Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Papal Fallout

IN LIGHT OF THE RECENT RESIGNATION OF POPE BENEDICT XVI I AM REPRODUCING AN ARTICLE I WROTE IN 2010 AFTER HIS VISIT TO THE UK. 


Weaving his way through the crowds in Edinburgh, Benedict stopped for the classic PR moment after being handed a baby from the crowd. The mother of the chosen child was interviewed on television shortly afterwards. She was a young Polish woman who, with an acquired Scottish accent, explained the significance and emotional importance of this experience.

The Pope has not always received such a warm welcome during his visit to Britain. 15,000 marched in London this weekend (led by their chief apostle Richard Dawkins) - protesting against the Pope's visit. The march of secularists and humanists was a demonstration by the liberal middle-classes against the conservatism of the Catholic Church. The Pope was the hated figure of the crowd and has been personally held responsible for child abuse, AIDS in Africa and denigrated as being a former member of the Hitler Youth.



These accusations and condemnations have not just flowed in one direction. Benedict opened his trip to the UK by warning against the threat of 'extreme atheism' and historically relating such ideologies with the rise of Nazism. This is not just factually incorrect but is also deeply offensive to those who do not share a religious faith. They have also helped to enrage the hostilities of those opposed to the state visit of the Pope to Britain.

There is certainly much to be appalled about by the ideology and practice of the Catholic hierarchy. The revelations of sexual abuse in recent years has further undermined a conservative moralism which is out of touch even with the practices of its own followers. However, the blanket condemnations by the protestors contain their own prejudices. The barrier placed against the distribution of condoms by the Catholic Church is indeed a crime against humanity. However, the spread of AIDS is a wider social and political problem as shown by the fact that the three countries with the highest HiV rate in Africa have minority Catholic populations. Likewise child sexual abuse is a social problem that exists in all institutions that are insulated from the public gaze – not least the family. Also the claims that Benedict was a Nazi sympathiser is factually incorrect and shows a complete misunderstanding of the situation faced by a 14 year old growing up under Nazi tyranny who is compelled - by law - to enter the Hitler Youth. No consideration is given to the progressive policies of the Church such as opposing nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq. 

The point here is not to deny the malpractices and reactions of the Catholic hierarchy but to understand how many of its opponents seem to want to paint the Catholic Church (or perhaps religion as a whole) as being the source of all evil, thus expressing their own variation of intolerance.

The history of xenophobia and prejudice towards Catholics in Britain has a long history. This has often been driven by hostility and racism towards minority communities. Most obviously this has been connected with racism towards Britain's Irish population - a community long denigrated as part of the occupation and partition of Ireland. More recently Britain's Catholic population and churches have been swelled by the influx of Poles into the country.

While largely successfully integrating into British society, the danger of a rise in prejudice towards the Polish community exists. This does not just come from the far-right but also from some on the left (under slogans such as 'British Jobs for British Workers'.) It also has a liberal version that contains its own anti-Catholicism. We have observed in recent years how the rise of Islamophobia has sometimes been justified through referring to ostensibly liberal and secular values. There is therefore a real possibility that anti-Catholicism will be deployed to excuse prejudice and discrimination against Poles in Britain.

One also has to question quite why secularists in Britain are targeting the Catholic Church. After all the Catholic Church in Britain is a marginalised institution which has little impact on the practices of the government and state. This is unlike in Poland where the Catholic Church is expanding its symbolic and institutional intrusion into public life. The secularist demands for the separation of the Church and State in Poland therefore has to be directed towards the Catholic Church (whilst recognising the reality that the vast majority of Poles are believers in the Catholic faith.) In Britain this is simply not the case.

When the head of the Vatican flew into Britain he was met by another head of state who is also the leader of the Church of England: Queen Elizabeth II. There is no full separation of the Church and State in Britain and furthermore there continues to exist an institutionalised discrimination against Catholics - for example the Monarch can neither be a Catholic nor marry a Catholic. Perhaps liberal secularists in Britain should seek to address these issues before taking the moral high ground against those holding a different set of beliefs from them.

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