After John Paul II

Catholicism-lite has become a refuge for Western leaders bereft of moral and spiritual authority.

Michael Fitzpatrick

Topics Politics

The universal acclamation of Pope John Paul II appears to confirm the rise of the Catholic church to a major role in the new world order that has emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the succession crisis that now faces the church is likely to expose the disintegrative forces within Catholicism that have barely been contained by the charismatic pontiff.

I happened to be in New York when the Pope’s death was announced. I was amazed to find that, within hours, several thousand people thronged to St Patrick’s cathedral in Manhattan where Archbishop Egan celebrated a memorial mass in the presence of the city’s mayor Bloomberg and other civic dignitaries and representatives of other faiths. Meanwhile on the airways, politicians and pundits vied with Catholic priests and evangelical preachers, rabbis and imams, to pay their respects to the dead Pope.

It seemed that the country founded by Protestant refugees from oppression in Europe had finally made its peace with the long-marginalised religion of later waves of poor immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland – and more recently from Latin America. The American elite – ‘white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant’ – was as hostile towards Catholicism as it was towards the diverse ethnic minorities which made it a growing influence in US cities from the late nineteenth century onwards. The Ku Klux Klan is today generally remembered as a racist organisation; yet as recently as the 1920s its virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic outlook – a populist version of the views of elite ‘Wasps’ – helped to make it a powerful mass movement. But last weekend, Billy Graham, the elder statesman of evangelical Protestantism, delivered a moving tribute to John Paul II. (In a parallel development, US Christian fundamentalists have made common cause with American Judaism in support of the state of Israel.)

Back in Britain, the postponement of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles – an event that has already provoked much public merriment and establishment embarrassment – aptly symbolised the reversal in status of the British monarchy and the Vatican since the days of Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation. Yet the controversy over the impending union between a Catholic divorcee and the abject heir to the combined roles of monarch and head of the Church of England reveals the institutionalised anti-Catholicism of the British state. Anti-Catholicism has defined the British establishment for more than 400 years and it has provided the basis for popular mobilisations, from the Gordon Riots of the 1780s to the sectarian disturbances that raged in many English (and Scottish) cities in response to the influx of Irish Catholics throughout the nineteenth – and well into the twentieth – century.

If the Church of England was traditionally the Tory Party at prayer, the Conservative Party won much popular support through its local campaigns against Catholic schools in cities such as Liverpool. The electoral success of the Labour Party from the 1920s onwards owed as much to its success in bringing Irish Catholics together with English Nonconformists as it did to uniting trade unionists and socialists. Sectarian tensions remained a significant influence in political life in Britain well into the post-war period (and they remain a factor in Scotland).

Yet, apparently quite suddenly, Catholicism has become respectable, even fashionable – and in the public responses to the death of the Pope, a focus of national and international approbation. This is all the more remarkable if we recall that Catholicism, the dominant religious force of mediaeval Europe, has been in eclipse ever since the emergence of modern capitalist society. When the bourgeois revolutionaries in France in 1789 promised ‘to strangle the last lord with the entrails of the last priest’ they set about the overthrow of both autocratic monarchy and the established church. The project of separating church and state and establishing a democratic constitution was most successfully achieved in the USA (where it has survived despite repeated – and continuing – reactionary campaigns).

While the spirit of Protestantism proved more congenial to capitalist enterprise, the Catholic Church became embroiled in long-running battles with the ideologies of modern society – democracy, nationalism, socialism, communism. It emerged in poor shape from the era of wars and revolutions that culminated in the mid-twentieth century, discredited by its collaboration with dictatorial regimes around the world and, above all, by its shameful complicity in the Holocaust. Though the movements of social Catholicism in Europe and liberation theology in Latin America went some way towards redeeming the reputation of the church with the faithful, they provoked much internal dissension. Population growth in third world countries may have compensated for declining church attendance in the Western world, but by the time of John Paul’s accession in 1978 the global status of the church was at a low ebb.

The key to the success of John Paul in raising the profile and standing of the Catholic Church was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world order defined by the Cold War some 10 years after he became Pope. The demise of communism exposed the exhaustion of all the old ideologies of the capitalist world and it thus also deprived Western elites of their sources of legitimacy. The leaders of the West proclaimed the triumph of market forces, but found themselves in need of some source of moral and spiritual authority. They also recognised the need for some mechanism to restrain the destructive effects of markets on communities and social relationships and the resulting deterioration in standards of individual behaviour. In a world they experienced as more uncertain and more insecure, they found themselves turning back towards traditional sources of guidance and reassurance – a road that led towards the Rome of John Paul II.

