Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Papal State Visit To Scotland And England

Tomorrow sees the first ever state visit by a pope to the United Kingdom. This raises many ethical and political questions, which I feel compelled to find time to comment upon.

Firstly, why is this designated a state visit at all? John Paul II was not accorded this "honour" in 1982. The pope is not even a real head of state; the UN does not recognise him as such, and who else should be the independent arbiter of such a status? He is simply a leader of a religious sect, a small minority within this country. No other religious leader has been, or should be, accorded this status, and I suspect that none of them would either expect or accept it.

His purpose in visiting is not a diplomatic mission, befitting such a status, but to recruit and retain members of his religious sect in this country. It is essentially a marketing and public relations exercise. Why then is he accorded this status which entails great expense to the taxpayers of Britain at a time when the country is about to be faced with the most drastic public spending cuts in our history? Would these millions not be better spent on some of the priorities which his religion is supposed to espouse, such as alleviating suffering or poverty? Furthermore, why are the taxpayers of Britain, less than 9% of whom have any affiliation to the Catholic Church, never mind an active membership of that Church, expected to foot the bill?

It also seems rank hypocrisy for a religious leader, who should be an example of humility, simplicity and personal sacrifice, to be sanctioning spending at these levels for a public relations exercise, rather than using such funds for the purposes his church is supposed to embody. Just ask yourself, especially if you are Christian, is this how Jesus of Nazareth would have behaved?

It is a favoured question amongst Christians today, and as the pope declares himself to be his representative on earth, then it is a most valid one to ask on this occasion. And I am only being partly facetious when I ask whether a man who is "god's representative on earth", and who believes in the power of intercessionary prayer, should need such security arrangements at all. Where is his faith?

Why are these invitations issued without the consent of our elected representatives? It is stated that he was invited by the Queen, though this probably means the previous Prime Minister, in reality. Why was this, and all such invitations, not debated in our Westminster Parliament? Why is he visiting Scotland without the Scottish Parliament debating it? Foreign relations are a reserved matter for Westminster, but the policing costs of this visit are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, so why was our Parliament not consulted? Should there not be proper accountability for such matters?

Secondly, we come to the question of whether a pope should be invited to visit this country at all. Here, I tend to think that the Catholic Church should be free to invite their leader whenever they wish, as should any religion wishing to so do, but that the entire cost of such a visit, and its security, should be met in full by the body inviting him, and not by the rest of the British public. I would not invite anyone to visit, and then expect someone else to pick up the bill, or even part of it, and especially not without even asking them first.

My personal feelings about the harm of faith-based religion to both individuals, and to society in general, are just that - my personal beliefs and opinions - to which I am entitled, and which I hope others will share, but which I have no right to compel others to share, or be unreasonably impacted by. The same should apply to the followers of such faith-based religions, and their beliefs and opinions. The only way to ensure freedom of, and from, religion is if the state has no role or connection to it, as wisely recognised by the authors of the US constitution, and so no leader of a religion should be accorded any such status by the state.

There should also be a proviso that there are no legitimate grounds on which to deny entry to the particular individual leader. There is precedent, with several extremist Christian and Muslim leaders denied entry in the past, and any individual guilty, or even suspected of, serious crimes may also expect to be denied entry, whether they are revered by some British residents or not.

Thirdly, we come to the question of an invitation to this particular pope. It is well-documented that this pope, prior to his elevation, had intimate knowledge of, and involvement in, the cover-up of child abuse by priests throughout the world, and including some resident in British-governed territories. His actions not only denied the judicial authorities the chance to investigate and bring to trial many of these individuals before their death, but, more importantly, denied justice to the many thousands of victims. Furthermore, he kept silent about known abusers and allowed them to continue in their abuse, having removed them to other parishes, a process in which he was involved, condemning still more children to such abuse. He put the church before vulnerable children in a way which seems most unChristian to me. It is also against the laws of this and many other countries. Again, is this what Jesus would do? Is this what the Church is supposed to be for?

However, with the advent of diseases such as AIDS, and our knowledge of how best to prevent their spread, then such opposition becomes even more deeply immoral, and tantamount to genocide. And this particular pope has compounded this doctrinaire death sentence with the spreading of lies about condom use. In the face of all scientific evidence, he has promulgated a message that condoms actually increase AIDS transmission, and that they contain holes which allow the virus to pass through. These lies condemn many more uneducated Catholics in developing nations to a long, lingering death, with further deprivation and stigmatism to them and their relatives and dependents, as many will believe his words in preference to those of the health professionals. These same concerns apply to many other sexually transmitted diseases, and the suffering and stigma they bring. Again, is this what Jesus would have done?

