Pope Benedict Should Shut up or Pay up

By Cary Gee
Tribune Magazine
September 9, 2010

On the day Deng Xiaoping died, a good friend of mine, who happens to be a Roman Catholic priest, told me over a pint in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford that his demise left just one great dictator in the world: Pope John Paul II.

On a dismal day in 2005, I was in Richmond Terrace, London – the closest we were allowed to Downing Street – protesting against the state visit of one of Deng’s successors, Hu Jintao. I did not consider the visit of a man with ultimate responsibility for one of the worst human rights records in the world worthy of celebration. Next Saturday, I will be there or thereabouts again, demonstrating against the state visit of JP2’s successor, Pope Benedict – and for similar reasons.

If it were not for the Zucchetto and his fetching pink Prada slippers, the British Government would not even entertain the idea of inviting (at vast expense to all of us) a leader whose idea of diplomacy is to meddle directly in British politics by urging Catholics to oppose legislation passed by our elected politicians. As the Equality Bill came before Parliament earlier this year, the Pope told a gathering of English and Welsh Catholic bishops in Rome that it “would impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs”. Well, thank God for that. But the pontiff wasn’t finished. “In some respects,” he added, “[the Equality Bill] violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.”

Would that be the same “natural law” that states homosexuality is a sin, but which all too often allows pederasty– at least when practised by the Pope’s emissaries – to go unpunished? Or the natural law that prohibits even the most vulnerable women from accessing abortion services while allowing AIDS to ravage the poorest countries in the world by opposing the use of condoms.

The Pope has already criticised Catholic Portugal, on his itinerary for next year, after the democratically elected Portuguese parliament voted to allow gay marriage.

Obscuring what is essentially a religious mission to Britain behind a shroud of statehood and diplomacy simply won’t wash, which is why 28,000 people signed a National Secular Society petition objecting to the papal stopover being accorded the honour and recognition of a full state visit. Perhaps the Pope should ask: “What would Jesus do?” – but He would probably be too busy taking tea with Harriet Harman to see him.

Towards the end of A Journey, Tony Blair states: “I have always been more interested in religion than in politics” – and then shuts up. This is the only mention of religion in an entire book about politics – and that’s exactly how it should be.

Worryingly, David Cameron’s government provides yet another opportunity for the creeping influence of religion to make itself felt in public life, as religious leaders (of all persuasions) are invited to involve themselves in decisions better left to elected representatives. Ironically, this is done in the name of multiculturalism. And, as is so often the case, the most vulnerable are left at a disadvantage, as are those who grow up “belonging” to a culture with which they may still identify despite refuting the religious baggage that comes with it. (I myself grew up in a Gloucestershire vicarage, but can no more recite the Nicene Creed than I can bake a Victoria sponge).

The only way to ensure all citizens are treated equably is to govern by secular government. If ever there was a reason to protest against swingeing public service cuts, it is to avoid what the National Secular Society terms “soup for prayers”, where receiving aid is contingent on worshipping or being preached to. Although we have not been told as much, there are many in the Conservative Party who are keen on the idea of handing over large tracts of social provision, complete with starter capital, to the faith sector. That must be contested vehemently by anyone who opposes discrimination, especially on religious grounds, and that should include the atheist Nick Clegg.

There is a lesson to be learned from the United States, where George W Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships. Although intended to fund genuinely worthwhile projects, Bush was accused of pandering to religious leaders who think nothing of instructing their flocks on how to vote. Terms were attached to the provision of public money intended to outlaw discrimination, but since then US courts have been filled by minority groups complaining of discrimination, not just in the provision of services, but also of discriminatory employment practices by the providers. It is not a route we should go down in this country.

In fact, there should be an absolute legal requirement that no public money can be used by any organisation for the promotion of a particular faith over any other. And that should include the Pope’s forthcoming visit. Unless the Vatican can provide the Government with a categorical assurance that His Holiness will refrain from publicly mentioning God for the duration of his stay in Britain, it should strip the visit of all the trappings of state that it has been accorded, before presenting the Pope with the estimated bill for ?25 million that taxpayers are expected to foot.


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