“Viva il Papa!” the crowd cheered rapturously, as Pope Benedict XVI clambered back onto two feet. The pinnacle of the Catholic religion, and one of the most powerful and influential men in the world, had been sent to the ground by a woman dressed in a red sweater just a few hours before delivering his Christmas Day message. Having burst through barriers guarded by stern-faced Vaticanites, Susanna Maiolo had pounced on His Holiness, and was subsequently dispatched to a psychiatric centre to seek help.
It’s an astonishing act of iconoclasm, albeit from a mentally unstable woman. But irrespective of Maiolo’s intentions, there is something undeniably powerful about the image of a toppling pontiff. It reminds us that he is a man after all, and not just an icon. Even so, people are still afraid to speak out against his more objectionable ideas. My question is simple: why should Joseph Ratzinger be ring-fenced from justifiable criticism?
Given the British government’s recent plans to fully fund a state visit by the Pope to our country, I invite you to consider the following questions. How much would you pay to talk with a man who covers up sexual abuse of children within an establishment? What amount would you shell out to meet with a prominent defender of Holocaust-deniers (namely Richard Williamson and Pope Pius XII)? Would you allow a known opponent of IVF, a known perpetuator of gay inequality, a known campaigner for putting millions of lives in peril by opposing contraception in the Third World, unlimited access to your bank account? The auctioneer’s gavel slams down at a whopping £20 million. Yes, I can reassure you; you did read that right. That’s how much it is costing the British taxpayer to provide Ratzinger with a platform to air his contemptible views.
I’m not the only one with concerns. Peter Tatchell’s online petition to stop the British government’s association with His Holiness has already gained almost 5,000 signatories. This is not all that surprising. There is something perverse about our government actively embracing the Pope’s message of intolerance, coaxing him here with enormous wads of cash wrenched directly from our pockets.
We are all aware of the current Pope’s attempts to discourage condom usage in some of the most AIDS-ravaged areas of Africa, but he is not the first pontiff to behave in such a contemptible manner. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, preached in Africa and South America on the ineptitude of condoms in the battle against HIV and AIDS. A member of the Vatican’s office, Alfonso Lopez Trejillo, was ordered to make an announcement that this form of contraception was purposely created with tiny holes that let HIV through. How can we possibly accept that a benevolent God ordains these actions? How can we respect a leader who is effectively leading Africans to their deaths?
The answer should be simple for most of us. We can’t; especially not after the Catholic Church campaigned in El Salvador (successfully) to have a label on packets of condoms proclaiming that they are useless in the fight against perhaps the biggest disease of our generation. Surely we cannot allow this organisation to be our guiding light, supposedly declaring the profound “word of God” through their misguided figurehead. And yet we do nothing – absolutely nothing – to prevent his power.
In the modern world, there is no place for the antediluvian opinions of the likes of Pope Benedict XVI. He is meant to be a representative of piety, compassion and wisdom. But answer this: could a truly compassionate person stand by and watch women die through predicted complications of pregnancy that would have been easily avoided through abortion? Why does a wise individual not realise the error of his ways and chastise (for example) the Archbishop of Nairobi who, inspired by the Vatican’s condemnation of condoms, announced that they were the very cause of AIDS?
Perhaps the most obvious recent example of the pontiff’s misconduct was his speech commenting on Britain’s equality law. According to our profound preacher, the new legislation “violates natural law” by granting homosexuals equal rights. From this, we can clearly deduce – beyond any doubt – that the Pope believes gay members of the community are not eligible for rights equivalent to heterosexuals. Now, this belief has long-since been established; LGBT groups should be marginalised components of society at large because, in truth, homosexuality “is more or less [a] strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”. Those very words were spoken by our Holy Father himself. And yes, we should all feel totally shocked and appalled.
However, the most interesting part of the latest story is our government’s reaction. I was entirely perplexed to discover that Gordon Brown refused to comment on the matter as it would be inappropriate to challenge the opinions of a man for whom he holds “enormous admiration and respect”. Brown’s unwillingness to release a statement evinces the true scale of the problem; no one, not even the leader of one of the most powerful nations, can question the Pope’s hideous message.
What was more shocking though, was the cover-up. In spite of the Pope’s speech attacking gay rights, the Equalities Office released a statement defending the papacy, stating that “the Pope acknowledges our country’s firm commitment to equality for all members of society”. We, the public, will not be fooled. A religious dictator surely cannot make the sort of derogatory, counter-productive statements he made earlier this month without being held to account.
Yet the story goes further; on and on and on into an abyss of absurdity. Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic Conservative MP, has jumped to the Pope’s defence. Her hypothesis that “if a faith teaches, as major faiths do, that something is wrong, then quite clearly you cannot have somebody who believes that it’s right actually occupying a very senior position”. Put simply, gay people should not be allowed to scale the social ladder because of religious constraints.
It may be hard to believe, but Harriet Harman has decided that the Church is, in fact, above the law, and has thereby granted them permission to ignore any Equality Bills and do what they please as regards to employment discrimination. There is simply no excuse for the Prime Minister, or indeed for any of us, to remain silent out of some misguided notion of “respect”. Religion is an ideology, a set of values, and as such should be open to criticism and, if appropriate, outright condemnation.