May Issue 2005

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 18 years ago

With the possible exception of Buddhism, no other faith reposes so much authority in a single living man as Catholicism. Even so, the attention accorded last month to the demise of Pope John Paul II was unprecedented. In Britain, a country that made a decisive break with the Vatican hundreds of years ago in order to facilitate a royal remarriage, the pontiff’s decease prompted a postponement not only of the present heir apparent’s second wedding (not least because the prime minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury both made it clear that, if forced to choose between Charles’s nuptials and John Paul’s funeral, they would opt for the latter) but also the dissolution of parliament.

The funeral in Rome attracted everyone from George W. Bush to Robert Mugabe. The recently re-elected Zimbabwean leader ignored European sanctions to travel to Rome, and then shook hands with Prince Charles, thereby guaranteeing that the latter would be showered with flak rather than rice on his wedding day. The sideshow in Rome also included a couple of other interesting handshakes: between Israel’s President Moshe Katsav and his Iranian and Syrian counterparts. Mohammad Khatami promptly denied any such encounter had taken place, condemning contrary news reports as Zionist propaganda. To his credit, Bashaar Al Assad didn’t follow suit.

Anyhow, the more intriguing point is what brought so many heads of state and government to Rome in the first place. In most cases it did not have a great deal to do with the fact that Catholicism holds sway over one-sixth of humanity. It was a political gesture directed towards an exceptionally ideological pontiff. Karol Wotjyla’s elevation in 1978 to what is described as the throne of St Peter was the first in a series of events that produced reactionary repercussions on a global scale. It was followed in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher’s arrival at No.10 Downing Street and little more than a year later by Ronald Reagan’s success in the US presidential election.

In last month’s obituaries and tributes, much was made of John Paul II’s supposed role in the collapse of communism. He undoubtedly wielded influence in his native Poland, and his adulatory admirers include Lech Walesa, who rose to prominence as the leader of the Solidarnosc trade union but proved to be a disaster in his capacity as president. The Polish example was undoubtedly significant for other Eastern European countries as well as the Soviet Union, and there can be little doubt that Walesa had access to western assistance. However, the momentous events that began unfolding in that part of the world towards the end of the 1980s had more to do with Gorbachev than with Gdansk.

However, beginning in the same period, there was another phenomenon in which John Paul had a much bigger hand. Amid last month’s accolades there were also a few contrarian voices, including that of Britain’s leading cultural theorist, Professor Terry Eagleton. “The greatest crime of his papacy,” he wrote, “…was the grotesque irony by which the Vatican condemned — as a ‘culture of death’ — condoms, which might have saved countless Catholics in the developing world from an agonising Aids death.

“The pope,” he continued, “goes to his eternal reward with those deaths on his hands. He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian church since Charles Darwin.”

During John Paul’s papacy, the Catholic church retreated from the relatively liberal tack taken at the seminal Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Apart from condemning any form of birth control, from condoms to abortion, as intrinsically evil, it continued to deny women the priesthood and to refuse communion to acknowledged homosexuals. Nor was any move permitted towards relaxing the condition that all priests must remain celibate.

In the face of repeated child abuse scandals in various parts of the world — which suggested that at least some priests were neither celibate nor heterosexual — the Vatican inevitably issued condemnations, but its hierarchy also appears to have been involved in cover-ups and in providing protection to deviant clerics. This was in stark contrast to its approach towards bishops who advocated, for instance, a more lenient approach towards prophylactics.

One of the defining phases of John Paul’s papacy was its ultimately successful assault on liberation theology — a creed pursued by churches in Latin America, where radical clerics perceived the need to combine their message of salvation with exhortations and activities geared towards socio-economic and political emancipation. Whether or not the Vatican accepted advice or instructions from Reagan, who was on excellent terms with the dictatorships targeted by the liberation theologists, it certainly served as a saviour to the repressive regimes. You’re the servants of Jesus Christ, not Karl Marx, Rome told priests such as Brazil’s Leonardo Boff, who was officially silenced in 1985. Pleas that Jesus advocated compassion towards the poor fell on deaf ears.

John Paul’s enforcer in this and most other wrangles with liberal elements in the church was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the institution previously known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition), a German cardinal called Joseph Ratzinger. He is now known as Pope Benedict XVI.

In recent weeks there has been considerable speculation over why the cardinals who constituted the conclave in Rome decided, at a time when the church sorely needs a healing touch, to opt for a shepherd who is not only in the habit of crying wolf but can also do a credible impersonation of one.

