Pope May Deserve His Critics, but Don't Take All of Them at Face Value

By Stephen King
Irish Examiner
September 9, 2010

A week before Pope Benedict's trip to Britain, the potential for mishap seems almost endless. What with high-profile atheists threatening to arrest him for covering up child sexual abuse and constant media questioning of the multi-million pound cost of the three-day jamboree, the old man must be wondering why he ever let himself be talked into the idea.

This will be a very different British papal visit to the last one in 1982. When Benedict XVI lands at Edinburgh airport, he will not drop to his knees and kiss the ground, as John Paul II did. This is not only because the octogenarian pontiff is physically frail. Bluntly, Benedict wasn't sprinkled with the same stardust.

The better part of 30 years ago, the Polish Pope's signature gesture seemed to encapsulate the vigour and glamour of the Catholic Church. The papacy was respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for waging battles against totalitarianism.

John Paul II, at least in his early years, could seemingly do no wrong. Presidents and prime ministers queued up to be photographed alongside him.

While the official attitude of the British government may be one of welcome, hostility doesn't lie far below the surface. An infamous Foreign Office memo that suggested a brand of condoms be named after the Pope and that he should visit an abortion clinic as part of the visit was a prank but, reading the British papers at the time, few thought it constituted a crime.

This Pope has it coming to him, right? The charge sheet against Benedict XVI is a long one. His PR is truly dreadful. A speech in Regensburg early in his papacy triggered Muslim protests around the world by appearing to link their prophet with violence. The appointment of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who turned out to have had an ambiguous relationship with the communist secret police didn't look very clever either.

Then there was the revival of the old Latin Mass, including a controversial prayer for the conversion of Jews. Was the one-time member of the Hitler Youth ghastly throw-back, some wondered? Comments about condoms making the AIDS problem in Africa worse and comparing the church's stand against homosexuality to saving the rainforest were unfortunate, to say the least.

It was when the current Pope lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one prominent Holocaust-denier, that serious questions were, rightly, raised about his suitability. Few seriously suspected Joseph Ratzinger was a closet Nazi, but they did begin to ask how the vast bureaucracy in Rome could get it so wrong. Anyone in the Vatican who might have spent five minutes Googling "Richard Williamson" would have realised his despicable views about the non-existence of the gas chambers were going to cause an unfavourable reaction.

Again, unhelpful comparisons with his predecessor were made. John Paul II was seen as the great communicator, a man forever seeking to engage with the big, wide world beyond the Vatican.

To say Benedict, on the other hand, is not a natural communicator is an understatement. Frankly, few seem to warm to this German. The Polish Pope alerted his flock behind the Iron Curtain to their dignity as free people.

What great legacy will this papacy leave behind? All those mishaps slide into comparative insignificance, of course, when compared with the damage caused by the mishandling of the child abuse scandal.

It doesn't help that Benedict himself in his earlier guise as papal enforcer has been personally linked with attempts to obstruct justice.

His attitude, it would seem, was very much that these were issues to be sorted out within the church, behind closed doors, far beyond the scrutiny of official legal channels.

And there is a wider problem for the church. Few seriously believe the acts of sexual abuse themselves were not the product of the culture of celibacy, the church's strange views on sex and the fact that in some institutions priests were given ultimate authority over young boys and girls.

In Ireland, a long line of revelations about child abuse has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the church has been more concerned with its standing in society than with dealing properly with child molesters in its ranks. Those who have long held that the role of the Catholic Church in Irish life was as an overweening force for reaction have been vindicated. Many of Ireland's deepest social problems are now discussed as the products of those decades of abuse.

In Britain, the old-style scoffing at Catholic teaching on sex before marriage and contraception has given way to a thinly veiled hatred. Ian Paisley has, not surprisingly, indulged in a bit of 'told you so'.

It's fair to say a number of my Orange friends are secretly rather enjoying the spectacle of this forthcoming trip. Something is almost destined to go wrong from a Vatican point of view.

This columnist has not gone soft. There is much about the Catholic Church's teachings and history including recent history to rage against. The notion that the Catholic Church exists purely and simply to disseminate the word of God to the poor has always seemed to me a little naive. As human beings, we are quite capable of thinking for ourselves. The church's ongoing war against the Enlightenment is contemptible when it isn't laughable.

Still, even I, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, have to enter a few caveats before we metaphorically beat up this Pope and leave him bleeding to death in a dark alley.

THE first is that even all that child sexual abuse has to be viewed in some kind of perspective. Even one case is one too many, it goes without saying. But to believe the Roman Catholic Church is just one vast paedophile ring is an intellectual trap.

Some don't like to hear it but, even in Ireland, incidents of sexual abuse by priests were fairly rare.

Call it the tip of the iceberg, if you like, but the number of claims is in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands. It was far, far too widespread. But to say it was endemic is an exaggeration.

And then we have to ask why so many want us to believe it was systematic. Yes, it was a product of the nature and structure of the church, at least in part. But it was a product of human frailty too, and the Catholic Church and its representatives don't have the monopoly in that regard.

I very much doubt this Pope can now drag his message out of the long shadow cast by child abuse and his own mistakes: it has gone too far. And the drip-drip of revelations has offered endless opportunities to demonise Catholicism.

But is the target of this media ridicule Benedict XVI or religion itself? For many of those protesting against the Pope, child abuse is an all-too-easy opportunity to indict anyone who believes in anything vaguely spiritual and to castigate them as backward, not to mention stupid.

The Pope cannot and should not expect an easy ride next week in Britain but before throwing punches we are obliged to ask ourselves, do we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

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