Ratzinger flies in and I fly out
It happens that tomorrow morning I’ll take off from Birmingham more or less at the same time as Pope Benedict XVI lands. When his visit was announced I just saw it as a curiosity (not much happens in the West Midlands) and a very moderate hope: this reactionary Pope, I thought, could learn one thing or two from the relatively progressive English Catholic Church, and from British tolerance and multiculturalism. In turn, the Pope’s sober socio-economic thought, if not leftwing (Serge Latouche offers an interesting analysis in this month’s Monde Diplomatique) would cause no harm in the context of London’s financial madness. Neither would his defence of migrants.
I was largely wrong in my forecasts, as usual. Tolerance and multiculturalism are among the things I appreciate most in Britain, but suddenly, the country has also manifested an underbelly of sectarian anti-Catholicism that I only knew from history books. And it’s not just rev. Paisley. The Independent, Daily Telegraph, Guardian have been full of angry criticism for weeks, even a demonstration (if, eventually, rather small) has been organised against the visit. I can’t stand any form of religious proselitism or intolerance, but among them all, I find atheist fanaticism the weirdest one: why do they care? While there’s plenty to criticise about Ratzinger, the protests and opposition are so out of proportion and I believe have no precedents in other countries – even if in other countries there would be much sounder reasons to protest. It is very strange to hear people who generally, while provocative, are thoughtful and interesting (Richard Dawkins, Julie Burchill, Polly Toynbee...) fall into intolerant rants that match those in New York against the so-called ‘9/11 mosque’: ‘force of evil’, ‘oppression', ‘most criminal organisation on earth’, 'Hitlerjugend'... Come on, that's the Tea Party with Obama.
In Britain, the Catholic Church has no political power, and it was even repressed or discriminated against until the day before yesterday. I could try to understand the oxymoron of ‘secular puritanism’ if it came from a country consistently secular, such as France. But Britain still has bishops in the House of Lords and an unelected monarch who is also head of a Church (and the fact that she says nothing controversial is a weird justification: I prefer to pay to listen to something controversial than absolute nothingness).
I have tried to understand the criticism, which should not have been difficult given that I dislike so many of Ratzinger’s ideas, but I found it little convincing. A lot is said about contraception. But Ratzinger’s ideas on this are not a dogma. 50% of priests and 70% of lay Catholics do not subscribe to it, including Cardinal Martini who was Ratzinger’s main challenger in the last conclave. And anyway, given that the Catholic Church does not (anymore) force people to follow its preaching, there’s something incoherent in proclaiming free choice, but banning the refusal of contraception. And this is even more the case with the AIDS in Africa argument. HIV infection is actually much lower in Catholic Sub-Saharian African countries than in non-Catholic ones, so if there is a link, it is between Catholic preaching and increased HIV infection among those who don't follow it. There’s actually something sinister in this obsession with condoms, that is the propagating idea that world’s poverty and AIDS are actually ‘their fault’ because they don’t use contraception, and not a socio-economic problem rooted in an unjust world system. But women’s reproductive health and AIDS have socio-economic causes, rather than moral ones as both fanatic Catholics and fanatic anti-Catholics believe. Take the most theocratic country on earth, Iran: despite the ayatollah, births per woman fell from 7 to 2 (European level) in twentyfive years, thanks to economic and social development (the state also introduced some family planning, but still under ayatollah's guidance). On this point I side with Germaine Greer: patronising Thirld World's women is neither useful nor feminist. If we care about child poverty and AIDS we have to reach to our wallet rather than shouting at the pope.
There’s then the issue of cost for the taxpayer. That a country that dreams to remain a nuclear power and keep Trident cannot afford state visits is peculiar. In Italy we pay the bill when the queen comes, and even when anybody in her extended family comes – prince Charles much too often – even if the majority of us consider the idea of monarchy offensive. That's called international relations. And anyway, in pure Thatcherite style, in this case Britain has obtained a ‘rebate’ and large part of the bill is taken up by Catholics, so what’s still to complain about?
The most serious argument against the Pope’s visit is, of course, the child abuse scandals. The issue had to be raised, and it needs much deeper consideration from the Church, the point being not just the 0.5% priests who are paedophile, but the sort of authority they exploited, and the culture of institutional omertà that protected them. Yet raising the issue is a reason in favour of the visit, not against it. And this pope has listened much more - if still not enough - than the previous one, who seemed not to understand the issue. Within weeks from election, Ratzinger started a number of investigations, the most important one on the Legion of Christ. So arresting him for ‘crimes against humanity’ as Dawking asks sounds out of proportion. If we have to speak of crimes against humanity, who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vatican? Once Tony Blair and the queen are in jail we can see if the pope should join them.
Yet this is probably another lesson from this 2 years around Europe: beware models and idealisation. Just as ‘socialdemocratic’ Sweden is not so socialdemocratic (blog of the 14th July), tolerant England is not so tolerant.