Before the white smoke poured out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, indicating that a choice had been made, there was even speculation that the world’s most exclusive electorate might pick a cardinal from Africa or Brazil, since the largest Catholic flocks are to be found in the developing world. Even now some hold that Benedict, already 78 years old, is clearly a transitional pontiff, and that within a few years, a decade at the most, the Vatican indeed will have a Third World pope at its helm.

According to another theory, however, Ratzinger’s elevation is an attempt not only to consolidate the social conservatism that characterised John Paul’s papacy, but also to win back an increasingly secular Europe. Most Italians, for instance, identify with the Catholic faith, yet their country has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe. This is obviously not a consequence of abstinence; in other words, the church’s teachings on birth control are widely ignored. A similar pattern can be observed elsewhere in the continent, and it is presumably such trends that prompted Ratzinger, shortly before his confirmation as the pope, to inveigh against “a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognise anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires”.

This is a view that Ratzinger has honed over several decades, ever since the students’ revolts that shook Europe in 1968 jolted him out of a liberal complacency. The first German pope in nearly 1,000 years now complains that “having a clear faith based on the creed of the church is often labelled today as fundamentalism” — a sentiment likely to strike a chord with exceptionally single-minded practitioners of other faiths, particularly Islam.

Although the Vatican has indicated that the 265th pope intends to pursue the dialogue with other faiths, notably Judaism and Islam, initiated by his predecessor, in the past Ratzinger has made no bones about his unshakeable belief in the primacy of Catholicism. Five years ago he authored the Vatican document Dominus Jesus, which declared that all other religions are “gravely deficient” and could not offer salvation. Within the parameters of blind faith, there is undoubtedly a certain logic in this line of thought. Devout adherents of any given faith are perforce compelled to believe that the doctrine they follow is somehow superior to competing systems of belief. If they didn’t, it would obviously be much harder to sustain their faith. At the same time, it doesn’t take much for such inclinations to be transformed into intolerance. Taken to an extreme, they can mutate into the “kill all infidels” mentality that afflicted Christianity in the past and currently governs the actions of a small but noisy proportion of Muslims.

Sections of the British press, meanwhile, have made much of the fact that as a teenager Ratzinger was a member of Hitler Youth and served briefly in the Nazi army; he says both were inescapable obligations at the time. But it is his actions in the more recent past — and the future — that provide greater cause for concern. A letter addressed by Ratzinger to all Catholic bishops in May 2001 stressed the importance of keeping a tight lid on any church investigations into claims of child sex abuse, because “cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.” Lawyers for abuse victims have condemned this intervention as obstruction of justice.

Paedophilia is clearly a serious problem among the Catholic clergy (although it isn’t by any means restricted to them — there is no dearth of anecdotal evidence about mullahs who pursue the same unacceptable path to sexual gratification) and it makes mockery of the church’s official view of sex as a purely procreative activity between husband and wife.

All but two of the cardinals who elected Ratzinger were chosen by John Paul II, which makes it unlikely that many of them were of a progressive bent. All the same, Ratzinger apparently had to promise them that he would moderate his hardline stance on certain issues. However, given the reputation he has acquired during his years at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it is hard to imagine the pontificate of Benedict XVI catalysing a drift away from misogyny and homophobia.

This is not to suggest, of course, that such problems exist only in the Catholic domain. It is hardly surprising that at UN gatherings on matters such as “women’s health” (a euphemism for abortion and other forms of birth control), representatives of nations that consider themselves the paragons of Islamic virtue — notably Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — frequently make common cause with Christian reactionaries. The current flagship of Christian fundamentalism is the United States, whose leader, much like the pope, believes himself to be in direct communication with his Creator — a privilege that must have helped him override the fact that most Christian denominations opposed the aggression against Iraq.

It’s a privilege that all believers, whatever their faith, ought to appropriate. Because perhaps the biggest problem associated with any form of organised religion is the intermediaries — be they mullahs, bishops or priests of any other ilk — who in most cases develop a vested interest in mystifying the creed whose practice they are meant to facilitate. Remove the clergy, and any faith will become less tangled and more challenging, empowering individuals to tackle the conundrums that life throws up by searching their conscience rather than following the (often misguided or misleading) injunctions or instructions of a prelate or pandit.

It is perhaps just as well that the Muslim equivalent of the papacy — the khilafat — came to an abrupt end at the conclusion of the First World War nearly 90 years ago. From the vantage point of the 21st century, the papacy certainly seems like an absurd institution, a medieval relic out of tune with modernity. And if Ratzinger can facilitate the relegation of this anachronism, it may become possible at some point to view him as a blessing in disguise. In the meanwhile, however, the world will have to contend with a triumvirate even more retrogressive in some ways than the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul combination: Bush, Benedict and Blair. God help us.