So, atheists are Nazis according to Pope Benedict, speaking in Edinburgh today. This is just a little rich coming from a former member of the Hitler Youth. I don’t believe that the Pope is or was a Nazi, but I think it was a peculiarly inept and thing to say. It was offensive, also, to the majority of people in this country who do not believe in god.
The Pope’s exact words were these: “Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”
This is very dubious history. Adolf Hitler was a Christian, a Catholic who remained so all his life, though he wasn’t very devout. Nevertheless, he repeatedly invoked god and Christianity in his war against “faithless communism” and the jews. In his Proclamation to the German Nation in February 1933 Hitler said that “The National Government regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of our national life”. German soldiers were required to wear belts bearing the legend “Gott Mit Uns”, “god with us”. The SS was supposedly based on the Jesuits. In the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of 1933 Hitler agreed to outlaw secular schools and have all teaching based on faith.
Now, just because Adolf Hitler believed in god, I don’t conclude that Roman Catholics are Nazis. But the pontiff really does suggest that atheists are morally responsible for fascism. Following the remarks from, Cardinal Walter Kaspar, one of the Pope’s senior advisers about Britain being “a third world land” full of “aggressive secularists”, where Christians are victimised for wearing a cross, it rather suggests that this state visit is turning into a public relations disaster. The Holy Father and the Roman Catholic leadership is becoming detached from reality.
Look, what the Roman Catholic Church really needs now is a reformation. And no, I haven’t become a follower of Lord Bannside, the Rev Ian Paisley, who has been staging his own little Protestant protest in Edinburgh’s Cowgate today as Pope Benedict XV1 landed in Scotland. No, I’m not talking transubstantiation but modernisation – coming to terms with the realities of life in the 21st century. The Church striking a bargain with its own members, most of whom, in this country at least, simply reject the Pope’s attitude to issues like sexual morality, the ordination of women and paedophile priests.
Is the Pope a Catholic? It’s not such a daft question because so many ordinary catholics appear to follow a different form of Catholicism, at least in their private lives – planning their families, having sex before marriage, divorcing. Many catholics in Britain, like Cherie Blair and Charles Kennedy, openly reject Pope Benedict’s hard line on the “evil” of homosexuality, on contraception and on AIDS. There is what has been called a “silent schizm” in the Catholic Church, between the millions of followers and self-perpetuated gerontocracy that leads it.
Most people today regard celibacy as a form sexual repression that leaves priests wrestling with impulses which some simply cannot control. There has been revulsion at the failure of the Church properly to atone for the long history of silent abuse. The former Cardinal Ratzinger was a key figure in the attempts to contain the sex abuse scandal in the early years of the decade when he was Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a scary office derived from the Inquisition. During his four day visit, Pope Benedict is expected to meet some victims of sexual abuse – a public relations exercise of doubtful worth since it will only revive the controversy.
Forget “aggressive atheists” like Stephen Fry and Philip Pullman, the truth is that the Church has been its own worst enemy for years. The public image of the priesthood has been transformed into something dark and almost sinister. Google “Catholic priest” and three of the top five hits refer to sex abuse. Nuns are now associated with humiliating and sadistic practices in convents. And even before the sex abuse scandals spilled out of the cloisters, church attendance was in steep decline, largely because it persisted in instructing the faithful to live in a way they did not want to live. Congregations have fallen by half in Britain over the last thirty years, and would have fallen a lot further had it not been for the influx of immigrants from European Catholic countries. The average age of priests and communicants is touching sixty. The Church, like the Tory party before David Cameron, is in danger of dying out.
Now, as a lifelong atheist, I might be expected to regard this with some satisfaction. I do not. The faith mystifies me and aspects of the doctrine repel me, but I have great respect for the Catholics I know and for the charitable work that the Church does across the world. At least they believe in something, other than the debased values of consumer materialism, and are prepared to come together to promote the common good. If forced to chose who to throw out the lifeboat I’d be inclined to dump Richard Dawkins before Cardinal Keith O’Brien if only because Scotland’s leading Catholic has been such an articulate defender of the humane, socialist and antiwar values that the Labour Party has abandoned in office. Can’t say the same for Tony Blair, mind.
Attempts by militant atheists, like Geoffrey Robinson QC, to have Pope Benedict arrested for “crimes against humanity” are puerile and counterproductive. Stunts and abuse – Dawkins calling him a “leering old villain in a frock” – just allow the pontiff to seize the moral high ground, something religious leaders are rather good at. His firm was founded on victimisation, remember, and this country’s six million Catholics have vivid memories of a not-so-distant past when their faith was enough to deprive them of their jobs, their civil rights and even their lives. They hear attacks on the Pope as attacks on them.
Moreover, the Pope’s critics are guilty of secular double standards, failing to attack other religions, like Islam, with equal vigour. I don’t think the gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell, will be organising many “Protest the Prophet” demonstrations in the near future. Too many of the militant atheists are guilty of inflammatory attention-seeking, secular versions of Pastor Terry “burn the Koran” Jones. It is possible to reject reactionary Benedictine morality and still respect people of the Catholic faith,
As it happens, the Church is missing a great historical opportunity, if they only had the wit to take it. Only about 12% of the population go to church, but even after half a century of secularisation, 40% still say they believe in God, and 70% described themselves as “Christian” in the UK census. Far be it for me to give advice to His Holiness, but it seems to me that this is a situation rich with potential. The collapse of Communism and similar secular religions has created a moral and spiritual vacuum in Western society. This has partially been filled with various forms of mysticism and oriental imports. Humanism has never quite captured the soul of secular West, and remains on the margins, unsure whether it is a surrogate faith or just an argument against a deity.
So, here’s what the Church needs to do. Let women enter as equals and serve god as equals; recognise sex as a positive life force and not a manifestation of the devil; renounce celibacy and abstinence and allow normal men and women to be priests; welcome gays as gays and not just penitent sinners; renounce miracles and mysteries and mumbo jumbo; accept that ejaculation need not always end in fertilisation; accept that abortion is sometimes the only option; free science from moral absolutes that prevent humanity benefiting from developments like stem-cell research; and lay to rest, finally, the doctrine of papal infallibility.
A tall order perhaps. But the Church of Rome will have to come to terms with these things eventually. Popes cannot go on pretending that their flocks observe a Mediaeval moral code that made some kind of sense a thousand years ago but is an anachronism today. It needs reform – though without John Knox this time.