The backwardness of Catholic-bashing
Far from being enlightened, the attacks on Catholicism ahead of the pope’s UK visit are illiberal, censorious and ignorant.
Even before the child-abuse scandals it was difficult to find many outside the Catholic Church willing to defend Catholicism. Now it’s impossible. The old-style scoffing at Catholic teaching on sex before marriage and contraception has given way to a thinly veiled hatred towards a church that bans gay couples from adopting children in their care, protects child-abusing priests, and preaches chastity in AIDS-affected parts of Africa.
In this febrile atmosphere, the appetite to pour scorn on Catholicism has never been greater. Public debates about Catholicism sell out like rock concerts as people delight in the derision of big-name speakers like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens.
Unsurprisingly then, the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain has not been greeted with the same enthusiasm as previous visits. Aside from loud objections to the cost of the visit, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell’s call for the pope to be arrested on child-abuse charges has enjoyed widespread media coverage and was well received in the Dawkins camp. The pope’s aides will not be comforted by the news from Belgium that investigations into child abuse there have led to the house arrest of several bishops and police-forced entry into the tombs of two dead bishops.
There is much to be enjoyed in expressions of atheism, especially when articulated by great orators. There is also much about the Catholic Church’s teachings to rage against. However, the current animosity to all things Catholic manifests itself in ways that are far from healthy. So while many of the exponents of this popular new breed of anti-Catholicism would certainly consider themselves liberal, their treatment of the church is anything but.
One of the disturbing aspects of this anti-Catholicism is its censoriousness. I grew up as a socialist republican in Belfast completely opposed to the power of the Catholic Church in the Irish Republic. In those days the church more or less wrote the Irish Constitution and questioning church power was a shortcut to political suicide. From this perspective, the separation of church and state in Ireland and throughout Europe was undoubtedly a progressive move. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way that many now suggest that, like a child, the church should be seen and not heard.
When the Irish bishops recently entered the debate on the civil partnerships bill, commentators did not rubbish their arguments or engage them in debate – they lambasted the church for expressing any opinion at all. Green Party member and environment minister John Gormley declared himself ‘taken aback’ by the church’s ‘intervention’ and said he had hoped we had ‘left the era of church interference behind’. Since the church’s power to ‘interfere’ to prevent the passing of the civil partnership laws is absolutely zero, Gormley can only mean one thing: that the Catholic Church is not entitled to any say in important national debates. To drive that point home Gormley suggested that the church should ‘stick to spiritual matters and stay out of politics’.
While Gormley’s position would have been extraordinary in Ireland until recently, the view that the Catholic Church has no right to comment on social issues has long been a respectable one in Britain. But what would this censorious approach look like in another context? What if the gay movement in Ireland was told by anyone (God forbid a bishop!) that it should stick to sexuality and stay out of politics? Slamming the Catholic Church is fine, as is dismissing it as irrelevant, but proscribing it from entering debate, as many now do, is a form of censorship.
And censoriousness is not the only distasteful aspect of modern anti-Catholicism. ‘They are all at it’ is a common refrain in my school’s staff room where debates about the Catholic Church focus almost exclusively on paedophilia. Clearly they are not ‘all at it’, but then again the burden of proof when it comes to Catholic priests and abuse seems pretty light. Many of the high-profile cases featured in the media have not been proven in a court of law: they are contested and messy, with allegations dating back many years and sometimes with only a single accuser. There is no doubt that some of the accused are guilty. Maybe all are guilty. But their liberal accusers, who in many other cases would adhere to the principle of innocent until proven guilty, seem to apply a different set of rules to Catholic priests. It is therefore ironic that those same teachers that tell me ‘they are all at it’ are often in uproar at cases where teachers are automatically suspended after allegations of abuse made by children. As with the right to free speech, it seems the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty does not extend to the Catholic Church.
My final example of the unattractive side of this new vogue for Catholic-baiting is the acceptability of ignorance in matters of Catholicism. To the delight of his audience, Christopher Hitchens once began a speech by citing the number of cities that are religious and also are embroiled in conflict, starting with the letter B (Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, Baghdad), in order to prove his point that religion, including Catholicism, is responsible for most wars. Hitchens is far from ignorant, but like many of his contemporaries he enjoys a license to apply less intellectual rigour to his critique of Catholics than to other areas of interest.
It is a familiar trait. I am not a practicing Catholic but my education at the hands of the Christian Brothers and the teenage inspiration I took from the liberation theologists of Latin America means that I have grown up with a respect for aspects of the church. Talk to any practising Catholic or ‘ethnic’ Catholic on this subject, and within minutes they will give you a shocking example of ignorance from their own friends and intellectual equals that would rarely be displayed in discussions of politics, the arts, etc. For instance, I have a highly intelligent friend who, upon hearing that Tony Blair had converted to Catholicism, expressed his astonishment that Blair was ‘allowed in’ given his support for stem-cell research and abortion. This friend had apparently never noticed that millions of people worldwide practise Catholicism while opposing almost all of the church’s rules. People who become Catholics are not first forced to sign up to a reactionary contract before they are ‘allowed in’.
To display such ignorance about Islam these days would be described as racism – but when it comes to Catholicism it is perfectly okay. Of course, it is fascinating to explore why and how people do the kind of intellectual cartwheels needed to be part of a church whose views they despise. But that does not excuse the fact that otherwise intelligent people seem to have carte blanche to be ignorant and prejudiced when it comes to Catholicism.
As we approach the pope’s visit to London we can expect open season on the Catholic Church – and for all my disagreements with the church, I for one will not be taking part. In fact, I’m so fed up with it already that I might even grab my Pope Scope and book a place in a stadium…
Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school. He is producing the session ‘The Catholic Church: more sinned against than sinner?’ at this October’s Battle of Ideas festival to be held at the Royal College of Art in London.
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