The Pope’s recent visit to the UK resulted in both protests against and defenses of him and his visit. Given the actions of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church — its insistence that members must follow some very questionable doctrines and, added to that, the scandal in which many church officials were found to be sexually abusing children and others found to be protecting the abusers from justice — this response was not surprising. Catholicism is simultaneously both an important belief for many around the world, giving them comfort and hope, and a source of great harm to many around the world.
Some Unsurprisingly Infuriating Comments
In what can be described as an extremely unsurprising event, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and said something hateful and offensive. Despite mentions of peace, human rights, honesty, respect, and fair-mindedness, it is clear from the speech as a whole (and please do read the entire thing, as it has the amazing quality of being both incorrect and impressively frustrating) and his decisions and actions that his ideas about what is right, honest, and fair are divorced from reality. He mentions good values briefly but then demonstrates bad values through his words and actions. In his speech he emphasized Britain’s Christian history (which is true enough, although this has had mixed results, with much that is unjust due to favoritism towards Christianity and religion in general) and then went on to criticize “atheist extremism”, claiming that “the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society”. He also said,
“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.”
For this, he has been criticized (in addition to the criticism he was already facing for coming to Britain for a state visit and for many of the other policies and actions of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church).
In addition to this, Cardinal Walter Kasper has been criticized for his comment, “When you land at Heathrow you at times think you are in a Third World country”. He’s apparently upset (among other things) about an argument about whether British Airways staff members should wear Crucifixes. He has also said that does not believe that it is likely that women will be priests in the Church, at least not in the next couple of hundred years. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, pointed out — correctly, I think — that Cardinal Kasper is just upset that people aren’t obeying the Vatican. I would additionally point out that complaining about Crucifixes while supporting wide-spread discrimination against women is a demonstration of messed up priorities.
If this wasn’t enough, Bill Donohue (who can always be counted on to demonstrate how horrible one can become if one strives to always defend a certain individual or organization, regardless of individual’s bad actions or the organization’s ridiculous policies) has demanded that if the Pope is expected to apologize for the actions of Catholics, then the British Humanist Association should apologize for the actions of atheists. My guess is that he is upset about Andrew Copson’s response to the Pope’s speech, although Dobson already didn’t have a very high opinion of secularism or atheism prior to this event. It has apparently escaped Donahue that, while the Catholic Church has a hierarchy and rules that one must follow to be a Catholic, there isn’t a hierarchy or rulebook one must follow to be an atheist. While being a Roman Catholic means, by definition, that one is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, being an atheist or humanist does not mean one has to be a member of the British Humanist Association (or any other association). A person cannot take an action and accurately claim that it is an official teaching or dogma of atheism, but a person can take an action and accurately claim that it is a teaching of the Church. It has also apparently escaped him that the things which the Pope has been asked to apologize for are specific immoral actions that were either endorsed by Church teachings or immoral actions that were hidden by the hierarchy. One would not ask the Pope to apologize for Catholic bank robbers, because people aren’t taught to be bank robbers by the Church and because great numbers of bank tellers are not coming forward claiming that priests robbed their banks while Church officials hid the crime. However, one might ask the Pope to apologize when, for instance, the teachings of the Church cause harm to women’s health or when the Church hierarchy participates in hiding abuse against children. Personally, I think an actual improvement in Church beliefs and rules would be better than just an apology. An apology by the Pope followed by more hate seems to be the easy way out.
Hearing and reading offensives statements made by various religious leaders (including the Pope) and their defenders (such as Bill Donahue) is such a common occurrence that the main aspect making it newsworthy is the fact that people still believe these horrible ideas and respect the religious leaders who make them.
The Antidote: The Response
So what is the antidote to this? What should the response to the Pope be? We should most definitely not respond with violence or hatred, but rather show through our words and actions that secular values and actual human rights (not the distorted version which the Roman Catholic Church promotes) are superior to religious values. We should criticize the Church for its horrible actions and emphasize real human rights.
The British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said the following:
The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis (who were mostly not atheists in any case) that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.
These are the words to which Bill Donahue was presumably responding, and the really damning thing about them (for the Church) is that they are true. It is important to point out that it is highly hypocritical and ridiculous of religious leaders who routinely champion discrimination and human rights violations to claim that people who believe in secularism and equal rights are targeting religious groups for discrimination.
Making his point clear right from the beginning, Richard Dawkins delivered a speech titled Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity in which he mentions the many ways in which the Pope and the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church are harming people. The list is long and shows that the Church’s horrible actions are numerous and serious — not just a matter of occasional mistakes. (Dawkins also makes a good point that if the Church is going to count every person who is technically a member of the Church, regardless of the person’s agreement or disagreement with the Church’s policies, when bragging about how many Catholics there are around the world and in the UK, then they have to also admit that horrible people like Hitler were also Catholic.) Ratzinger’s membership in the Hitler Youth was horrible, although I have to admit that it is an unreliable indicator of his personal views, since it was required; many people who didn’t support the Nazi Party had to pretend they did in order to keep themselves alive. His actions as an adult, however, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt. Ratzinger is and has been in positions of power for a long time. Concerning his actions while a member of the leadership of the Church, he cannot say that he was child who was required to take certain actions by law; he is in fact a person in a position of power who is now telling other people what to do. His willingness to continue the horrible policies of the Church, teach lies, and spread hate is worthy of condemnation, and there is no excuse.
