Thursday, 2 September 2010

Protest the Pope debate: righteous indignation or unreasonable outrage?

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(Note - this has ended up pretty long, so if you were there and don't fancy reliving it, skip further down for my opinions)

Last night, I attended a debate entitled "The Papal visit should not be a State Visit" at London's Conway Hall, organised by the Central London Humanist Group, along with the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society. Speaking for the motion were the prominent atheist philosopher AC Grayling and the tireless human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, while the two Catholics contesting the motion were the journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Austen Ivereigh, and the Benedictine monk Father Christopher Jamison, who appeared on the TV series The Monastery. Ivereigh and Jamison were representing Catholic Voices, a group of 20 speakers formed to put the Catholic side of the debate in the media in the run up to the Papal Visit to the UK, which takes place from 16-19 September.

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist and president of the BHA, chaired the debate and it was perhaps a sign of what was to come that the first mention of the Papal Visit during her introduction drew a boo from one member of the audience. After Toynbee had laid out the format - eight minutes for each speaker, followed by audience questions (with no vote, because that would just reflect who had happened to turn up) – we were straight into the debate.

First up was AC Grayling, speaking in favour of the motion. The are, he said, two primary reasons for opposing the Pope's state visit. The first and, it would seem, most important, is that the Vatican is not really a state. Grayling provided a brief history lesson – the Papacy did possess temporal power during the medieval and early modern periods in the form of the Papal States, which covered a large part of central Italy, but these were lost with the formation of the modern Italian state in 1870. The status of the Vatican as a state was only recovered with the 1929 Lateran Pacts, in which the Catholic Church and the fascist government of Mussolini reached an agreement on the sovereignty of the Holy See.

Therefore, said Grayling, the circumstances of its creation means the argument that the Holy See is a state is moot. He then used an example that greatly amused the secularists in the crowd – if he tried to turn his garden in South London into a state, of which he is the monarch, and asked the Queen for a state visit, what would be the response?

This moved Grayling into the second part of his argument against the state visit, which is that all religions are "self-constituted, interest group". By coming to the UK, the Pope is not representing a state and its people in any real sense, but rather the interests of Britain's Catholics – a relatively small constituency of around nine per cent of the population (and even fewer if you only include regular worshippers). Any self-constituted organisation with an interest, such as a trade union, or the Women's Institute, or the BHA, ought to fund itself. It's influence, argued Grayling, should be proportional to its representation. The religious voice is already over-amplified in British public life, and the taxpayer should not be forced to pay £12 million for the head of the Catholic Church to come to the UK. Therefore, the Papal visit should be a private visit, funded by those who want the Pope here.

Grayling also added a final reason for his opposition to the state visit, which he said he had been searching hard for a way to articulate without sounding aggressive. But, he said, there is no other way of saying it. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been instrumental in covering up criminal acts, i.e. the sexual abuse of children. It has been involved in a criminal conspiracy. If we knew this in connection with another organisation, would we roll out the red carpet for its leader?

This final point received enormous cheers and applause from the audience, making it clear that the overwhelming majority were on the side of the motion. It was hardly surprising, given that members of the Protest the Pope coalition had organised the debate, and that you might call Conway Hall the (non-) spiritual home of British atheism, but I had wondered how many Catholics might make it, given that it had been widely publicised.

So, with the crowd fired up by Grayling, Father Christopher Jamison took the podium to oppose the motion. He began by expressing anger at the fact that Grayling, at the end of his eight minutes, had seen fit to mock the current Pope's namesake, Benedict XV – how dare he, said Jamison, mock the one leader in Europe who had stood up and tried to stop the First World War (not an unfair point - read his Peace Note of 1917 if you're interested).

With that out of the way, Jamison moved into putting the case for a state visit, saying there were rational and humane reasons for it going ahead, which all those who believe in reason and common dialogue should support. A state visit is where the Queen invites the head of another state to come and make an address in her country – the Vatican extended that honour to her in 1980, so we owe the Pope the same honour in return.

Jamison disputed Grayling's claim that the Vatican is not a state – the Holy See, he said, pre-dates the modern Vatican State by centuries. In fact, it is the world's first United Nations, uniting peoples across the world by common belief. The UK government has long recognised the significance of the Holy See, particularly its role played in tackling global poverty and climate change. For this reasons, more British diplomatic representatives have visited the Holy See in recent years than they have any other state.

So why should we welcome the state visit? Because, Jamison suggested, of British democratic values – this debate raises a fundamental question about the nature of secular society, about whether it is closed or open. Does this society allow only a platform for "secularist ideology", closed to other opinions? Or is it open? Are all voices welcome, even those that question it? Everyone, secularists included, should welcome a public square filled with diverse beliefs and values.

