when B16 visited Britain in 2010, prompting demonstrations from both bigots and the tedious liberal left. In a photograph of one of these Guardianista “bash the pope” demonstrations I saw the marvellously ironic slogan, without any sense of self-awareness “We don’t want the Pope in our tolerant country”
It is interesting to revisit the arguments that arose in 2010. Writing as a left wing British Catholic on Labour List at that time, David Green, explained his dismay at the hostility being exhibited to the Pope’s visit.
Notwithstanding people’s misgivings about the present Pope, a state visit to the UK is an opportunity for Catholics to have some limelight for a change; to feel united, proud, and to showcase their faith for a few short days. Whatever your views of the actions of the church’s official leaders, these are reasonable and honourable desires by Catholics and they deserve to be respected.
When it comes to the monarchy, I am a convinced republican; but if the Queen were to receive a reception abroad like that the Pope has received from some people, I’d feel at least a little insulted as a British citizen. It doesn’t matter that I disagree with the way our country’s figurehead is selected – as a figurehead for the nation, it would be reasonable to interpret the reception given to her as indication of the regard and respect given to all of us.
It’s for this reason that I, and a lot of other Catholics, are upset by the crass, snide and insensitive tone of many people on the left. There is a current of opinion which appears to believe that the Catholic faith is defined purely by the issues where they disagree, and by its controversies. It isn’t. These are the abberations of the faith, not its affirmation. To say otherwise is, by implication, an insult to everything else that the Catholic faithful believe.
The pope’s criticism of condom-use ‘sabotages the fight against AIDS’, says a Guardian columnist (leading an online commenter to say: ‘the genocidal freak should be tried for crimes against humanity.’) The New Statesman reckons the Vatican has done more to spread AIDS around Africa than ‘prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. Stephen Fry, that unofficial High Representative of the chattering classes, says the pope has caused devastation in Africa by ‘spreading the lie that condoms actually increase the incidence of AIDS’.
Reuben at the Third Estate took up the argument.
The insistence that the “aids spreading” pontiff has a moral obligation to condone contraception is, in my opinion, half baked and politically problematic. The most obvious problem with this line of argument is that (notwithstanding lower level catholics spreading the myth that condoms don’t work) the church’s teachings on sexual behaviour are not actually conducive to the spread of HIV. Sex within marriage but without condoms is likely to keep people relatively safe. The usual objection here is that people obviously won’t stay monogamous ( because, you know, having sex is a natural urge man), and so the pope, by this slightly twisted logic, is responsible for the consequences of condom-free polygamy. But if people arent obeying the Vatican’s strictures against sleeping around, then why would they simultaneously base their decision on whether to skin up simply on what the pope says? This indeed might explain the lack of empirical evidence for popery spreading AIDS: as Brennan O’ Neil notes, the 5 countries in Africa most affected by aids are all minority-catholic.
But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the Vatican’s position on contraception hinders, albeit indirectly, the fight against HIV. The idea that this makes the pontiff morally obliged to alter the church’s position on contraception is nonetheless misplaced. Were Benedict a public health professional I would absolutely expect him to promote the use of condoms. Yet for better or worse, his job as pontiff is to promote what he and the church consider to be the word of God. Now, as an atheist I am not an expert on such matters. Yet from what I understand the moral strictures of the lord do not change all that regularly – and are liable to remain constant even as their practical consequences are altered.
Kevin Rooney understood where the criticism was coming from:
The first thing to note is that the intolerant view of Catholicism that has been so visible in recent weeks has come not from the working classes or from the traditional establishment, but rather from so-called liberals, humanists and secularists, who try to use science and rationalism to discredit and ridicule expressions of the Catholic faith. … …
Unlike the anti-Catholics of the past, who took issue with specific aspects of the Catholic faith, the New Atheists tend to oppose faith itself, on the smug basis that they ‘know best’. As the front page of the Guardian weekend magazine recently revealed, the new ‘Gods’ of contemporary society are the ‘Gods of science’: Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins – and sadly, some of them seem every bit as intolerant as the Catholic hierarchy they despise. While posing as secular liberals, the pope’s opponents display a breathtaking intolerance for any views that do not conform to their rationalist outlook.
