“Friends, Roman pontiffs, countrymen…”
Whatever we say, however we speak up, some people will always interpret protest as prejudice. Bob Churchill protests.
Consider just two little nuggets on the Pope’s state visit and his detractors:
1. Ben Goldacre joked via Twitter from the Protest the Pope rally, “Who knew so many people disapproved of child rape and dangerous anti-condom nonsense?” But, speaking on behalf of “sober observers” everywhere, Andrew Brown was still rather surprised by the turnout for Saturday’s Protest the Pope march.
2. In a BBC2 retrospective discussion on the visit, a participant was able to describe critics of the Pope as having “extremist” views with impunity. Archbishop Vincent Nichols appears to describe protesters as taking an “argumentative or shrill” approach, while Lord Chris Patten, the state’s Catholic organiser of the state visit, said that “enthusiasm overwhelmed cynicism” in the end. Later he would hope that the visit would prompt “a more serious debate about the role of religion in society.”
As if the debate and anger currently surrounding the Holy See is frivolous.
The BBC2 programme was formal and high-toned. An audience of protesters wasn’t necessary, but none of the eminent and respectable critics of papal policy were present either. The nearest this programme came to criticism was from the two academic participants pointing out that “there are long-term questions that remain” and that the Catholic hierarchy “is radically out of step” with the average Catholic. But later the same participants celebrated the fact that the visit “got people talking about religion” which is “good for religion”. The Pope was “sensitive” to UK politics and handled things “wisely and very, very well,” said Tina Beattie. Presumably she wasn’t thinking about the papal comments blaming Nazism on atheism.
There is a pattern of response, here. Those who detract from Vatican teaching are painted as argumentative cynics, frivolously objecting to the serious and genuine moral teaching of the faith. Victims of the protesters’ disproportionate vitriol are “surprised”, bemused or outright incredulous. They adopt a kind of forced dismissiveness. Objections to the Church are already in hand; objections to the Church are immature, are offered from a position of ignorance, or of malice; objections to the Church may be looked down upon and disregarded.
Whatever we say, however we speak up, some people will always interpret protest as prejudice.
No one who spoke for the Protest the Pope campaign, and not even any of the banners I saw and which were well-photographed on the march, was spiteful about Catholics en masse. It was all about the state, the visit, the teachings of the Church. It was about the Pope and the Vatican, it was not about all the people who call themselves Catholics. Yet Amanda Platell still thinks it’s fair game to describe us all, without qualification, as “self-important atheists and Catholic-haters”. Apparently, we’re “bigots”. All of us. Amanda Platell knows this for a fact. We chanted “Protect the children, not the priests”; and this means we have “twisted values”! (One of few the reports which actually did seem to take the protesters at their word was from the Morning Star.)
This attitude of suspicion against the protest has even sunk into the secular Guardian. The Guardian first pointed out the ways in which the Catholic church stands against the secular state and rejects pluralism in some important sense, but the same paper publicly wrangled with its conscience over offering criticism. The readers’ editor treated us to snippets from journos and readers alike: Was the Pope coverage too “irreverent”, the copy frets? Has the paper occasionally lapsed “into a brand of intolerant rationalism that resembles a fundamentalism we would normally abhor”. Is it “Pope-bashing”? Is it “papist-bashing”?
Must it really be “anti-papist” to point out that the views the Vatican holds dear are seen as anachronistic, or as illiberal, or as outright dangerous, by many outside the faith (and many within it, too?).
Why must disagreeing be discriminating?
The Guardian’s troubled self-reflection was aired again in an editorial which adopts that easy in between position, criticising both the Holy See and the protesters:
Things got off on a bad footing with the pope’s senior adviser, Cardinal Walter Kasper seeming to suggest that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism. He was soon unpacking his suitcase, but his boss went on to link the Nazis’ atrocities with their lack of faith, and encourage silly talk about atheists endangering Christmas. If the pope has not done much reconciling, then neither have his militant opponents. The thousands who traipsed through London chanting “he belongs in jail” may not see any connection between themselves and the anti-papist mobs of the past, but there is a failure to afford sincere faith the respect it is due.
