Crusade against the pope: an Inquisition-in-Reverse
The campaigners against the pope’s visit have more in common with the fanatical Inquisitors of old than with Enlightened liberal humanists.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain, which starts today, has provided much of the British cultural elite with a figure that it is okay to hate. Indeed, anti-Catholic prejudice is one of the main themes of today’s increasingly conformist imagination. It has reached a level where anyone who doesn’t possess a strong feeling of animosity towards the pope and his visit is viewed as a hopeless apologist for the abusive authority of theocratic despots.
The current display of anti-papal prejudice is not only conformist. Worse than that, it is the kind of conformism that is usually seen amongst children who, under peer pressure, compete to see who can come up with the meanest phrase to castigate the playground scapegoat.
Consider the infantile exchange between anti-papal zealots who were recently asked what they would say to the pope if they met him. ‘Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality, and don’t come back’, said the Grand Inquisitor of the new atheist sandbox, Richard Dawkins, who refers to the pope as ‘Mr Ratzinger’ and describes him as the ‘head of the world’s second most evil religion’. Not to be outdone, the journalist Johann Hari imagines that he is a policeman and declares to a pretend pope: ‘I am placing you under arrest for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and for your central role in the systematic cover-up of the rape of children across five continents.’ Francis Wheen would also like to don a policeman’s helmet: ‘You’re nicked’ is what he would say to the pope. Such role-playing is an endearing aspect of childhood; but when grown-ups behave like aggressive four-year-olds, publicly fantasising about throwing spiteful insults at another person, they are simply adopting the immature mannerisms of attention-seeking toddlers.
If all the extravagant accusations thrown at Benedict are true, then it seems he bears responsibility for virtually every evil afflicting the modern world. When he is not busy covering up the deeds of child molesters, he is sabotaging the work of embryonic-stem-cell researchers. He is apparently totalitarian, a manipulative homophobe, an enemy of women.
The promotion material for Peter Tatchell’s tendentious TV programme – titled The Trouble with the Pope and shown on Channel 4 on Monday – informs us that the pope is ‘manipulating and distorting’ the image of Cardinal Newman to ‘serve his own autocratic, homophobic leadership’ (the pope is in Britain primarily to beatify Newman). According to Tatchell’s programme, Benedict’s teachings are also directly responsible for large numbers of unwanted children. The press release tells us that Tatchell heard ‘from a poor Filipino family, headed by Wilma and Ramon, whose following of papal teaching against birth control has resulted in them having more children than they can care for adequately’. Oh, and Benedict also refuses to take a stand against the legacy of Nazism. ‘I am shocked that he has embraced Catholics accused of being soft on Nazism’, says Tatchell. Getting carried away with his melodrama, Tatchell warns: ‘This is a pope to fear.’
Tatchell has indicted the pope on the grounds that he is out of touch with British public opinion, is doctrinaire and believes in traditional conservative values. Consequently, the world would be a better place without him. Back in the seventeenth century, a French Catholic political theorist expressed a similar form of bigoted intolerance by stating: ‘I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.’ That is more or less the message of the contemporary anti-pope crusade. The principal hallmark of today’s new breed of secular moraliser is unabashed intolerance, and a demand that everyone conform to their zero-tolerance values.
Historically, religious intolerance was focused on denouncing deviant theological beliefs – for example the heresy of Pelagianism or Tritheism. Of course we still have this form of traditional intolerance today, but we now also have to contend with its younger cousin: intolerance towards religion. Increasingly, religion is indicted for taking its own doctrines too seriously – that is, for being a religion. Today’s opportunistic atheists even take it upon themselves to get stuck into the theological controversies of religions that they actually despise. So critics who claim to hate the pope go out of their way to reassure ordinary, genuine Catholics that they are only targeting Catholic leaders who force their traditional dogma on the church. Emulating the cavalier manner in which Western politicians explain to their Muslim constituents what true Islam means, anti-papal crusaders tell ordinary Catholics that they are on the same side and should all join in the battle against the forces of evil.
But of course, these secular moralisers are not really interested in the intricacies of theological disputes; they merely want to exploit them. Their mission is to call into question the moral integrity of their opponents, by depicting them as a malevolent force that violates the elementary norms of contemporary society. This is not theological criticism – instead the Catholic Church is denounced for the alleged threat that it poses to morality and health. So celibacy is attacked because it is deemed so unnatural that it makes priests suffer profound psychological distress, leading them to countenance suicide or paedophilia. The pope’s criticism of contraception is denounced because it encourages unprotected sex, leading to the spread of AIDS. In other words, Catholicism represents a health problem; it leads to the moral pollution of the innocent.
