The Pope seems to think virtue is just the opposite of multiculturalism

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

20 thoughts on “The Pope seems to think virtue is just the opposite of multiculturalism

  1. There’s so much to say in response to this, so forgive the long comment.

    Catholics don’t regard the Pope as ‘God’s representative on earth’. Think you’ve got your religions mixed up there. He’s a priest and a bishop, a successor of Peter, one of the disciples, but also described as ‘servant of the servants of God’. In his first speech after his election, the Pope made explicit mention of being ‘a humble worker in the vineyard’.

    It’s sadly true that child abusers have managed to do their evil deeds via the Church. But the Church is hardly alone in this — think of all the children abused in care homes, in other institutions, by ministers of other religions, by scout leaders. The vilification of the Pope by association is really unjustified. (Incidentally, though you don’t say it, I may as well point out that there is no evidence that he was involved in a cover-up of abuse.)

    As for condoms in Africa, even a secular Harvard professor agrees with the Church’s view: Countries which promote condom use have higher rates of HIV than those which promote abstinence and fidelity to one partner.

    The equation of the ordination of women with child abuse was bizarre and wrong, granted. But it’s a complete misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching to think that just because women can’t be ordained, we’re oppressed.

    I don’t know where to start with your unsubstantiated comments about the Pope not worrying about the victims of economic policy. I’d also be interested to see some examples of godless states where virtue and goodness have flourished.

    As for standing up for the powerless, I’d cite the Pope’s visit to an old people’s home and the speech he gave there. Not a fashionable or powerful group of people. I’d also point to the involvement of disabled people in many of the ceremonies during the Pope’s visit. Again, not a fashionable or powerful group — indeed, if the pro-choice lobby had their way, many of them woudn’t even have been born. This leads me to mention the Church’s championing of the most defenceless and powerless in our society — unborn babies. Not many other people are sticking up for the voiceless.

    I’d be interested in your response.

  2. My response is that I do know my theology well enough to know that the Pope is following St Peter as Christ’s rock – and that does make him effectively a godly representative on Earth. Which makes his willingness to meddle in policy making when it comes to enforcing inequality – bit not when it comes to protecting the poor – remarkable. If you don’t find it so, then I’m surprised at your tolerance for foreign heads of statetrying to directly influence UK legislature. I don’t think you made any other points that demanded response, except that I think you saw an attack on the Pope when I thought I’d written about my own misgivings at the state visit. Oh and one secular Harvard accademic is hardly an ace when experience on the ground (detailed in the link) says, repeatedly, that condoms save lives – and it’s easier to use a condom correctly than it is to abstai correctly. I have no beef with faith. But I do feel squeamish about the way the Pope has exercised his moral authority, and consequently found his visit hard to feel quite sanguine about.

  3. Thanks for your response. To me, your original piece didn’t come across as protesting about the state visit aspect so much as an attack on the Pope himself — verging on the ‘ad hom’ stuff that I see you dislike.

    I found some interesting quotes for you (though you may not like the sources!)

    ‘The Catholic Church throughout the world has demonstrated its commitment to the poor and desperate, which developed nations need to emulate, said the head of the United Nations program. In a Jan. 15 private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, James Morris, World Food Program (WFP) executive director, praised the pontiff in a statement issued later that day for his “continuous personal commitment” to reducing the growing scourge of hunger. ‘

    ‘Uganda at one time had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world. Starting in the mid to late 1980s, their government instituted a program to teach abstinence before marriage and fidelity to one’s partner afterwards. They only reluctantly advised condoms for high risk groups (like prostitutes) whom they knew would not accept the other two approaches.

    Billboards, radio announcements, print ads, and school programs all promoted the virtues of abstinence and fidelity to prevent HIV/AIDS.

    The results were astonishing.

    In 1991, the prevalence rate of HIV was 15%. By 2001, it had dropped to 5%. It was the biggest HIV infection reduction in world history.’ — lots more there about the ineffectiveness of condoms and of condom promotion too.

    I think the point about the Equalities Act was that it effectively says that gay people’s rights should trump religious people’s rights (for example, a church’s right to refuse to participate in gay marriages). Freedom of religion is a human right.

    Anyway, I won’t plague your combox any more. I just wanted to suggest to you that there is another side to things.

  4. There is no provision in the equalities act to force churches to officiate over gay marriages. It should, however, stop religious charities from restricting services on homophobic grounds – which seems fine to me, unless you think religious freedom means the freedom to harm those you disagree with. Your link seems to support the idea that condoms work for high risk groups (prostitutes, men who use prostitutes, women who are married to men who use prostitutes, their children…) which rather reinforces the idea that it’s deadly irresponsible for the church to lie and say condoms don’t work. As for not being oppressed… If you’re not called to ministry, I guess that’s fine. I don’t love cricket and could afford to be ambivalent about the MCC being closed to women. But there are, incredibly, women who don’t want exactly the same things as me. Some might want to, say, join the MCC. And it strikes me as counter to basic fairness that people should be excluded from what they may love and excel at by an accident of gender.