The effect that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have on its members is evident from some of the testimonies that former Catholics make about their time as members of the Church. Miranda Celeste Hale wrote a blog entry titled A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame that should make a person doubt the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is moderate or loving or kind. She describes her experience with confession and the feeling of guilt that Catholicism taught her to have.
Although I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, on occasion I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the guilt, shame, and feeling of dirtiness that, in one form or another, is almost always my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that cannot be scratched.
Who can deny that this is a form of child abuse? The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.
The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world. As is so often the case, the Church unashamedly places their own interests above all other concerns, including the welfare (physical, emotional, and mental) of children. And an organization that despises and preys upon its weakest and most vulnerable members (who haven’t even chosen to be members) is undoubtably a force of great evil in the world.
Whenever the Pope or a leader of the Church claims that the Church cares about families and children, remember those who have been hurt by the Church. Whenever a person tries to claim that the children who were hurt were only a few, were the exceptions to the rule, remember that it is also the teachings and practices of the Church itself (not just the solitary actions of individuals) which are harmful.
Maryam Namazie also spoke at the protest. In her speech she replied to the Pope’s assertion that we need the “corrective supplied by religion”, pointing out that religion’s attempt at correction leads to the kinds of atrocities which are committed today in countries run by Islam. Attempts to enforce religious morality have resulted in horrors throughout human history, because what religions consider morality so often turns out to be bigotry. When making decisions based upon religious dogma, a person can use the opinions of an imaginary deity to make up rules instead of actually taking people into consideration.
Susan Jacoby wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s selective memory and martyrdom, pointing out that the Pope selectively cited only times when Catholics were martyred and left out times when Catholics targeted others for violence. She points out that while there are great causes worth fighting for, the supernatural details and weird rules of religions are not among them. She also points out that it is ridiculous for the Pope to complain about being made fun of.
Benedict’s basic message throughout his visit to the United Kingdom was that England has become a largely secular society and that the mission of his church is to challenge “aggressive forms of secularism.” It was in this context that he cited the names of Catholic martyrs. He might reflect that since secularists have been more or less in charge, no one has been drawn and quartered for professing a particular religious belief. But oh, how painful it is to be mocked!
One would think that that Pope would realize that the reason he is able to visit the UK and make his harsh remarks is because of the ideas of secularism, freedom, and equality; people of other groups cannot coerce the government into censoring him.
There is a video of some of the speeches made at the Protest the Pope Rally. There are some impassioned words by various speakers, but especially moving and sad are the words of a lady speaking on behalf of abuse victims, expressing how they thought they were alone and are grateful that there are people who are willing to stand with them. Who can look at those who have been abused and tell them that the Church is a good institution? Who can honestly say that the Church should still be respected?
There are, of course, many Roman Catholics who disagree with the teachings on the Church and especially with its actions in response to the crimes committed by its clergy. Back in May 2010, Greta Christina wrote Why Are You Still Catholic?, asking why people who disagree with the Church on so many issues (e.g. birth control, equal rights for LGBT people, gender equality) continue to support it. She also points out that even if a person agrees with the Church’s policies on other issues, it is certainly wrong to continue supporting an organization that protects child abusers and child rapists from justice. To continue supporting such an organization because of the comfort of religion, she argues, is to place one’s own comfort above the safety and welfare of children. This is an argument I wish more people would make. While the veracity of certain supernatural religious claims is a separate argument, the issue here is a person’s association with an organization which is hurting people. There comes a point when one must say that, whatever benefits one has received from being a member of an organization, those benefits are not worth it if they come at the price of hurting others.
Also worth reading is Joan Smith’s In defence of modern Britain, an article in which she defends “modern, tolerant, secular Britain” against the religious bigots who criticize it for being a “culture of death”. She point out that it is a much better place to live, with more equality, than countries ruled by religions. (She was responding to Mr. Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster, but her words are applicable in this instance as well.) Despite all the claims made by religious leaders who want us to believe that religion must have much influence and power for a society to have morals, we actually find the opposite to be true. It is when people have freedom — when one religion is not in charge and cannot force its views on others — that a society can become a better place to live.
Adam Lee sums this all up concisely.
I’ve got a brief question for Julian Baggini, William Oddie, and everyone else – atheist or theist – who’s bemoaned the lively protests of Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K.:
Do you believe the pope is not guilty of helping to protect child abusers (and if so, how do you respond to this evidence) – or do you simply believe that, because he’s the pope, he should be immune from any consequences for his actions?
We should remember that the goal is to have equal rights and justice — to live in a society in which each person has worth and in which people of one religion are not given preference over others. In order to achieve this, it is important to speak up when a person or organization is taking actions which harm people, taking away equal rights, and preventing justice. The response should not be censorship or violence; the response should be peaceful protest. The response to words of unreasonableness and hate should be words of freedom and equality. We can show that a free and secular society allows people with different beliefs to give voice to their views and make it clear that this is preferable to a theocracy which censors “blasphemy” and “heresy” while taking away rights and promoting injustices.
