Monday, 13 September 2010

Peter Tatchell on the Pope

I watched Peter Tatchell's programme on the Pope and found the case he presented to be quite strong, but by no means as unfair as some of the critics have asserted. Unlike Richard Dawkins, there was no full scale rant against religion, and Catholicism in particular, which was a refreshing change. Instead, Tatchell engaged with ordinary Catholics, listened to what they were saying, and part of his case was the dislocation between the Pope and the Vatican hierarchy in failing to engage with the grass roots, and instead implementing their own version of a command and control, top down, organisational structure.

Of course that kind of dislocation, and the problems it causes, also occur very much in secular organisations, but Tatchell argued that Vatican II had opened up the Church to reforms which had begun to address some of those problems - although he didn't mention it, the principle of involvement of the college of Bishops with the Pope was part of that change (and sadly, a lost opportunity). He spoke to ordinary Catholics who clearly disagreed with the Pope on the use of condoms, or stem-cell research, or the lifting of the ex-communication on Bishop Williamson, and he showed others at work, declaring that he could see that the Catholic church could be (and was there) a profound force for good.

In a moving part of the film, he showed an extract where Bishop Williamson is denying that any Jews were gassed at all, and then Tatchell visits the concentration camp where they were. What message does this give, Tatchell asks, for a Pope to lift an excommunication on the Bishop, and effectively welcome him back into the fold? He speaks to the Catholics performing in the Oberammergau play, and it makes no sense to them either.

On child abuse, while acknowledging the problems that Pope Benedict faced, and whether more could be done, he allowed it to be made clear that as Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope had taken on an enormous task of reviewing thousands of cases, and was attempting to address the problem in a way that his predecessor had clearly not done well for many years, and who had seemed more content to sweep under the carpet. In this respect, Tatchell gave a much more nuanced view of the Pope's position than the Panorama programme on BBC1, which came over as much more selective and determined in its stance of blaming the Pope.

There were also official spokesmen and women, some of whom seemed to be content with official teaching and unaware or unwilling to accept that there could be any dissent from within. Fiona O'Reilly from Catholic Voice was particular dogmatic here, rattling off the mantra that the position on birth control, or stem cell research was official teaching, and was what Catholics believed. Having seen a number of clearly devout Catholics who disagreed, this rather made her look ridiculous.

Catholic scholar Hans Kung also explained how Joseph Ratzinger had been much more of a reforming figure at Vatican II, and put the retreat into conservatism as a reaction to the student unrest of the 1960s which had deeply affected his thinking, and caused him to draw upon the more conservative Catholic roots of his family past.

Tatchell also made a brief case, but not an unfair one, with interviews with John Cornwell, for the Pope's attempt to rewrite Newman as a defender of his own brand of Catholicism. Tatchell cited Newman as placing conscience above all - "I shall drink to the Pope if you please," he wrote, "... still to conscience first and the Pope afterwards.", but one could equally look at Newman's attitude to Papal infallibility - which he said was pushed forward by an "insolent and aggressive faction". Shortly after that, Newman wrote that "'We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a pope to live twenty years. He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without meaning it." This was clearly not a man who was prepared to be totally subservient to Papal authority.

Tatchell wrote of his film that "contrary to what the critics say, this is not an anti-Catholic film. Indeed, some of the inspirations of my human rights campaigns have been Catholic humanitarians, including the editor of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day; US anti-war activists Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan; Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador; and the theorists of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff."

Having seen it, I'd say that is absolutely right. It is not anti-Catholic, but a warning note, almost speaking for the more liberal voices within Catholicism that have not found a voice. In the end, Tatchell thinks the Pope should probably not come to Britain. Given Pope Benedict's known propensity for putting his foot in his mouth, and alienating Muslims and Jews, and the fact that this tour is a State visit, not a pastoral one, I'm not entirely convinced it is wise either.


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