Thursday, 16 September 2010

Give a pope enough rope…

The Pope's here (well, Scotland, which is a different territory to England and Wales in Catholic jurisdictions. It's all good fun: Ian Paisley and a boatload of Northern Irish Protestant fundamentalists are over to protest the presence of the Anti-Christ on British territory. A German cardinal has made a racist remark about multicultural Britain looking like a 'third-world country' (despite many Africans being Catholic), leading atheist thinkers are suggesting that Benny be questioned by police about the church-wide child abuse scandal, and British Catholics are apparently less than enthusiastic about turning up to join in the fun. 

Weirdly, the Vatican has claimed that Cardinal Kasper is now staying behind 'for health reasons': isn't there something in the rules about not lying? Certainly Channel 4 News has a different story:

Although he is in the course of retiring from his inter- Christian faith office in the Vatican, Kaspar has been Pope Benedict’s point man for this trip. This was to have been his swan song. So much so that last night the cardinal was to be found at a banquet thrown in his honour by the German embassy in Rome.
It was at the very moment that the German ambassador was welcoming his prestigious guest across the threshold of his embassy last night that the Vatican press office was letting it be known that Cardinal Kaspar was suddenly too ill to travel to Britain.

My dear old mum isn't subject to this apathy or hostility: she's in the choir for Benjy's Party in the (Cofton) Park. It's all very low-rent: they've even got notorious third-class degree-holding, tile-choosing TV D-lister, Conservative Party activist and Anglo-Palin loan shark Carol Vorderman compéring the faithful massive in Hyde Park.

How different it is from John Paul II's triumphant tour of Britain and Ireland in 1982. Back then, that nasty old man was a hero to many: he'd taken a shot for his faith, and he was a leading Cold Warrior, doing his best to undermine the (admittedly unpleasant) regime in his native Poland and across the world. He was a deeply frightening conservative figure, fresh from crushing the Liberation Theology movement which saw South American priests siding with the peasantry against the disgusting military regimes installed by the US and its friends, and fighting the scourges of planned parenting, feminism, socialism, female ordination etc. etc. etc., yet everyone treated him like he was God's representative on Earth!

I should know. Aged 7, I was one of the huddled masses trying to grab some sleep on an airport runway - in the rain - waiting for an old man in white to drive past me at high speed.

We sang some hymns, prayers were said, I was given a special Missal with the Papal Arms on them and we went home. Bigger than Elvis. Ahem. Not quite as good a story as my brother, who shook hands with Il Papa when his school choir sang in Rome, a moment captured forever in a photograph long renamed 'His Holiness Meets the Pope', though little brother never did make it into the ranks of the priesthood.  Far from it - he's almost a lawyer.  Still, I imagine he'll meet plenty of priests in that line of work, many wearing handcuffs, and not for pleasure.  

Did the visit reinforce my Catholicism? Hard to say. So much of my life revolved around the faith - Catholic School (amongst them, the ironically-named Sisters of Mercy), Mass on Saturdays and Sundays and often in school, Benediction, Stations of the Cross, the Rosary. I was, for many years, an Altar Boy. Yet I can never remember having an inner core of belief. These were things I did rather than meaningful symbolic experiences for me. Being an altar boy meant memorising a massive set of actions, all of which had to be done to perfection and exactly at the right time. Get it wrong, and congregants would loudly tut at you - there wasn't much time for devotion. Looking back, being Catholic wasn't exactly a distinct identity for me, because I didn't know anyone who wasn't Catholic, but it certainly was my cultural framework, and continued to be so long after I consciously realised that I didn't believe any of the supernatural bits and disagreed with virtually all the political stands associated with the faith. Oddly, I never, ever recall anyone trying to persuade us that God existed, or of anything flowing from that - it was just assumed, and was therefore never raised as a question - in school, church and home, religion was a matter of practice because the fundamentals were accepted with as little examination as breathing. 

The biggest divide between my parents and myself is their Catholicism. Or more precisely, their ability to sustain any sort of belief. I just can't do it, and haven't the empathy to understand their capability. At times I've regretted this - it would be lovely to have an explanation of Everything that doesn't require examination, and someone else to blame for all my faults, but only in moments of weakness. I actually find the weirdness, complexity and mystery of the universe far more compelling than supernatural stories invented by half-starved desert nomad from 3000-2000 years ago, and long ago decided that taking responsibility for your own actions (good and bad) is far better than blaming the Devil for the bad and crediting man with beard for the good. 

As to morality being shaped by religion: I'd rather do my best solely to help others here and now than do it simply to avoid a smiting from someone who can't be bothered to make his whims clear. To me, atheism isn't a negative: it's about embracing a human-centric morality.

But as they say - there's a difference between atheists and Catholic atheists, and I'm inescapably the latter.


Ewarwoowar said...

I've just seen the lad on TV there. If he is God's representative on Earth, you think he'd be taller.

Benjamin Judge said...

I don't think it is a huge step from priest to lawyer. Both occupations are essentially re-interpreting a large rule book in an attempt to make it say whatever you want it to.

(obviously don't tell the wife I said that)

The Plashing Vole said...

Boom, and indeed Tish. I hope Jo's reading.

I like the Father Ted bit in which he says 'I definitely not a Fascist. Fascists dress in black and go round telling people what to do. Whereas priests…'.