  5. Hello Sarah
    Well Elizabeth above has covered some of the points that I was going to make, so I’ll try not to be repetitive. But really, if you are going to write a critical article about the Pope, it would at least be more satisfying for B16 fans such as myself to rebut if you had at least done some homework.

    Saying that the Pope is “stunningly silent when it comes to an economic policy that hurts the neediest the most.” really gives the game away.
    It’s simply not true, and if you had read much at all then you would know that.

    Ordinarily I would spoonfeed you with helpful links, but really, it’s late and apart from the fact that I want to make this a quick comment ( rather than hunting quotes and copying and pasting URLs for you) it’s not necessary.
    To get you started ( assuming you are willing to actually discover that you’re wrong here) I suggest looking up his address to the great and the good at Westminster Hall.
    Then you could read his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.
    If you do that then you will see that “stunningly silent” he is not.

    There’s more of course. LOTS more, but that’s just to get you going.
    And while you’re Googling, try looking up “catholic social teaching” and “catholic preferential option for the poor”.
    When you’ve done I thnk you should blush at making such an uninformed statement as ” It’s a theology that’s more concerned with enforcing papal power than protecting the powerless”

    One other thing. Yes, I believe you do misunderstand virtue.
    I think what you are describing when you define it as interconnectedness and sympathy, a desire to spare suffering and alleviate pangs. is empathy. Although personally I find your definition too woolly to be meaningful anyway ( it’s not very specific and most of us would describe ourselves in that way. )
    Virtue is a quality of moral excellence.
    More specifically, in the Western Christian tradition the four cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, justice and courage .

  6. The speech I quoted from was indeed stunningly silent. And the Pope has not urged his bishops to actively oppose any legislation apart from the equalities act. If I may summarise my ideal of virtue more precisely – and your “moral excellence” strikes me as pretty woolly in itself – it would be something like “don’t be a dick”, with being a dick covering things like withholding services from someone because your religion objects to their sexuality. I don’t doubt that the Pope stands for lots of good. But that speech, with its weird attack on unbelief and strange assault on multiculturalism, didn’t.

  7. So it turns out that you can’t judge the Pope’s speech on the full text of the Pope’s actual speech, women aren’t oppressed as long as they don’t want to do anything they’re not allowed to do, and condoms protect vulnerable women in Africa and are definitely dangerous. Man, this scripture stuff is some subtle business.

  8. Oh, and PS.
    Loads to say about condoms but I must resist and get to bed.
    But in haste I have just had a look at the “Bad Science” link that you provided, which seems to be guilty of a bit of “bad science” itself.

    How effective are condoms? It’s wise not to overstate your case. The current systematic review of the literature on this question published by Cochrane found 14 observational studies (because it’s unethical to do a randomised trial where you actively stop people using condoms, since you know that they work, but just want to find out how well they work).

    These studies generally looked at HIV transmission in stable couples where only one partner has HIV. Many of them looked at transfusion patients and haemophiliacs. Overall, rates of HIV infection were 80% lower in the partners who reported always using a condom, compared to those who said they never did. 80% is pretty good. I’d like 100%, for everyone’s sake. I have 80% (although condoms do also protect against cervical cancer, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and more).

    Well it’s bad science to claim that condoms protect against cervical cancer. One of the number one causes of Cervical cancer is HPV, and as we are being reminded by agencies touting the vaccine, condoms do not protect against HPV which is passed on through genital contact.
    Secondly, please note that in order to arrive at the 80% effectiveness figure, the Cochrane database studies referred to here are your ideal scenario in terms of condom efficacy. That is stable couples.
    So that figure of 80% is your absolute gold standard which falls considerably when you factor in groups of people NOT in stable relationships.

    Nonetheless, condoms are still being sold to punters as a form of “safe sex”. As one wag commented, if I had a parachute company whose parachutes only opened 80% of the time, I wouldn’t be calling it “Safe Parachutes”.

    As the Director of the Harvard AIDS institute pointed out ( him who you wrote off as “hardly an ace when experience on the ground (detailed in the link) says, repeatedly, that condoms save lives which was pretty funny by the way because he’s the senior research scientist there and I’m sure that the info in your link would not be news to him) :

    intuitively, some condom use ought to be better than no use. But that’s not what the research in Africa shows.

    Why not?

    One reason is “risk compensation.” That is, when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.

