For a devout Catholic, seeing the Pope in person must be a bit like going to the best gig ever. At least, that’s the nearest analogy I can come up with from my spiritually stunted, godless, relativist perspective. To stand among thousands, all looking on the same point like one vast eye, swaying and rushing to a single pulse, and at the same time to have the private ecstasy of communion with the person on the stage… I mean, it was pretty awesome when I got to see Nick Cave at ATP, so imagine how overwhelming getting a glimpse of God’s representative on Earth would be. Obviously, I can’t imagine it because I’m a spiritually stunted etc etc, but I’m guessing it would be a bit special.
So my outsiderish perspective on the papal visit isn’t ‘ha ha, look at all the superstitious people thronging round an old man in a greenhouse on wheels’. Well, it is a little bit, but I don’t find the Pope’s congregation any more absurd than my own adventures in transcendent group experiences. (I wonder whether anyone goes home from seeing the Pope feeling a little bit disappointed? ‘Well, I got quite near the front but to be honest it wasn’t all that. I just don’t think he really had the Holy Spirit in him this time. No, I didn’t stick around for the encore.’)
I’m certainly more sympathetic to most religious believers than I am to the most aggressive atheists. But my sympathy starts to shrivel when it encounters the smallness and meanness of the Pope’s spiritual message. It’s not just the inanity of Benedict XVI standing as an embodiment of holiness while at the same time fronting an organisation that’s given child abusers access to victims and protection from justice over decades. Nor is it the fact that, while the Catholic church is obviously active in providing excellent things like education and healthcare in Africa, whatever good is done it comprehensively outweighed by the harm of the Church’s dishonest and deadly opposition to condoms. It’s not even the personal affront I feel at the official Catholic attitude to women, which finds people with vaginas so unpleasant that the ordination of a woman has been made “a crime against sacraments” (putting it on a par with child abuse, because putting a woman in the priesthood is apparently as bad as a rapist putting his… no, too graphic).
All those things are vile, obviously – but taken together, maybe the most distressing thing is a consistent preference for doctrine over humanity. In the Pope’s address at Holyrood, he warned against “agressive secularism”: “let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society…” Note the dishonest rhetorical bundling up of “God, religion and virtue”. No part of that trinity is dependant on the other two: you can have no god and no religion and still have virtue.
But maybe I misunderstand “virtue”. For me, virtue means interconnectedness and sympathy, a desire to spare suffering and alleviate pangs. The Pope seems to think that virtue is just the opposite of multiculturalism. This is a religious leader who’s willing to intervene in UK politics to tell his bishops they should fight the Equalities Bill with “missionary zeal”, but who’s stunningly silent when it comes to an economic policy that hurts the neediest the most. How charitable. It’s a theology that’s more concerned with enforcing papal power than protecting the powerless. The Pope’s motto for this trip – “Heart speaks unto heart” – implies a mission of thoughtful communion and generous debate. But the more I listen to what the Pope’s heart is actually saying, the nastier it all sounds.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010