There are those who may argue that the criticism of the Church is really anti-Catholic bias and discrimination. As I’ve written previously about Islam, there is a difference between discrimination and criticism. Reasonable criticism is required, and there has been plenty of it. We should not dispute the rights of Catholics to practice their faith, but we should definitely be against any government support for a particular religion and also be willing to criticize the Church when its officials endorse actions which are harmful.
Those who profess to be shocked or upset by the opposition to the Pope ought to cease ignoring the world around them. Why are we asked continually to consider the feelings of devout Catholics by people who ignore or minimize the experiences of those who have suffered serious harm due to the Church’s teachings and policies? Is the anger and frustration with the Pope and the hierarchy of the Church really unexpected when so much of what the Church does harms people around the world, either by actually endangering their lives or making their lives more difficult? Is it really expected that those who are harmed will continue to have a positive opinion of those who are harming them? Our opinions of the Pope should not be completely divorced from the harsh reality of his actions.
Ideally, I hope that more people realize that it is a dangerous idea to place one’s faith in a particular dogma based on false information and to defend the actions of an organization regardless of the harm it does. We should choose to support people based upon their actions; we should not just pick one person and defend that person dogmatically due to their job title. If we choose to support people who are doing what’s right in the world and protest against those who are doing what’s wrong, we can move forward and create a better life for people everywhere. Only then will we be able to say that we hold up a fair moral standard and actually make a better world.
I offer my thanks to the people I’ve quoted and referenced, especially those who have been speaking out in favor of secularism.
Edit (as of 18 February 2012)
This entry has been edited. I had referred to Britain as being “technically a Christian Nation” in the first paragraph of the second section, before mentioning the mixed results Britain’s Christian history has had, not realizing that while England has an established church, Scotland and Wales do not. The Church of England is the established church of England, and the Church of Scotland is the national church of Scotland. I should have looked it up before writing. Needless to say, my position on the importance of secularism remains the same.
 Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI). Transcript of Speech at Holyroodhouse on September 16, 2010. Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2010/09/16/papal-visit-2010-popes-holyroodhouse-speech-full-text/.
 [Views of Cardinal Walter Kasper and Terry Sanderson, as quoted and explained by Owen and Gledhill] Owen, Richard and Gledhill, Ruth. Pope flies into storm in UK after Vatican adviser complains of Britain’s atheism. Posted on September 16, 2010 in The Austrailian. Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/pope-flies-into-storm-in-uk-after-vatican-adviser-complains-of-britains-atheism/story-e6frg6so-1225924703409.
 Donahue, William. Atheists Must Apologize For Hitler. Posted on September 16, 2010 at The Catholic League website. Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from http://catholicleague.org/release.php?id=1978.
 Copson, Andrew. Comment made in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Holyroodhouse on September 16, 2010. Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/647.
 Dawkins, Richard. Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity. Longer version of speech delivered at the Protest the Pope rally on September 18, 2010. Posted on September 19, 2010 at Richard Dawkins site. Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from http://richarddawkins.net/articles/521113-ratzinger-is-an-enemy-of-humanity.
 Hale, Miranda Celeste. A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame. Posted on September 19, 2010 at ex-catholic girl on Tumblr. Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from http://excatholicgirl.tumblr.com/post/1150523758.
 Namazie, Maryam. We don’t need the ‘corrective supplied by religion’. Speech delivered at the Protest the Pope rally on September 18, 2010. Posted on September 19, 2010 at Iran Solidarity. Retrieved on September 22, 2010 from http://iransolidarity.blogspot.com/2010/09/we-dont-need-corrective-supplied-by.html.
 Jacoby, Susan. Martyrdom, selective memory and Pope Benedict in England. Posted on September 22, 2010 at The Spirited Atheist column of The Washington Post. Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2010/09/martyrdom_selective_memory_and_the_pope_in_england.html.
 [Various speakers] Protest the Pope Speeches — London Rally. Posted on September 19, 2010 by TheNewsauce. Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPhKKutehyk&feature=related.
 Christina, Greta. Why Are You Still Catholic? Posted on Greta Christina’s blog on May 25, 2010. Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from
The link has been updated to http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2010/05/25/why-are-y/, because Greta Christina’s blog is now at Freethought Blogs.
 Smith, Joan. In defence of modern Britain. Posted on September 2, 2010 at The Independent. Retrieved on September 18, 2010 from http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/joan-smith/joan-smith-in-defence-of-modern-britain-2067886.html.
 Lee, Adam. A Followup on the Pope Protest. Posted on September 23, 2010 on Daylight Atheism. Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from http://www.daylightatheism.org/2010/09/followup-on-pope-protest.html.
 Sharmin, Ani. On Everybody Draw Mohammad Day. Posted on May 20, 2010 at Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/on-everybody-draw-mohammad-day/.
 Sharmin, Ani. Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism: Some Thoughts on Park 51 and Islam [Part 3 of 3]. Posted on September 9, 2010. Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/arithmetic-and-criticism-part-3/.