This is what Tatchell meant when he said in his televised hatchet job on Benedict that ‘the pope’s dogma is literally putting lives at risk’. This is about stigmatising the pope through pathologising the religious imagination itself. When the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee declares that ‘sex and death lie at the poisoned heart of religion’, she is betraying her own passionate hatred for those who can still be inspired by something higher than reacting to the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Typically, these moralisers find it difficult to acknowledge their inner insatiable appetite for a secular Antichrist that they can rail against, so instead they tend to masquerade as ‘secular humanists’ or ‘concerned democrats’. However, liberal humanism has traditionally distanced itself from the venomous rhetoric of intolerance and from conspiratorial thinking. No doubt some of the opponents of the pope’s British visit mistakenly believe that they are acting from a liberal humanist perspective. But one of the main features of liberal humanism was its refusal to accommodate to the intolerance of minority opinions. Liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill recognised that social or cultural intolerance was no more acceptable than state intolerance. So when Tatchell argues that ‘the trouble with the pope’ is that his views do not reflect the opinions of the British public, he is really arguing for the silencing of a minority outlook. It’s worth noting that back in the Eighties, when Tatchell’s views on gay and lesbian rights were very much in a minority, he was forced to tackle precisely the kind of cultural intolerance that he now advocates against the pope.
The seventeenth-century liberal philosopher John Locke, in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), put forward the first serious critique of religious intolerance. He argued that while it was legitimate for the state to curb people’s actions and behaviour, it was wrong for the state to interfere in our religions and beliefs. His argument that no double standards should be applied against people with the ‘wrong’ beliefs had a great influence on liberal humanism in subsequent centuries. He would have strongly objected to the illiberal outpourings of Polly Toynbee, who asked this week: ‘Why invite the pope on a state visit – at a cost of millions in a time of cutbacks – when the vast majority are secular?’ Of course Locke would have had no problem with cancelling state visits on the basis that the government might need the cash for more worthy purposes – but he would have objected to justifying a cancellation on the grounds that the visitor possessed ideas and religious beliefs that ran counter to those of the majority. Intolerance comes in many shapes and forms. Do not be misled into thinking that the current crusade against the pope has anything to do with liberal humanism, at least in the way that liberal humanism was classically understood.
Intolerance has always been fuelled by an irrational and visceral sense of existential disgust, leading to moral disorientation. In line with this, consider the words of the former agony aunt Claire Rayner, as she attempts to describe her feelings for the pope. ‘In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature’, she says, stripping this personification of evil of any human qualities. It is not really surprising that she casually concludes ‘that the only thing to do is to get rid of him’. The phrase ‘get rid of him’ is not a slip of the tongue, either – from the standpoint of a seemingly hi-tech but actually medieval moral crusade against the pope, getting rid of ‘evil’ is its own justification.
It is almost as if the current anti-pope crusade represents an unconscious mimicking of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition. Inquisitors are not interested in rational argument or a free debate. And the vitriolic invective hurled at the ‘second most evil religion’, as Richard Dawkins describes Catholicism, is similar to the passions of the old fanatical Inquisitors. Like the Spanish Inquisition, anti-religious fanatics are constantly on the lookout for secret conspiracies and plots. Johann Hari condemns the pope for orchestrating an ‘international conspiracy of silence’ in relation to clerical child abuse. And apparently that is only ‘one of Ratzinger’s crimes’. He is also responsible for the spread of AIDS in Africa because he says that wearing a condom is a sin.
There is of course an honourable tradition of fighting against papal authority in the interests of freedom and liberty. For example, in the fourteenth century, the conciliar movement rejected the attempt by the papacy to dominate both religious and political life in Europe. The move to subordinate both secular rulers and lower clergy to papal authority was contested by philosophers and theologians, who were concerned about the expansion of papal power. One of the clearest statements of this standpoint came from Marsilius of Padua. In his Defensor Pacis (1324), he questioned the idea of the papal fullness of power, and argued that the pope was not the source of secular power. He also claimed that the authority of the Catholic Church, which was principally concerned with doctrinal authority, was not the provenance of the pope but of the church’s council. Similar sentiments were expressed by William of Ockham and others involved in the conciliar movement.
The conciliar movement argued that the authority of the council of the church took precedence over the authority of the pope. This questioning of the church hierarchy can be seen as a very early attempt to curb the power of despotic authority. The fundamental idea behind the conciliar movement was that authority should be based on the principle of consent. The anti-authoritarian implication of this avowal of consent was not lost on the church hierarchy, which regarded the conciliar movement as a direct threat to its survival. Later, some of the ideas first raised by the conciliar movement were adopted by secular leaders who also wished to assert their independence vis a vis Rome. The conciliar movement’s ‘principle of consent of the governed’ inspired future generations of thinkers to develop and push forward ideas about liberty.
It is important to note the fundamental difference between the progressive demand for the institutionalisation of consent and the infantile gestures made by today’s anti-pope crusaders, who are actually demanding conformism. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise church doctrine on a variety of social and moral issues; no institution or individual should claim immunity from questioning and criticism. But adopting the ideology of ‘evil’ to dehumanise an individual and to pathologise his religion represents a form of Inquisition-in-Reverse.
It took many centuries for Locke’s idea of religious tolerance to gain influence, and to assume a genuinely liberal and open-minded form. Tolerance is too precious an idea to squander through childish displays of anger. The pope may be wrong on contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, sexual orientation and many other things. But the errors of his critics touch on a more fundamental question of our age: the question of tolerating people’s beliefs.