Onward, Christian soldiers

THE Catholic invasion of Australia’s largest city last week was attended by two prominent controversies. The first of these was sparked by the New South Wales state government’s decree that, in designated areas across Sydney, anyone found behaving in a manner “that causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event” could be taken to task and a refusal to desist could entail a fine of more than $5,000.


This struck a great many people as thoroughly unfair and, indeed, discriminatory. For one, it offered no protection against inconvenience and annoyance caused by  World Youth Day participants. More seriously, it threatened to impinge on the right to freedom of expression. A couple of student activists from the No To Pope Coalition decided to test the law in court and won a partial victory. As a consequence, the risk of being challenged by an officer of the law for wearing a T-shirt bearing slogans such as “Pope go homo” or “I was touched by the Pope down under” was appreciably reduced.


It also became legal to hand out condoms to pilgrims, as a protest against the Catholic church’s absurd attitude towards contraception. Meanwhile, brothels in Sydney reported a sharp spike in business during the six-day festival (no one has been able to figure out why the event hasn’t been christened World Youth Week, let alone the idea behind its deceptively secular nomenclature). The owner of one upmarket bordello, which was offering a 10 per cent discount to people associated with World Youth Day, was quoted as saying: “We put on another five staff and they’ve all been busy.”


An unhealthy obsession with sex and varying degrees of hypocrisy are among the attributes common to most forms of organized religion. Sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable members of their congregations is by no means restricted to Catholic priests (there are a number of reasons why instances of such abuse by mullahs seldom make the news, but infrequency is not one of them), but the church has sporadically been rocked by such scandals for decades. The behaviour of the priests concerned is, of course, inexcusable, but efforts by the clerical hierarchy to cover up crimes of this nature are arguably even more abominable. The second controversy ahead of Benedict XVI’s arrival in Sydney revolved around whether the pope would offer an adequate apology to Australian victims of this despicable phenomenon. 


When he eventually got around to it towards the end of the week, opinion was divided on whether he went far enough. There were complaints about compensation, which the church is generally reluctant to cough up despite its phenomenal wealth. And he evidently could not bring himself to encounter any of the victims in person.


There were plenty of occasions, on the other hand, to pontificate on everything else under the sun, from the state of the environment (there was no indication whether divine intervention might be possible) to sex and violence in entertainment, and materialist consumerism. “A spiritual desert is spreading,” he warned while celebrating mass on Sunday at a Sydney race course. This concluding event was expected to attract half a million participants, but less than half that number turned up.


World Youth Day, held every two or three years in a different city, is intended primarily as a means of rallying youth to the Vatican’s cause. That’s no more objectionable than it would be in the case of any other religion, but it’s unlikely state resources would have been placed at the disposal of most other faiths in what is supposedly a secular country. Until well into the 20th century, discrimination against Catholics (who were mainly of Irish origin until the postwar waves of immigration) was endemic. That attitude, fortunately, is now ancient history.


Intimate government involvement in an exceptionally well publicized proselytization campaign seems, however, like a retrograde step that ought not to have been taken without so much as a token public debate.


Notwithstanding the demographic changes of recent decades, most Australians are still nominally Anglican. A few of them might have noticed that while Benedict was travelling around Sydney in his popemobile, thousands of miles away the Anglican church was experiencing potentially schismatic ructions, with conservative evangelists dead set against admitting women priests or sharing communion with homosexuals. The latter, for the most part, are completely disenchanted with the relatively liberal tendencies of the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – whose reluctance to put his foot down equally riles progressive priests.


Williams’ sharpest critics include Sydney’s archbishop Peter Jensen (who has described him as a “theological prostitute”), Peter Akinola, the archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria (who wants to rescue what is left of the church from the errors of apostates), and Michael Nazir-Ali, the Karachi-born bishop of Rochester, whose views on matters such as converting British Muslims are lapped up by the right-wing press. In Britain it is estimated that by the year 2033, worshipers in mosques will outnumber those who attend Anglican churches. The trend towards a more muscular and regressive form of Christianity is at least partly a response to a perceived religious resurgence among Muslims, both in the west and worldwide.


The appeal of radical Islam indeed provides cause for concern, particularly because of the attendant tendencies towards ruthless violence. But it is difficult to imagine how the shedding of Enlightenment values by Christianity can be deemed an appropriate response. Christian fundamentalism cannot cancel out Islamic obscurantism. If anything, the two viruses are liable to feed upon one another. We have seen enough evidence of this in recent years. If certain fanatics undertook mass murder in Madrid, London or New York under the impression that their mission was blessed by Allah, let’s not forget that both George W. Bush and Tony Blair have said that their invasion of Iraq – which entailed incalculably more fatalities – enjoyed God’s imprimatur.


Humankind ought to have dispensed with such absurdities a long time ago. There’s something slightly surreal about debating the role of women or homosexuals in this day and age, in countries that consider themselves repositories of civilizational values. It isn’t hard, in recent history, to find examples of worthy priests: the names Martin Luther King Jr, Camilo Torres, Leonardo Boff and Desmond Tutu spring to mind. The redeeming features of organized faith per se are much harder to enumerate. Should we ever evolve to the stage where, in matters of belief (or lack thereof), the individual conscience universally takes precedence over the agendas of religious institutions, and where notions of spirituality have been disentangled from competing webs of irrationality, chances are humanity would be well served.


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