Jamison then moved to answer Grayling's arguments regarding the failing of the Catholic Church. As someone who has worked for many years in Catholic education, Jamison said he had to deal with taking on board the 1989 Children's Act, which tightened regulations protecting children. At the time, argued Jamison, all British schools were failing in this regard – children were abused in all sections of society. He elaborated on this later during the questions, when a survivor of abuse told her story and suggested the Church suffers from "instututional narcissism". It was a particularly powerful moment in the evening, and I was struck by Jamison's response – he seemed visibly shocked and moved, and pointed out that since 1989, those involved in Catholic education have had to learn to protect children in ways that were quite new to them. But they did learn, and the Catholic Church in the UK (he said he couldn't speak for it in other countries) now has a child protection procedure in place which is commended by the government. I think this was one of the more insightful moments in the debate – while continuing to campaign for openness in relation to the shocking abuse and cynical cover-ups, it's important that we remember that many people involved in the Catholic Church do feel a real sense of hurt and guilt over the abuse that has occurred in Catholic institutions, and many have worked hard to change things. I think this was exhibited by Jamison in that part of last night's debate.

Having addressed the abuse, Jamison implored us not to assess an institution by its failings, but by its successes. The Catholic Church is, he suggested, "the world's largest contributor to civil society ... promoting love, hope and common good". At this point, we heard the first widespread heckles from the audience and things didn't improve with Jamison's next point – the Church makes a global contribution to the world's wellbeing, providing a quarter of all global HIV care. This elicited huge cries of "nonsense" and boos, not to mention a few expletives from some people sat behind me. At this point, Polly Toynbee stepped in to calm things down – "I think you should let him speak" – and Jamison asked the audience who they think should be allowed a platform. "What have we to fear," he asked, "other than a closing of minds?"

He ended with an appeal to the audience to "exercise reason over sentiment" – secularists may disagree with the Pope, but they should accept diverse voices. We need an open secularism.

Next up was Peter Tatchell, who focussed on the moral arguments against the visit. He said he agrees with the Pope's rejection of materialism and consumerism, but Benedict XVI preaches a harsh, intolerant version of Catholicism that even many Catholics reject. His opposition to the ordination of women is "sexism and patriarchy of the highest and most shameful kind". He opposes humane scientific advances such as IVF and stem cell research. He says that an HIV positive husband can not even use a condom to prevent the infection of his wife. He approves homophobic discrimination. He has been actively involved in the cover-up of child sex abuse, most notoriously in his authorship, as the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, of a 2001 letter threatening excommunication for any bishop reporting abuse cases to the police.

Worst of all, in Tatchell's view, Benedict rescinded the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson and the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, despite Williamson's much-documented Holocaust denial. The Pope has also pressed the case for the Beatification of Pope Pius XII, the wartime Pope who, many argue, cooperated with the Nazis and failed to oppose the Holocaust. For Tatchell, these two cases in particular show just how far the current Pope has departed from the gospels he preaches of love and compassion. Therefore, we should not honour him with a state visit – if he was a religious leader of the stature of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then absolutely, but not Benedict XVI.

Finally we heard from Austen Ivereigh, with Toynbee urging us to hear him with "rationality and respect". He began by reading a recent quote concerning the Church by National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson, in which he replaced the word "Catholics" with Jews and so on. Presumably he was picking up the argument of the Pope's personal preacher, who likened the treatment of Benedict over child abuse scandals to the the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. (As an opening gambit to win over an audience of secularists, likening opposition to a state visit by a religious leader to mass persecution of people on account of their race was hardly destined to be a winner, but it's one possible approach, I guess. You can read Sanderson's refutation of this point here.)

Then Ivereigh moved on to slightly firmer ground, suggesting that the opposition argument that most people in Britain don't want a state visit is untrue. According to a new survey by Catholic magazine The Tablet, only five per cent of those polled said they were "strongly opposed" to the visit. (I wonder if there's a lesson here for anyone trying to use statistics in these kinds of arguments – Grayling told us only nine per cent in Britain are Catholic, Ivereigh told us only five per cent. It follows that both are suggesting they speak for the more reasonable majority, but is it not fairer to say that together these statistics show that the majority of people have no strong opinions on this?)

Britain, said Ivereigh, has not stopped being a tolerant society. The case put by the opposition is based, in his view, on an abandonment of reason and perspective, on a parody of the Catholic Church. The opponents of the visit spread misapprehensions, caricatures and half-baked truths.

He then tried to show us why this is the case. Women can't be priests because Jesus intended the Church to be run by men [hearty laughter from the audience]. IVF destroys human life in the process of creation. It's the same with stem cell research – the scientists involved don't respect human life. It's dogma, and it doesn't even work. Ivereigh was hardly winning the crowd over at this point, but his next point lost them completely – the Pope is right on condoms, and the science backs it up (he's put this argument in the Guardian in the past). The spread of the virus, he argued, has accelerated in line with the growth in condom use – abstinence and fidelity really are the best way forward.

Is the Church in favour of discrimination? No, said Ivereigh, it is the leading supporter of human rights in the world. It stand up for the rights of gay people – yes, it disagrees with gay adoption, and it supports the rights of Catholic institutions to only employ those who reflect their ethos, but it does not support discrimination.

