Polly Toynbee, Friday April 8, 2005, The Guardian (UK)
With the clash of two state funerals and a wedding, unreason is in full flood this week. Yet again, rationalists who thought they understood this secular, sceptical age have been shocked at the coverage from Rome.
The BBC airwaves have disgraced themselves. The Mail went mad with its front-page headlines, "Safe in Heaven" and the next day "Amen". Even this august organ, which sprang from the loins of nonconformist dissent, astounded many readers with its broad acres of Pope reverencing. Poor old Prince Rainier of that squalid little tax haven missed his full Hello! death rites through bad timing.
The arcane flummery brings forth dusty academics in Vaticanology, the Act of Settlement and laws of Monegasque succession. These pantomimes of power fascinate in their quaintness, but they signify nothing beyond momentary frisson.
The millions pouring into Rome (pray there is no Mecca-style disaster) herald no resurgence of Catholicism. The devout are there, but this is essentially a Diana moment, a Queen Mother's catafalque. People queue to join great public spectacles, hoping it's a tell-my-grandchildren event. Communing with public emotion is easy now travel is cheap. These things are driven by rolling, unctuous television telling people a great event is unfolding, focusing on the few hysterics in tears and not the many who come to feel their pain.
Bill Clinton had it right yesterday: "The man knows how to build a crowd." Curiously, the celebrity nature of this event - a must-do for 200 world leaders - signifies the opposite of what it seems. It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol' boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace - why not?
In Europe church attendance is plummeting, even in Poland, the heart of reactionary Catholicism. Here the young are clueless about the most basic Christian stories. How about the DJ who opened his show with "Happy Good Friday!" Art galleries now need to explain the agony in the garden, the raising of Lazarus and even the annunciation. In surveys, half the population couldn't say what Easter meant. It is precisely this insouciant ignorance that lets people emote with the flow; they know not what they do.
The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy. It has weak temporal power, so George Bush can safely pray at the corpse of the man who criticised the Iraq war and capital punishment; it simply didn't matter as the Pope never made a serious issue of it or ordered the US church to take strong action.
The Vatican's deeper power is in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees. With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today's immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms - this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.
This is said often, even in this unctuous week - and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost. How dare our prime minister go there in our name to give the Vatican our approval for this? Will he think of Africa when on his knees today? I trust history will some day express astonishment at moral outrage wasted on sexual trivia while papal celebrity and charisma cloaked this great Vatican crime.
The editor of the Catholic Herald was somewhat Jesuitical when I argued with him in a BBC studio yesterday. He asked how the Pope could be blamed when all the church calls for is sex within marriage and abstinence. But abstinence and celibacy are not the human condition. If the Vatican learned anything about humanity, it would humbly meditate on 4,450 Catholic clergy in the US alone accused of molesting children since 1950, and no doubt as many in Catholic churches elsewhere still in denial.
The scale of it is breathtaking yet not at all surprising: most humans are sexual beings. A Vatican edict in the 1960s threatened to excommunicate anyone breaking secrecy on child sex allegations, and guaranteed that ever more children continued to suffer. And within its walls the Vatican shields an American priest from allegations.
Still the Vatican turns a blind eye to this most repugnant and damaging of all sexual practices, the suffering little children whose priests come unto them. Yet at the same time it thunders disapproval of sex in every other more innocent circumstance, blighting the lives of millions with its teaching on gays, divorce, abortion and unrealistic self-denial. There is no reckoning how many of the world's poorest women have died giving birth to more children than they can survive; contraception is women's true saviour.
In 1971 I interviewed Mother Teresa and asked how she justified letting starving babies be born to die on Calcutta streets for lack of contraception. She said sublimely that every baby entering the world was another soul created in praise of God, even if it lived only a few hours. She was never keen on cures: suffering was a gift of God that enabled those who cared for the afflicted to demonstrate their love. She was beatified by John Paul II for their shared religious mania. Those who met them talk of an aura of love, power, listening and intensity. But goodness is in doing good; good intent is no excuse for murderous error.
Today's saccharine sanctimony will try to whiten the sepulchre of yet another Pope whose obscurantist faith has caused pointless suffering; it is no defence that he was only obeying higher orders.
At the funeral will be a convocation of mullahs, rabbis and all the other medieval faiths that increasingly conspire together against modernity. Islamic groups are sternly warning the Vatican to stand firm against liberal influences on homosexuality, abortion, contraception and the ordination of women. What is it about religion that unites them all on sex? It always expresses itself as disgust for women's bodies, leading to a need to suppress women altogether. Why is controlling women's bodies the shared battle flag of every faith?
Disgracefully, the European rich quietly ignore the church's outlandish teachings on contraception without rebelling on behalf of the helpless third-world poor who die for their misplaced faith. Those "civilised" Catholics have as much blood on their hands as the Vatican they support. They are like the Bollinger Bolsheviks who defended the USSR and a murderous ideology that they could do much to change. For today, just remember what lies beneath all this magnificent display.
Polly Toynbee, Friday April 8, 2005, The Guardian (UK)
See: TT Humanist Statement on the passing of John Paul II
Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/feedback