Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Papal Visit - Musings of a Protestant Agnostic

I am angry at the prospect of the imminent papal state visit. Many others are too for various reasons which have been so rehearsed in the past few weeks that they need no recap here. I have just been listening to the radio where I heard an interesting discussion between David Starkey and Eamon Duffy – both historians whose work I admire. As I listened I started shouting out my agreement with David Starkey. I even tweeted it. Then I reflected on this and realised that the fundamental reason for my objection is that I am a product of my national inheritance. I may be an agnostic, but I am a Protestant agnostic.

Now, this may be strange. This is, after all, 2010 and there has been a great shift in religious adherence in this country, particularly with the presence of more Eastern Europeans whose religious affiliation, where is exists, is often Roman Catholic.

I have no problem with the pope making a pastoral visit to the UK in order to speak to the faithful. It’s happened before, it can happen again. There are many who will get a lot out of it, and I would not begrudge them that experience. However, this is to be a state visit – one that recognises the office of the pope as having both a secular as well as a spiritual authority.

Hold on, when did this country perform that volte-face? What happened to the Reformation of the English church in the Tudor period, the constitutional crises of the Stuarts which were fundamentally about an Englishman’s fear of the resurgence of the papacy as a temporal power over him? Yes, Britain (well England and Wales at least), which broke from the authority of Rome in 1534, is hosting an official visit of Pope Benedict at the cost of millions of British taxpayers’ money. British taxpayers whose country, strictly speaking, does not officially recognise the pope.

Now this may sound like the nostalgic ramblings of a history-loving, middle-aged woman, brought up in the days before multi-cultural diversity took hold. But there’s more to my point of view than that. It’s all to do with the nature of authority and the independence of the free-thinking mind; concepts that transcend cultural relativism.

I read the other day a piece in the Independent on-line by Johann Hari. He was exhorting British Roman Catholics to boycott the papal visit and cited, among other things, the pope’s lack of action over paedophile priests and his condemnation of the use of condoms in countries where HIV and AIDS are widespread. Though I agreed with much of what he wrote, I felt Hari was missing the point. He was employing an ‘ad hominem’ argument to persuade a group of people whose basic belief is that the Pope, whoever he may be at any point in history, speaks as the head of the church; the spiritual descendent of St. Peter, and not as a fallible man whose moral probity or integrity can be called into question. Such is the nature of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. I am aware that there are many Roman Catholics who want to see change and who do not agree with, and much less put into practice, many of the pope’s ex officio pronouncements. I would say to them that change will never happen in your lifetime while the notion of Papal supremacy and authority continues. It is now 2010 and high time you followed the lead of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and began to question the objective reality of that authority and its power over you. Some of you may well see the use of condoms as a greater evil than the AIDS epidemic. Fine, I suppose, if you’ve arrived at that view as a result of your own questioning but please, not just because you have to give lip-service to a Mediaeval figure-head.

And to think that this visit was, apparently, the brain-child of Gordon Brown, a boy brought up in a Scottish Presbyterian manse! Was he paying no attention when he studied the Reformation as part of his history degree at the University of Edinburgh?