Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Trouble with the Pope

Later this week the Pope will be visiting Britain at a particularly low point for the Roman Catholic church, embroiled as it is with seemingly never-ending accusations of institutionalised sex abuse coming from all over the world. The troubles facing the church - described as the worst since the Reformation - are possibly to blame for reportedly low ticket sales for the various events the Pontiff will be attending during the three day tour.

But some people argue that Benedict XVI should not be visiting these shores at all and it's not merely about cost, either. Chief among these is Peter Tatchell, veteran gay rights campaigner and outspoken critic of conservative Catholic dogma.

Last night on Channel 4 Tatchell presented The Trouble with the Pope, a programme which produced a lengthy charge sheet against the teachings of the current Bishop of Rome. It is Tatchell's belief that Benedict's teachings and particularly narrow interpretations of religious ideology are having profoundly damaging consequences for society and that he should not be welcome in Britain as a result.

And it's a largely convincing argument. Among the more stringent criticisms levelled at the Pope are his rigid stance against contraception and the effect this has on birth control and HIV, his abandonment of Vatican II reforms, the rehabilitation of a holocaust denier back into the church, the lack of action over child and sex abuse scandals, the condemnation of stem cell research and the description of homosexuals as having a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil". He could have mentioned institutionalised sexism, the attempted luring of Anglicans, questionable remarks concerning Jews and Muslims, and other similarly suspect tenets of the church's teachings, but the idea that Benedict's assumption of divine authority lends a "moral legitimacy to discrimination" is perhaps Tatchell's shrewdest observation. It's a programme worth watching.

Some argue that Benedict is no worse than other leaders that have already enjoyed the hospitality of a state visit to the UK and who themselves have questionable moral track track records, but this is to ignore the global influence that Benedict enjoys as head of the world's largest religious organisation. State visits to Britain by other leaders, after all, rarely include organised public events and mass gatherings. And Stephen Glover over at the Daily Mail website makes the bizarre contention that the Pope should be welcomed because he is "a decent man of principle", purposefully forgetting that the principle held is as important - if not more so - as the degree with which a person holds it.

I am personally not particularly keen on the Pope's visit to England and Scotland - Wales and Northern Ireland are to go without - during a time of deep recession; simply put there are better things to spend public money on. But it also creates the potential for a spotlight to be cast on the dogmatic teachings that Benedict has promoted since the beginning of his tenure and for uncomfortable questions to be asked. It's a chance not to be missed.

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