A similar point is made by another commentator in the Irish press: “The humanists claimed their opposition to the state visit was because of the abuse crisis, papal opposition to condoms, abortion and gay rights, support for segregated education and the Pope’s apparent rehabilitation of ‘holocaust denier’ Bishop Richard Williamson”, said Vincent Browne. As if all this wasn’t enough. But Browne goes on to expose the truth!: “However, the nature of the dispute reflects Britain’s historically deep anti-Catholic roots. It might accurately be described as the antisemitism of the left.”
The cause of the worry, of the incongruity, begins to come into focus. It probably is true that the great majority of people marching with the Protest the Pope campaign made no connection between themselves “and the anti-papist mobs of the past” nor with “Britain’s historically anti-Catholic roots”. They don’t make that connection because it’s so utterly alien to the way they think. (This is my view based on being there, on knowing a fair number of marchers, on seeing the demographic, on listening to people.) We’re not Tudors. The Reformation and all that followed is not exactly ‘current affairs’ in our mental categorisation. ”The Troubles” were probably not our troubles, except when the cities were bombed, but even then the actions of the IRA hardly endeared either side.
People of all ages marched, but there were a lot of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings for whom, I strongly suspect, the Protestant-versus-Catholic / papist-anti-papist divide has never been something living and personal. I’m only realising myself how deeply it runs in the collective memory of the media and the commenting class thanks to the critical comments the protest attracted.
This, I think, is part of the reason (only a part, but a real contribution) as to why people in the churches, people who commentate on religion, journalists of a certain age, cannot escape the mindset that there must be “anti-Catholic” motivations bubbling away.
But that is their paradigm, their baggage.
The campaign enumerated its actual grievances over and over. For the most part, protest banners were about real issues, and positively held values. Even many of the rest were just light-hearted or self-satirising. Geoffrey Robertson QC began his speech with a pun on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Friends, Roman pontiffs, countrymen…” Even if you disagree with the message – even if you think the Holy See has nothing to answer for on sexual abuse, or on its failure to buy into human rights legislation, or its stances on condoms and AIDS or women or abortion – isn’t it just possible that these concerns might be enough to motivate someone to protest when the head of that so-called state is being publicly and expensively venerated?
Even Andrew Brown recognised that ”the crowd was cheerful and good humoured” at the protest, and “certainly having a lot more fun than the gloomy handful of Paisleyite protestors traditional on these occasions.” But he still described the protest as the new “face of anti-Catholicism”.
The protesters weren’t Paisleyite – they were gay. They weren’t Protestant – they were women and children. They weren’t slavering Reformists or anti-Catholics or an anti-papal mob – they were liberals, progressives, and people who just thought “For god’s sake why are we paying so much attention and paying so much money to host this random, prejudiced, illiberal old church?”
When you are actively criticised by the Church for being atheist or secularist; if you’re tutted at from on high for sleeping with your partner before marriage, or at all if you’re gay; if you’re told that you have a certain place if you’re a woman, that as a family you’re wrong to plan ahead in quite that way; then your disagreement with religion has already been made personal by the Church. Big surprise: people don’t like being told that their genuine, modern, human values are the wrong values, still less do they like to pay to be told this.
It is always possible to distort through goggles darkly the views of your cultural opponents. But if there’s an old sectarian war some people are still fighting it’s not me, it’s not the vast majority of fellow protesters as far as I could see. We’re not fighting that petty old fight, and if our critics can’t recognise even for a moment what our real beef is, then god help them.
Bob Churchill studied philosophy at the University of Warwick and Queens University, Canada, and is Head of Membership at the British Humanist Association, which co-initiated the Protest the Pope campaign. @bobchurchill
All photographs featured are by Andrew West and some more photos from the Protest the Pope march held on Saturday 18 September 2010 are available. You can also read, watch or hear the speeches from the rally at www.protest-the-pope.org.uk.