Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Reflecting on the Papal Visit and Protest the Pope - time for a change of tone?

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Protest the Pope demonstrators gather on Piccadilly
Attending the Protest the Pope demonstration in central London on Saturday, the aggressive secularists of whom we have heard so much didn’t appear to have made the trip. I’d had my own concerns about the tone of the campaign against the Papal Visit after attending a raucous debate on the issue earlier this month, but what I saw on Saturday was peaceful and good-natured. You could even say there was a party atmosphere. Some religious commentators, perhaps in search of a valuable “told you so...,” reported seeing protesters behaving aggressively towards pilgrims, but that kind of behaviour was noticeably absent from what I saw.

I did, however, see groups of pilgrims passing the march on their way to the Pope’s prayer vigil in Hyde Park, and the bewildered looks on their faces for me summed up the national conversation this visit has generated among interested parties in Britain – it is a debate between two sides that, in many respects, do not appear to understand where the other is coming from. Opponents have portrayed the Pope as a criminal in both thought and action, whose pernicious views and response to the child abuse scandal make him utterly unwelcome in Britain. Meanwhile supporters have welcomed Benedict XVI with open arms, turning out in hundreds of thousands to catch a glimpse of him and hear what he has to say, while dismissing the opposition as a shrill and insignificant aggressive secular minority. Both sides, unsurprisingly, have utterly failed to convince the other.

The question we as secularists must now ask ourselves is why this has happened. The national media appears to have adopted the narrative about aggressive secularism, and we must look at why this is. Is it because, with the emergence of the so-called New Atheism, advocates of secularism have become more extreme, or is it because opponents of religion have been misrepresented? In my view, it is certainly the latter. There is nothing particularly aggressive, and certainly nothing extreme, about the secularist movement. Nobody suggests the use of violence, or the repression of people of religion (for anyone, as a blogger did this weekend on the Labour blog Left Foot Forward, to use the term “secular jihadists” is utterly ridiculous). All the secularist movement consists of is people arguing with varying degrees of stridency and, most importantly, with words for a society and government in which free expression is protected and religion is not afforded special privilege (something summed up perfectly by Evan Harris on Comment is Free this weekend). Yet many people persist in characterising it as aggressive and extreme, and sensible debate suffers in the process – is this because religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, don’t wish to engage with our arguments, or is it because we’re failing to communicate them properly?

The gulf in understanding was underlined within minutes of the Pope’s arrival in Edinburgh on Thursday, when he referred to the “sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century”. Many secularists immediately expressed outrage, suggesting Benedict XVI had slandered atheists by comparing them to Nazis. If that was what he was implying, then it was an unhelpful, perhaps offensive, thing to say, based on both a misreading of history and a misreading of what secularists stand for. But it is important for those opposed to the Pope to look carefully at what he has to say – as the Guardian's Andrew Brown has pointed out, it’s not clear that he was comparing modern-day atheism to Nazism, and the ensuing tit-for-tat, with atheists pointing to Catholicism’s relationship with European fascism, helps no one. As Brown wrote, “shouting ‘nyah nyah, Hitler was on your team!’ is pissing on the corpses – or the ashes – of the dead”. By joining in that game, as many did, atheists add fuel to the idea of aggressive secularism (one banner at Saturday’s rally did depict a Pope carrying a swastika, though apparently it was taken down after complaints from other protestors).
A banner depicting the Pope as a Nazi, later taken down

If the Pope, rather than likening atheists to Nazis, was actually expressing the view that a godless society lacks the moral grounding required to keep it from evil, then is that really a surprising thing for the Pope to say? Atheists may disagree profoundly, but does this mean that we shouldn’t listen to what he has to say? David Cameron put the case for engaging with the visit in his words of farewell to the Pope on Sunday, saying “People do not have to share a religious faith or agree with religion on everything to see the benefit of asking the searching questions that you, your Holiness, have posed to us about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other."

Protesters have strong and important reasons for opposing the state visit, but does this mean he was not welcome at all? My personal attitude to the visit has veered between opposition and ambivalence, but watching the Pope’s address in Westminster Hall on Friday I was struck by its historical significance. For a Pope to address British politicians and dignitaries in that building would have been unthinkable perhaps as recently as a century ago, and for it to happen on Friday was a sign of the progress Britain has made in that time. Surely, leaving aside all the other issues surrounding the visit, this can be considered a good thing? Actually, it ties in with Benedict XVI’s apparent misunderstanding of what secularists stand for. It is because Britain has become a secular, plural society that it possible for a Pope to come here on a state visit and speak in a building long-associated with the Protestant establishment and its past persecution of English Catholicism.

Ultimately, the protest campaign has rested on the argument that, while Benedict is free to come here, it should not have been a state visit. Whether or not the Holy See is a legitimate state is a fascinating question, and in his book The Case of the Pope Geoffrey Robertson QC presents a strong argument that is not. It is certainly a historical curiosity, but the reality is that, rightly or wrongly, it is widely recognized as a state. Do we not, therefore, need to engage with it on these terms?

Opponents of the Vatican have legitimate concerns over its conduct and policies. The response to the child abuse scandal has been insufficient and at times criminal, and the Church has, in the eyes of many, much to do before it can be seen to have acted appropriately. For the good of humanity we implore it to reconsider its stance on condoms, which genuinely costs lives, as well as its reactionary and damaging positions on gender and sexuality. We disagree firmly on the proliferation of faith schools and the role of faith in public life. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, along with other religions, wrongly portrays secularism as extreme and aggressive. At worst this involves wilful mischaracterisation and at best misunderstanding – it was bizarre to hear the Pope suggest that Christmas is under threat, as though he had bought into the tabloid myth of “Winterval”, allowing the Sun to run with the headline “Pope: Don’t let the PC brigade ruin Christmas”.

As secularists, we are asking the Church to change its ways. Yet how can we expect it to change if we don’t engage with it? Even the Pope appeared to appeal for engagement in his Westminster Hall speech, when he said that “the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief - need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue.” As Geoffrey Robertson says when he explains that his book was aimed at Catholics, change in the Church will have to come from within. For progress to be made, critics of the Church need to find sympathetic ears among Catholics, and some of the stronger rhetoric we have heard during the Pope’s visit can only reduce the chance of this happening. Saturday's protest was generally good-natured, but some of the placards I saw – "Fuck the Pope, wear a condom", pictures of Hitler and Benedict with the slogan "Same shit, different asshole", "Arrest the paedo Pope", "Despicable twisted vile hypocrite" – serve no constructive purpose. If Catholics are allowed to think we are aggressive and extreme, they won’t listen to us. But if they see that we are reasoned critics, they may begin to engage with our arguments.

In central London on Saturday, I saw thousands of people (the police estimate was 12,000) take to the streets in opposition to the Pope’s policies, but I also saw pilgrims flocking to see him speak. It has been reported that over 200,000 people came out to watch the Popemobile pass or attend the official events and, as the opinions of those people are just as valid as mine, or anyone else’s, the fact is that in the eyes of many Benedict XVI was welcome here. Many oppose the Church, but many support it. The Papal Visit was an opportunity for both sides to debate the reasons for this, but what we have seen are two distinct groups in our society that appear to be talking past one another, while many others (perhaps the majority) look on in confusion.

Could it be time for a rapprochement?
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