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?


Fran said...

I heard that interview this morning, too. My, they were getting a bit cross with each other! There's one thing about a papal visit - it really does stir up opinions!

Yvonne Johnston said...

Hi Fran,
I did enjoy the moment of levity introduced by David Sharkey (of all people)describing the pope in his get up as 'gay', though!

Barbara Scully said...

Wow Yvonne, this is a very deeply thought out post and I am not very sure I am actually qualified to comment.

Your argument against the Pope's visit is based on the fact that it is a State Visit and since the Middle Ages England does not recognise the Pope as a Head of State (have I got that right?). Therefore your arugment seems to be a British one and a matter for you Brits to work out.
As an Irish person I cannot comment on that predicement. Although I am struck by the fact that your former PM visited here in his capacity as a private person on a book tour and the security was HUGE - think we picked up the bill for that! So these things may not always be as cut and dried as we would like!

I do however have major problems with this Pope and the Catholic Church - to the extent that although raised a Catholic I really dont know who or what I am spiritually anymore. I do know that I am not comfortable to be part of a church that considers women and gays as second class citizens. The child abuse scandals and the handling of same has also deeply disgusted me... but I think that is a different argument from that which you have posted here!

(Added your blog to my blog roll btw - love thought provoking blogs)

Yvonne Johnston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yvonne Johnston said...

Hi Barbara,
Yes, you're right my main problem is that this is a state visit and as such is a problem for me as I am British. I am however interested in your views as a Roman Catholic (if you still call yourself such) re the pope and papal authority. I suspect that you, unlike many, cannot in your mind disassociate the pope as a person from the pope as head of the church and would therefore rebel in some way against this type of imposed authority.
I find it very interesting to note how rapidly Ireland appears to be disassociating itself from the pope and the priesthood. Perhaps you're just catching up with us in Britain. Though I have to say that the scandal of paedophile priests etc. is probably a more worthy reason than a randy king seeking a divorce from a barren wife.

Padraic Murray said...

Hi Yvonne, I read your blog with much interest having discovered it through a friend, Barbara Scully. I run a similar blog to yours - except mine wanders a bit - anyway while I agree with many of sentiments I have my own particular take. I will follow your blog with interest. Padraic