The Church, under Joseph Ratzinger's visible and vocal leadership, continues to preach a message of hate and discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people across the world. Whilst their influence has waned in Europe, they continue to inspire acts of hatred in many places, and especially in Africa. Such discrimination and incitement to hatred is illegal in Britain, and has been used as grounds to deny entry in the past. I see no reason not to apply such a sanction as long as the Catholic Church continues to be prejudiced in this manner.

And it's not only minorities that the Catholic Church discriminates against. Women make up a majority of the British population, but they are second-class citizens, according to the Catholic Church. Not only do they not have the right to make decisions over their own bodies and their reproductive function, according to Josef Ratzinger, but they are apparently incapable of performing the functions that men can in terms of officiating in the Christian religion. The pope prefers bronze age misogyny to female equality. He prefers his Church to wither due to the lack of male clerical recruits, rather than admit female priests. This is despite the evidence that women are more active in the Catholic Church than men, and form the majority of the Church's adherents, yet he seems oblivious to their passion.

Whilst Catholic nuns hardly have a spotless record regarding emotional and physical abuse, female priests would still have been far less likely to sexually abuse children, and their presence and potential would have relieved the pressure on the Church to keep abusive priests, due to the current low recruitment level. However, Ratzinger and his acolytes recently confirmed the depth of their prejudice in asserting that the ordination of women is a "crime" as serious as the sexual abuse of children. The blind faith and dogmatism that characterises much of Church teaching, and this area in particular, harm the Church's own interests but, more importantly, discriminates against, and belittles, the majority of the human species.

The Church's doctrinaire adherence to clerical celibacy has no grounding in scripture that I'm aware of. The suppression of powerful and healthy emotions is obviously going to cause problems for many individuals, male or female. This surely is part of the cause of the many scandals of emotional, physical and sexual abuse that have rocked the Catholic Church across the world over the past century. This continuing and perverse denial of an essential part of human identity ensures not only the low recruitment of clerics to the Church, causing the need to retain abusive priests and members of religious orders, but is, itself, a primary cause of the abuse. Furthermore, the pastoral mission of the Church is compromised and discredited by the complete lack of experience of clerics in this fundamental area of human life and relationships.

Finally, the Church all around the world continues to solicit funds to build and decorate church buildings in even the poorest communities, taking resources from many who can scarcely feed themselves and their families, and yet the Church is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. Its leaders live a very comfortable life, and are surrounded by artifacts and buildings worth many billions of dollars or pounds. Is this what Jesus would have intended for his followers? It is estimated that the Church has within its power the ability to remove global poverty almost at a stroke if it liquidated its assets. What would the figure portrayed in the bible, and supposedly the source of their religion and faith, have done with all that wealth? He certainly would not have wasted tens of millions on state visits!

I am reluctant to blow the trumpet of liberal Quakers in this regard. Our faults are many and manifest, but we have always avoided clergy and leaders, believing all people to be equal, both in the running of our Society and in their potential. We avoid ostentation in consumption and lifestyle, and especially in our buildings, and we hold ethics to be central to our practice, with little, and preferably no, regard to dogma or doctrine. That has been our way for several centuries, and we continue to hold to it.

Even as a nontheist Quaker, I am certain that the professed teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are better embodied by that approach than by the practice of the Catholic Church and its leadership, past and present, which represents much of what is wrong and harmful in organised, faith-based religion. I am dubious of the historical veracity of Jesus of Nazareth, or at least the version of him described in the bible, and am downright sceptical that we can know what he actually said on any specific subject, if he did indeed exist, as described or otherwise. His reported teachings do generally embody some worthy values, though I would suggest that these are derived from the human mind and not some supernatural entity, and can impart something of value to society, but you will not find them embodied in this Catholic Church, this pope, or this papal visit.

In conclusion, I would suggest that a papal visit should never have the status of a state visit, it should be paid for by the Church and its followers, it should be in keeping with its professed mission, and this particular pope should not be considered a fit person to be given entry to Britain. Or at least that is my personal opinion, somewhat coloured by my Quaker ethics.

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