The next Pope is crucial for us all

In recent years, it has been very ‘trendy’ for newspapers to pillory and ridicule religion. While I feel that it is important to question our spiritual leaders, it seems that in a post 9/11 world, much of this antipathy has been directed towards Islam. To me, the cause for concern is much more virulent and immediate than any alleged ‘threat’ of ‘Islamisation’.

It has enjoyed a privileged position for over one and a half millennia, and now, I think it is time to clean the lenses of our stained-glassed spectacles and view Catholicism for what it really is; an out-dated device for oppression and repression in dire need of appropriation for today’s society. It is not irreparable, yet.

‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ 

This haunting quotation is the mantra for many Catholics, and literally translates as ‘outside the church there is no salvation.’ It is this dogmatic view that worries me, one that has permeated throughout the Catholic Church from generation to generation. Thomas More may be a name unfamiliar to you; he is the Catholic patron saint of politicians and statesmen, and yet in the 16th Century, he was responsible for the immolation of many so-called ‘heretics’ who had the temerity to read the Bible in English. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment in the 17th Century due to his equally malignant teachings on heliocentrism that apparently contradicted the Bible, and therefore must be wrong: a sentence which was later reduced to living the rest of his life under house-arrest. In the 19th Century, the colonial slave trade was a highly contentious issue, having been supported for many centuries by the Catholic Church.

Papacy is a big deal. I never thought I’d write those words, but the more I researched this article, the more I have come to see how crucial the leader of a religion with an estimated 1.4 billion adherents is. As, I am sure, many of you are aware; Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation due to ill-health last week, making him the first Pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years; and only the third ever. With such a large, devoted following, it is axiomatic that this decision has the possibility to change the world, and therefore its importance isn’t just limited to Catholics. It’s important for all of us.

In the early 20th Century, the most ‘radical’ agenda was the women’s suffrage movement, one that Pope Pius XI allegedly condemned as ‘undermining the divinely founded obedience of the wife to her husband and a false deflection from her true and sole role as mother and homemaker’. A heart-warming sentiment there. During Hitler’s rise to power in the mid 20th Century, the Catholic Church was the first to sign a treaty with the Nazis trading a Catholic-backed campaign in exchange for Catholic control of the German schools’ system.

The Vatican has since apologised for many of these transgressions. However, it has been the Church’s usual defence, when criticised, to dust these deviations from morality under the carpet by saying that these historical events did not just occur within the Church, but were prevalent in all aspects of society, at the time. To me, it seems the Pope, as a spiritual successor to St Peter, ought to have known the difference between what one presumes is the unchanging morality of God, and the relative deviations that occur in different epochs and cultures. But I may well be wrong.

The Catholic Church has been at the centre of a number of highly contentious issues in more recent years too; with questions on homosexuality, the on-going treatment of women, abortion, and the sexual abuse by priests being among some that were raised. The 1980s and early 1990s saw an exponential increase in AIDs cases within Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 15% of the world’s Catholic population. Pope John Paul II attracted criticism for his position on artificial birth control, including, and most notably: condoms. This one person, who taught that the wearing of condoms is equivalent to murder, and could in fact increase the spread of AIDs, I believe, is surely responsible for the prolonged duration of the AIDs pandemic.

One tends to underestimate the influence that the Pope has, and it is for this reason that he gets away with saying such self–evident codswallop. It is only recently that the church has rescinded this view in exchange for a programme encouraging “ABC” – Abstinence, Being faithful, and Correct use of Condoms, but again, we return to the notion that if the church can change the views that it claims are divine, how infallible is it? Not very.

The Pope has responded to these ‘slip-ups’ very badly.  After one particular spate of cases concerning sexual abuse (rape) by priests in 2003, a document was sent out to every bishop in the world, which included such phrases as ‘So that these matters be pursued in a most secretive way, everyone is to be restrained by a perpetual silence under penalty of excommunication.’ One of the co-signatories of this bonkers document was soon-to-be Pope, Joseph Ratzinger. Lamentably, this is not the only example of Catholics betraying trust to avoid scandal.

It is my view that the next Pope should read through the history books. He would see the ‘defining moments’ where mankind progressed intellectually. For instance, the Enlightenment, which was met by the Church with vitriolic hostility, was clearly a step in the right direction of development. Many of the world’s religions at the time were wrong to try and impede, or halt this movement, including the world’s largest, Catholicism. Upon looking at these history books, it would soon become clear that on a worryingly large number of these defining moments, the Vatican or Pope, has voiced trenchant disagreement, and has since been caught on the ‘ugly’ side of history, where it has been forced to apologise and admit being wrong. One cannot help but cringe with embarrassment when one sees scientific advances and then remembers that in the 16th Century, their discoverers would have been arrested, or worse, killed for their inquiry.

I would never say that the Catholic Church is some theatre of immorality, nor did I single out any of the thousands of reasonable, kind individuals whose faith helps them get through this often hard world. I would however, dare to hope that some day, the Church sees reason, welcomes it, and appoints a forward-thinking man or woman who will modernise the Church, while still maintaining some of the less disturbing traditions. In this way, the vilification of the Vatican, and individuals within the Church, can stop. I dare to hope that the next Pope isn’t another backwards-gazing old male chauvinist with views that would make even the staunchest of BNP supporters raise an eyebrow.  That is just me daring to hope. Amen.

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