On child abuse, Ivereigh argued that Ratzinger's 2001 letter did not order bishops to remain silent. He has led the drive for openness on the issue of abuse, and has done more than any other person in the Church to address the problem. The Catholic Church is the only organisation in the UK that annually published a report on instances of sexual abuse in its institutions.

Ivereigh also stressed that Bishop Williamson's order was rehabilitated, not Williamson himself, and that Pope Pius XII had been a great defender of Jews.

The idea, he argued, that the Church is an enemy of human rights is absurd. It works to emancipate – the homeless, the poor, women, immigrants, the unborn. It is the greatest friend of the marginalised, inspired by the teachings of the faith.

He concluded by saying that yes, Catholics and humanists disagree on some rights. But do secularists want to allow free interplay of those ideas, or do they want to push them away? In this respect, Catholics are the true humanists.

The debate ended there, and move into a particularly fruitless "questions" format, in which the majority of participants failed to ask the speakers any actual questions. I wouldn't say this is unique to last night's debate – it's part of the reason I don't watch Question Time on TV – but I do find it incredibly tiresome when audience member after audience member takes the microphone to deliver a general point of their own, without asking the panel anything at all. Maybe I'm just not a fan of this format.

But the questions section was also the point at which the booing, heckling and shouting reached its loudest, and it was that aspect of last night's debate that left me feeling a little uncomfortable as I headed home on the tube. I think both Grayling and Tatchell delivered strong arguments against the visit being a state visit, and I don't think either of the Catholic speakers did enough to convince me that they were wrong. Frankly, some of their arguments were absurd, particularly in relation to HIV and condoms (I find the idea that the Catholic Church is the world's greatest provider of HIV care particularly laughable, as well as Ivereigh's claim that the Pope is right on condoms). But a key element of their argument was that a secular state should provide an open forum for contending viewpoints, and that the opponents of the visit want a closed society and do not want this "free interplay", as Ivereigh called it.

I don't think that this is true, and I don't think it is even that relevant to the state visit argument, which is not about whether the Pope should come, but who should fund it. But it's a common argument levelled by religious opponents against secularists/humanists/atheists, and it's an image we must be careful not to project. Last night the audience, in which opponents of the visit enormously outnumbered supporters, frequently shouted down Catholics (including those posing questions from the audience), rather than hearing their views and then arguing against them rationally. There was a lot of shouting – including plenty of swearing – and at times the speakers were not able to finish making their points (I'd say it was an atmosphere closer to what I'm used to experiencing at football matches than at, say, intellectual talks). In my view this is not how to conduct a debate. Ivereigh accuses secularists of presenting a caricature of the Catholic Church – similarly, could it not be argued that this kind of conduct by a vocal minority allows opponents of secularism to paint the caricature of "atheist fundamentalism"? The result is that Ivereigh can emerge from the debate and describe it, as he does in the video attached to this blogpost, as "a bearpit" and "very nasty". It's also the way it's portrayed by Ed West in this post at the Catholic Herald.

Are secularists and humanists committed, as both Catholic commentators suggested we should be, to an open society of diverse views and beliefs? If we are, then it doesn't mean we should support a state, taxpayer-funded visit by the Pope, but we certainly ought be willing to listen calmly to the arguments and have a civilised debate with those who think we should. At times, last night's event gave the impression that many secularists don't even want to hear the counter-arguments. My own secularism is based, to a great extent, on a commitment to free speech and reasoned debate, which is why I feel uncomfortable with what I saw last night. (My predecessor in this job, Padraig Reidy, recently expressed some similar concerns in the Observer.)

I'm sure lots of you will have an opinion on this – please do get involved and share your comments on this post.

I've gone on quite long enough, but one final thing – I don't feel we really did get to the bottom of the question of whether the visit should be a state one last night, but I did have a question of my own that I was trying to put to the anti-state visit side, particularly AC Grayling. There seem to be two key arguments against the state visit – one technical, one moral. The technical argument questions the Vatican's status as a sovereign state, and therefore the Pope's right to a state visit. The moral argument holds that the Vatican's human rights record – on AIDS, child abuse, women, gay rights etc – means the Pope is not morally deserving of the honour of a state visit. I wonder if these two arguments don't contradict each other slightly? If we follow the technical argument, then the leader of any country we deem to be legitimate is entitled to a state visit, including leaders of states we may deem to have questionable human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, whose leaders frequently come here. Yet if we follow the moral argument consistently, we would no more allow a state visit from the leader of Saudi Arabia as we would the leader of the Vatican.

It's just a thought – I wonder if opponents of the state visit shouldn't concentrate on one or the other? The moral argument would have wider implications, and make a greater stand in relation to the UK's ties to many other questionable regimes. I never got the chance to ask Grayling, but my guess would be he would say you could apply both the moral and technical criteria to the Holy See – and it passes neither.

Phew, I'm stopping there. Please do leave comments.
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