Spiked On-line writers have their own particular animus against the pressure towards ideological uniformity and consensus, which can sometimes lead them to be willfully contrarian, but sometimes it can mean they are absolutely on the money. Frank Furedi, wrote a storming demolition of the pressure of conformity that was leading to the anti-Catholic mood, it is worth reading his article in full:
Tatchell has indicted the pope on the grounds that he is out of touch with British public opinion, is doctrinaire and believes in traditional conservative values. Consequently, the world would be a better place without him. Back in the seventeenth century, a French Catholic political theorist expressed a similar form of bigoted intolerance by stating: ‘I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.’ That is more or less the message of the contemporary anti-pope crusade. The principal hallmark of today’s new breed of secular moraliser is unabashed intolerance, and a demand that everyone conform to their zero-tolerance values.
Historically, religious intolerance was focused on denouncing deviant theological beliefs – for example the heresy of Pelagianism or Tritheism. Of course we still have this form of traditional intolerance today, but we now also have to contend with its younger cousin: intolerance towards religion. Increasingly, religion is indicted for taking its own doctrines too seriously – that is, for being a religion. Today’s opportunistic atheists even take it upon themselves to get stuck into the theological controversies of religions that they actually despise. So critics who claim to hate the pope go out of their way to reassure ordinary, genuine Catholics that they are only targeting Catholic leaders who force their traditional dogma on the church. Emulating the cavalier manner in which Western politicians explain to their Muslim constituents what true Islam means, anti-papal crusaders tell ordinary Catholics that they are on the same side and should all join in the battle against the forces of evil.
Elsewhere, Carl P, in a substantive article on Though Cowards Flinch, demolished the myths about Benedict XVI allegedly covering up child abuse, and the risible conceit by some liberal fantasists that the Pope should be arrested.
[The accusations that the Pope covered up child sex abuse] all runs contrary to the work carried out by Ratzinger outing child molesters in the church later on, initiating “strict new norms for dealing with sexual abuse cases”, and in his words “ridding the filth”.
Certainly the point that Benny has done a good deal addressing child abuse in the Catholic church is not lost on some of the nations top Catholic writers. Damian Thompson reminds us that it was Benedict who prosecuted Mexican paedophile Priest Marcial Maciel Degollado despite pressure from popular support, including “Cardinal Angelo Sodano and John Paul’s secretary, Msgr (now Cardinal) Stanislaw Dziwisz.”
Some members of the church were keen to shove the issue to one side for the reason that Degollado was a ferocious fundraiser, having secured assets worth around twenty-five billion Euros. In a line that can hardly be matched for its dry wit, Thompson notes that: “This old pervert was the most effective fundraiser in the history of the Church – and the most crooked since Judas Iscariot.”
Elsewhere, Thompson cannot hardly keep his dislike of the Pope John Paul II contained. In an article bound to wind up many supporters of the previous Pope, citing heavily from noteworthy writer John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican has not revealed the real Ratzinger story because “to make Ratzinger look good, they’d have to make others look bad [and] to salvage the reputation of Benedict XVI it might be necessary to tarnish that of Pope John Paul II”.
There are many views and actions of the Catholic Church that are worthy of legitimate criticism. However, demonisation of the Church in modern Britain predicated upon a fallacy that religious participation in society is an entirely negative phenomenon. This ignores the teaching of the church in favour of peace, against racism, against materialism, and in favour of social solidarity, charity and compassion. The Catholic Church is one of the most important sponsors of the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign to provide a root to legal residency in the UK for those who are living and working here illegally. The Catholic Bishops oppose the renewal of Trident; and Catholic Bishops spoke out against the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church did grasp the nettle. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, told a news conference during the pontiff’s visit that the pope would pay tribute to the democratic traditions of British society.
“I think while he fully on the record recognises the importance in modern democratic societies of institutions being secular, he expects secular institutions to have an open and positive attitude towards religious faith“.
Benedict XVI has defended the right for religion to be a public and not a private affair, and condemned the shallowness of materialism and celebrity. Indeed the argument from the Church that there is such a thing as public morality, and a need for social solidarity is a welcome refutation of the Thatcherite ethos of private self interest.
It is neither possible nor desirable to ignore the influence of religious faith in shaping our society; the question is how we strike the balance so that the views of religious communities are respected and acknowleged, while not allowing them to dictate to those of us who do not share their faith.