The decline of traditional institutions of the British establishment – powerfully symbolised by the decadence of the House of Windsor and the Church of England – paved the way for the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Britain. I recall that when leading Conservative politicians Ann Widdecombe and John Selwyn-Gummer defected from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the early 1990s, my father, a lifelong supporter of Irish republicanism and British Labourism as well as the Catholic Church, declared that ‘if any more of those Tories join, I’m leaving’ (of course, he didn’t).

By the early 2000s, when Iain Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy became respectively Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders, one commentator observed that ‘two-and-a-half’ of the three party leaders were now Catholics (the half, of course, being Tony Blair) – an unprecedented (and, for most of British history, an inconceivable) development. The resolution of the Irish national question through the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland removed a lingering obstacle to Catholic assimilation in Britain, and Cardinal Basil Hume’s discreet diplomacy accelerated the process.

It was, however, in satisfying the quest for moral absolutes in a world in which people appeared to have lost all purpose and direction that the Catholic Church under John Paul II achieved its greatest success. In his early years as Pope, he decisively reversed the liberalising trends unleashed by the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII in the mid-1960s, and he ruthlessly suppressed the liberation theologians, notably Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx. In a series of books and encyclicals, he clarified his distinctive outlook – staunchly conservative on matters of dogma and morality (especially sexual morality), yet politically liberal in his criticisms of the financial (third world debt) and militaristic (invasion of Iraq) excesses of the Western powers.

For their part, Western leaders could live with the Pope’s strictures on their military activities – which had no practical consequences – while embracing his promotion of a divinely inspired moral orthodoxy. (This is why world leaders were also receptive to other religious leaders: as a former US president – Dwight Eisenhower – once observed, ‘our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith…and I don’t care what it is’.)

The media-led wave of mass public mourning for John Paul II offers an exaggerated image of the strength of contemporary Catholicism and disguises the underlying instability of the Church. Throughout the years of John Paul’s pontificate, battle has raged between modernisers and traditionalists. This has focused on the questions of women priests and the celibacy of the clergy, controversies fuelled by the apparently endless scandals over clerical sexual abuse and the collapse in vocations to the priesthood (see Catholicism in crisis, by Michael Fitzpatrick).

John Paul’s infirmity over the past five years has to some extent subdued conflicts that are likely to erupt with renewed force over the election of a new Pope. The absence of any obvious successor compounds the difficulties facing the Church leadership. The fact that John Paul appointed a substantial number of conservative cardinals to bolster his own position – and to secure a conservative succession – suggests that a period of increased internal strife is more likely than a period of stability. Notwithstanding recent reports of a surge of new clerical recruits in Poland, throughout the Western world the church is in an advanced state of decay, with a dwindling band of ageing priests ministering to declining congregations.

There is an inescapable contradiction between the demands of Western elites on the Catholic Church and those of the masses of the faithful. Whereas the world leaders want a new Pope in the style of the last incumbent, a John Paul III, authoritarian, dogmatic, orthodox, most Catholics, judging by their virtually universal defiance of doctrinal orthodoxy in the sphere of sexual morality, favour a Pope who is more liberal on moral as well as on political questions.

Virtually the only criticism made of John Paul II since his death concerns his refusal to endorse the promotion of condoms in response to the spread of HIV/Aids in developing countries. But why should people who are prepared to defy papal authority by engaging in extra-marital sexual activity be expected to obey a papal edict about using condoms? Furthermore, it is evident that millions of Catholics around the world are willing to defy papal authority and use contraceptive techniques to limit family size. If they are not willing to use such techniques to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases this suggests some other explanation than their deference to the Pope’s guidance.

Western liberals believe that the solution to the problem of HIV transmission in developing countries lies in the Pope giving his authority to the use of condoms and in people accepting his recommendation (though neither they nor people in developing countries currently take any notice of the Pope’s injunctions in this area). It is a supreme irony that whereas the Pope at least acknowledged the moral autonomy of his subjects, his liberal critics assume – indeed demand – the subjugation of the individual (especially in developing countries) to the doctrines of safe sex.

‘How many divisions has the Pope?’, Stalin notoriously inquired. The funeral of John Paul II – whose combination of authoritarian rule and appreciation of the power of mass spectacle shared some striking features with Stalinism – suggests that the Catholic Church can command vast multitudes. But the millions rallied in ersatz grief over the celebrity Pope (see Fast-tracked to celebrity sainthood?, by Brendan O’Neill) are not cadres of a church militant with a deep faith in Christian redemption. They are the atomised citizens of the new world order momentarily and superficially united in a shared emotional experience. Tomorrow they – and the world leaders assembled for the Pope’s funeral – will find that the doctrines of Catholicism provide no solutions to the terrestrial problems of the new millennium.

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Topics Politics


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