Il pape

I know I’m not supposed to be writing about things that actually matter anymore, but I can’t let the pope’s visit pass without some comment.  These, then, are some things I noticed.


Firstly, the pope’s attempt to associate secularism with Nazism was not just crass and counter-productive (has no-one in the Vatican heard of Godwin’s law?), but also laughably misplaced.  It’s notable that the many groups of people the Nazis attacked and exterminated – religious minorities, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, political minorities, the disabled, those suffering from chronic and debilitating mental and physical ill-health – are all protected under the laws of this ‘aggressively secular’ country, the United Kingdom.  If you want to find places in the world that are heirs to Nazi Germany in their dealing out of officially-sanctioned violence, in their denial of the common humanity of all people, you shouldn’t look amongst the secular liberal democracies of western Europe.  No, you should look to the theocracies, and the other places where religious teachings still dominate the public discourse.  To the countries, in other words, where authoritarian religious leaders like the pope still have political influence.


The media coverage, particularly on the BBC but also elsewhere, was odd.  Before he set foot in the UK, the pope’s visit was covered in respectful but largely negative terms; following his arrival the coverage was overwhelmingly positive, and the respectful negativity was reserved for those unhappy with the visit.  I’m sure the BBC are congratulating themselves on their balancing act, but the major consequence of this approach was the loss of subtlety and nuance.  You would have got the impression that, on the one side, there were people bitterly opposed to the pope and everything he stands for, and on the other people who are fully supportive of him and everything he says, but little sense that there might be a range of opinions between those two viewpoints.

So, for example, there seemed to be no room in this media narrative for those secularists who were happy for the pope to visit in order to minister to his flock, but who felt that the status and expense of a state visit was inappropriate.  There also seemed to be no room in the narrative for catholics who were on one level pleased to have their spiritual leader in the country, but on another uneasy, because they feel, for example, that the present office-holder is wrong about the use of condoms in countries with a high incidence of HIV, or the heavy emphasis placed on homosexuality as a pre-eminently loathsome sin, or the issue of clerical celibacy.  So far as I can tell from the practising catholics I know, the religion in Britain is pretty liberal, and stronger on the parts of the faith that advocate love and charity than the parts that advocate mediaeval morality and doctrinal conformity.  Dwindling church attendance tells its own story about the effect this pope’s ultra-hardline views are having on British catholics, but you’d have been hard-pressed to see that story told in the coverage surrounding his visit.


I watched some of the coverage of the ‘Big Assembly’ on Friday morning, an event celebrating catholic education.  I was amused to note that the man who was leading it – who spent much time insisting on how good catholic education is – announced that an exchange relationship between a school in Cornwall and one in Gambia helped to show the church’s role in building bridges between the peoples of Europe and Asia.  Yes, you did read that right – he was talking about Gambia, the African nation.  To me this would seem to suggest that catholic teaching on geography, at any rate, is perhaps not all it could be.


The pope’s repeated references to ‘an aggressive brand of atheism’ also raised a rather wan smile.  For a start, I’m impressed by the sheer chutzpah required for the head of an institution that secured its global influence by means of a centuries-long campaign of blackmail, theft, arson, hostage-taking, torture, murder and all-out war to accuse other people of aggression.  (I know this and previous popes have issued formal and personal apologies for the over-zealous methods used by the catholic crusaders and ‘missionaries’ of the past, but still, it’s a bit rich.)  Secondly, most atheists are not in the least bit aggressive.  On the contrary they are keen to see religious ideas treated with the same respect as all other ideas – in other words, as things to be held up to the glare of reason and empiricism, and analysed and debated on merit.  What the pope and others describe as aggression is nothing of the sort; it’s simply a (marginal) reduction in the exaggerated deference that has traditionally been accorded to religious ideas.

Anyway, let’s face it: a pontiff who was actually certain that catholicism is the height of wisdom, truth and compassion would have nothing to fear from this increased attention paid to the details of his faith.  As the church’s ideas were talked about and explored by atheists, the self-evident wisdom, truth and compassion would, after all, become more obvious, not less.   The pope really would have no reason to decry this kind of attention – if he was sure his religion represents what he claims it does.


One final thought: in one of the respectfully negative news reports leading up to the pope’s visit, I heard a BBC reporter mention in passing that the catholic church is in such dire straits in the UK that it is now unable to recruit enough people into its priesthood to replace those older priests who are dying and retiring.  Given a situation so bleak for its long-term future it is, I think, hard to dispute that, barring radical reform, the catholic church in Britain is entering upon its death-throes as a mass movement.  There has been much made of the fact that this was the first state visit by a pope to these islands.  It is distinctly possible, maybe even probable, that it will also have been the last.

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2 Responses to Il pape

  1. Kapitano says:

    It’s a little unclear what Pope Palpatine hoped to achieve in visiting the UK – or rather, certain bits of central London. It was obviously a PR exercise, but a curiously contradictory one.

    There was the sort-of vague apology for all the children abused by priests, though not for the cover-ups that his holiness was an integral part of.

    There were the aggressive and nonsensical attacks on ‘secularism’, which to me suggest a bunch of people who’ve spent too long in the echo chamber of each other’s agreement, and who don’t realise how counterproductive it is to voice such opinions in the outside world.

    There were the bridge-building visits to anglican institutions, though I don’t see why bridges need to be built, or why the C of E should want them. Most anglicans are humanist agnostics in practice – they believe in god the same way an enzymologist believes in the big bang theory.

    If it was an attempt to energise Britain’s catholics, it was trying to compromise between too many other agendas to achieve any of them.

  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hey, Kapitano, thanks for commenting. :o)

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