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17 Oct 2003 11:26
The eulogies have begun already. Extraordinary things are being written about the Pope for his 25th jubilee this week, yet these are mere aperitifs for the great banquet of adulation undoubtedly to come when the pontiff finally shuffles off his mortal mitre.
Extraordinary that even the sane and measured Financial Times comment page yesterday offered a monumental paean of worship.
Two popes, wrote Gerard Baker, earned the soubriquet Great in the church’s 2 000 year history: “For his leadership and authority in these challenging times, how fitting it would be if Karol Wojtyla, the humble Polish priest, came to be remembered as John Paul the Great.” This remarkable sentiment comes with the obligatory sneer at his critics that “the Pope remains, even in his declining years, one of the great hate figures of the self-appointed liberal elites”.
There will be beatifications and adulations for an ultra-conservative Pope imbued with the narrow ethos of the Polish church, now unpleasantly resurgent in all its old nationalism, anti-semitism and anti-feminism. John Paul II will rightly be praised for his unbending opposition to communism and his support for Lech Walesa. It has entered the growing historical mythology that it was the boldness of the west’s far right that single-handedly demolished the iron curtain—the Reagan, Thatcher, Wojtyla axis—usefully erasing the social democrats who opposed it just as vigorously.
An irreligious western Europe largely ignores the strange rituals and beliefs still practised by a fast-declining minority. Aged congregations are vanishing and priest recruitment is in crisis. The Vatican is little more than a historic place of beauty, a quaint bygone alongside Japanese Shinto temples or Maori tongue-wavers. It seems eccentric to bother getting hot under the collar about a moribund faith, let alone “hating” it. But Steve Bradshaw’s brilliant Panorama this week came as a timely reminder.
Visiting the Philippines, Nicaragua and Kenya, he found the catastrophic effect of the church’s teaching on contraception causing widespread death across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Everywhere he went he found the church’s iron grip. In a Kenyan village where a third of the people were dying, the church had prevented any condoms being distributed. Not satisfied with preaching, the church uses political muscle and, above all, the power of myth. In all three continents, Catholic-dominated communities repeated the Vatican lie that condoms have holes in them that let the Aids virus through. The president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, explained that the Vatican’s scientific committee had proved it was true—but despite promises, never produced the committee’s evidence. Meanwhile, the WHO struggles, and fails, to stamp out this omnipresent untruth.
No one can compute how many people have died of Aids as a result of Wojtyla’s power, how many woman have died in childbirth needlessly, how many children starved in families too large and poor to feed them. But it is reasonable to suppose these silent, unseen, uncounted deaths at his hand would match that of any self-respecting tyrant or dictator. It may be through delusion rather than wickedness, but it hardly matters to the dead. It makes the sickly homilies about his simple piety impossible to let pass unchallenged. A largely admiring article on these pages failed to mention Aids at all.
On Sunday he will beatify Mother Teresa. Many years ago, before she was famous, I interviewed her when she was visiting her London convent and we argued about contraception. Couldn’t she see the effects of her teaching on the Calcutta streets where babies were born to starve and die in misery? She said that every baby that takes a breath is another soul to the glory of God and that was all that mattered, the creation of souls. Suffering? We are all born to suffer.
All this is dismissed by papal apologists as a sideline, an irritating irrelevance seized on by liberals and feminists as an excuse for attacking Catholics. In the FT, Baker flicks away the question thus: “There are doubtless excellent grounds for promoting birth control in Africa. But it is no surprise that the head of the Catholic church declined to endorse them.” Failure to “endorse” birth control is not the same as aggressively preventing it in the many lands where the church holds sway. The National Secular Society is campaigning to have the Holy See removed from the UN, where it is the only religious organisation represented.
Clashing against the modern world, religions founder on their sexual fetishes. Their high spiritual ambitions are brought crashing to earth by obsession with the filthy human body. Sex always means women, Eve for ever responsible for Adam’s lust, for ever in need of subjugation. All the Middle Eastern religions define their identity through fixation with women’s bodies—ritual baths, churching, shaving heads, denying abortion and contraception, purdah and keeping unclean women from the altar. This perverted abhorrence of women destines religions to collide with modernity everywhere, for to be modern is to set women free. In the end, Islam, too, will modernise.
Any attempt to stop sex leads to extravagant hypocrisy. It is no secret that a high proportion of both Catholic and CoE clergy are gay, and some of the “celibate” are child abusers whose activities were shielded for years by the same Vatican that makes sexual purity the impossible keystone of its identity. It is an odd throw-back to find the temperate CoE tearing itself apart over gay clergy.
To outsiders, it is funny that the Pope has canonised more saints than all those created in the past four centuries. It is less amusing that he has created 201 cardinals, all deep conservatives. Will this gross gerrymandering ensure an ultra-conservative successor? Vatican watchers observe that all popes try it, but the pendulum tends to swing from conservative to liberal and back again. If so, it is possible to hope that a liberal Pope could be as great an influence for good as Wojtyla has been for harm.
Sometimes John Paul II offered tantalising hints of what a good Vatican could do. He campaigned to end capital punishment, though hardly gave it a high priority. He made powerful critiques of capitalism’s naked greed, but he sabotaged the popular liberation theology of the Latin American barefoot priests and backed the sinister Opus Dei instead.
East European Catholics are fighting to have God included in the new EU constitution, and ahead lies a major row about whether Europe is confined to Christendom—keeping out the Islamic hordes of Turkey. But for many non-religious EU citizens, the difference between the mullahs across the Bosporous and the mullah in the Vatican might be hard to detect. What matters is keeping private Gods out of the public realm. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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