    The Pope was right condoms may make the problem worse. Especially when they are constantly being associated with this concept of “safe sex”.
    But condoms have market value, unlike real safe sex. A lot of people are invested in them. It’s business baby!
    Meanwhile, the poor suckers who are drunk or high, or just sexually incontinent get told that their condom will make it safe. And their safety factor is considerably less than the gold standard 80%.
    THAT is why condoms can actually, counter intuitive though it may be, make the problem worse.
    “Dishonest and deadly” are the terms you use to describe the churches position on condoms.
    I would say that those terms are much more accurately and truthfully applied to the agencies who tell us that condoms are safe.
    But never mind the facts, the Pope is clearly condemning millions of Africans to death.

  9. Isn’t the truth that condoms are actually useful, and as Goldacre says, a mixed approach is the best form of harm reduction? Telling lies about how well condoms work – as some of the bishops quoted in that post did – condemns people to sickness and death on ideological grounds, and strikes me as a long way off of moral excellence.

  10. I clarified the definition of moral excellence by oulining the four cardinal virtues in the chrsitian tradition.
    But never mind, “don’t be a dick” really sums up the 21st century approach nicely.
    “Dumbed down” no?

  11. But we DON’T have a mixed approach Sarah.
    Condoms are the mythical holy grail of consequence free sex. You are being lied to, and it’s not by the church.
    And by the way, chastity IS possible. Do you think our forebears were all busy having hobby sex?
    The answer is they weren’t.
    With no contraception or antibiotics they knew that the risks were too great so they managed to control themselves
    The irony is that with contraception and advances in medicine came the sexual revolution et voila! an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies
    There are none so blind as those unwilling to see.

  12. “You are being lied to and not by the church.” – although that Bad Science link does in fact discuss the importance of a mixed approach, so there’s one non-church representative who isn’t pushing the line you describe, and that sort of undoes you argument about the monolithic forces of the condom.

    “Our ancestors controlled themselves.” – that must be why syphilis outbreaks never happened, and there were no foundling hospitals in the C16th for unwanted babies. Sexual continence isn’t impossible. But the poorer and less powerful someone is, the harder it gets. Were I a prostitute with minimal choice about having sex or not, I’d take the “safety parachute” you were so waggish about.

  13. You said:
    ” 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.”
    And then I responded by pointing out that you were ill informed and that the Pope is far from silent on poverty and economic policies that hurt the poor.
    And then you replied:
    The speech I quoted from was indeed stunningly silent.

    So you admit that you did not do your homework but based your assesment of the Pope on the basis of one speech in which economic policy didn’t feature.
    Well I suppose the research bit of journalism must be a drag. Besides, it appears to me that if you can present your uninformed opinion with confidence and a little style, then you can often get away with it. So why bother doing the spade work.

  14. To Elizabeth you said:
    I don’t think you made any other points that demanded response
    How about this one:
    I’d also be interested to see some examples of godless states where virtue and goodness have flourished.

  15. “Our ancestors controlled themselves.” – that must be why syphilis outbreaks never happened, and there were no foundling hospitals in the C16th for unwanted babies.

    Even though you put that in quotation marks, I would like to point out that it is NOT what I said. Although I can see that it is much easier to rebut an argument when you put words in your opponents mouth.
    Sexually irresponsible behaviour wasn’t invented in the 1960’s, but it certainly flourished then.
    Surely you aren’t seriously trying to argue that the problem of STDs and unwanted pregnancies has always been as bad as it is now, in the liberated era of “safe sex”?
    Since 1980 we have identified at least 25 brand new STDs, and there are more popping up all the time.

    Sexual continence isn’t impossible. But the poorer and less powerful someone is, the harder it gets.
    This is a particularly obnoxious fallacy and reveals an attitude of condescending prejudice towards the poor.
    Traditional communities both here in England and in the far corners of the earth, have always had strong taboos against sexually irresponsible behaviour and the concept of marriage and family were very strongly upheld and protected as the cornerstone of their communities well being.
    In my own opinion, it was more likely to be the idle rich who had difficulty keeping their trousers on.
    Sadly, traditional communities (“poor people”) have been meddled with, patronised and lectured to by ignoramuses who think that their university degree makes them cleverer than they are. And the results are all to obvious
    I believe that the Pope is right that every human being has inherent dignity and worth and that they are as entitled to aspire to a life of dignity and meaning as you are.
    And being of the opinion that they can’t keep their trousers on anyway so lets not tell them that 80% is the BEST they can hope for, but lie to them and call a condom “safe” is dishonest, patronising and dangerous.

  16. OK, I think this is the last comment and then I’ll be done.

    This blogger
    hits the nail on the head:
    He’s not saying that condoms are of no use as a protection against Aids. He is saying that they ultimately do not address the problem, and therefore will not arrest it, because the problem is caused by sexual promiscuity. No condom offers the protection of abstinence. His point, which you are free to disagree with but not to crassly misrepresent, is that the ultimate question is one of attitudes. The free availability of condoms, and the attendant message that sex is an act of pure pleasure divorced from any wider consequences or responsibilities, will exacerbate the destructive attitudes that are at the heart of the problem. The answer lies in restoring seriousness to sex – and that’s what they really hate.
    The condoms are an absurd distraction from this basic antagonism, and the argument that he or the church are somehow to blame for Aids is among the silliest in the anti-Catholic kit bag. With the casual contempt that comes so naturally to the Left, Tanya Gold calls the African Aids epidemic “the church’s own holocaust”, a phrase for which a few millennia burning in Hell might seem a fair exchange. (If only I weren’t an atheist.)
    The fundamental logical absurdity of this claim has been exposed many times, but for some reason it just doesn’t sink in. The following very simple argument does not originate with me, but demands repeating.
    First let me get this right. The Pope is opposed to artificial birth control, Africans are having unprotected sex and getting Aids, ergo: the Pope causes Aids.
    Good argument, fellas – verging on adult in its sophistication.
    But the Pope doesn’t sanction unprotected sex either, does he? He prescribes abstinence. So what you are saying is that from fear or love of the Pope, Africans obey one half of his edict and not the other. They willingly disobey the Pope on the whole issue of sexual abstinence, but then risk their lives out of respect for him when it comes time to put a rubber on.

  17. I said I wouldn’t plague your combox, but you said, ‘I don’t think you made any other points that demanded response, except that I think you saw an attack on the Pope when I thought I’d written about my own misgivings at the state visit.’

    You don’t seem willing to admit that you were indeed indulging in the ad hominem attacks that you claim to dislike, despite the ‘old man in a greenhouse on wheels’ quip.

    Anyway, I’d like to focus on the following few points.

    1. You criticise the Pope for equating religion with virtue but you don’t quote any atheist states where virtue has flourished. Erm… Stalin’s Russia (20 million dead)? Chairman Mao Zedong’s China (50-70 million dead)? Pol Pot in Cambodia ranks lower with only 1.7 million deaths to his name but he is worth mentioning since he was trying to carbon-copy Mao’s atheistic cultural revolution.

    2. Nowhere in the exchanges above have you had the good grace to accept that your comment about the Pope not supporting the poor was *completely* wrong.

    3. The Equalities Bill didn’t specifically mention a right to gay marriage in church (it couldn’t, since there’s not yet such a thing as gay marriage in law), but lawyers have pointed out that that provision could well come in once the implications of the Act are tested by case law.
    All that the Equalities Act has done so far is damage the interests of some of the neediest in society, namely the hard-to-place children who were hitherto adopted via the Catholic agencies. In the name of political correctness, they were forced to close because they couldn’t promote adoption to homosexual couples. Those same homosexual couples could easily have gone to one of the dozens of other agencies — but no, the government had to trample on the rights of believers.

    4. The old chestnut of women’s ordination. One of the definitions of being Catholic is being faithful to the Church’s teachings. One of these is that priestly ministry is reserved to men alone. There is no ‘right’ to become a priest, so there might just as easily be a group of disgruntled men who haven’t been accepted in to the priesthood as a group of women. But I’d say to such women that they should go and join a church where they do ordain women instead of trying to change what can’t be changed. Trying to claim that just because women can’t be ordained we’re oppressed is just not true. Chief among the saints, lavished with titles like ‘Seat of Wisdom’ — a woman, the Virgin Mary. There have been thousands of female saints since.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t.

  18. I went to a Polyphonic Spree gig once and I found it scary. I know they were playing with the idea of the zealous crowd, and religious imagery-e.g. those robes, and the gospel type choral singing. But there was a moment where the lead singer stared fixedly at a point at the back of the room, and everyone turned round and looked. Except me. I stared straight back at him. It made me realise my atheism is not just that which I have been brought up to believe, but something more stubborn and integral to me as a person and my reaction to dogma, to hype, to crowds…

  19. This post was about the speech. The Pope’s big moment of speaking to the British public. No mentions of the poor, or equivalent attempts to direct policy. I acknowledged Catholicisms good works, but your criticism is wholly misdirected. It’s a shame you can’t tell the difference between a light dusting of absurdity and an ad hom attack, but who needs a sense of humour when you’ve got unquestionable virtue. I am glad I know other theists beside you two. This conversation has been enough to make me feel like going full Hitch. Anyway, as you’ve both said you have nothing else to say, comments are closed.

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