Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m quite pleased that Catholicism is still making the headlines. Our economy is collapsing, manufacturing jobs are being lost left, right and centre, and you’ve had the G20 summit, but this week what’s been preoccupying the Norn Iron populace is Gordon Brown’s plan to reform the Act of Settlement. Predictably, the unionists have gone buck mad about this. Jeffrey Donaldson thinks it’s a Papist plot. So does Eric Waugh. For my part, I hope that some day Jeffrey and Eric will drag themselves into the eighteenth century. What it really is, of course, is a typical New Labour wheeze, something that looks progressive and will grab a few headlines at very little cost.
And, while the row over Pope Benny and condoms has been stretched almost to breaking point, it still isn’t quite going away. But what I want to look at is the cultural background, and as good a place to start as any is the confrontation between Jon Snow and the mad Catholic woman on Channel 4 News. The immediate thing that struck me, of course, was that Snow had expected the mad Catholic woman to be defensive or even apologetic, and was genuinely taken aback when she got aggressive. But there are a couple of subthemes as well. One is Snow’s apparent belief that the Catholic Church is a bit like the Labour Party – that its social thought is not an integral whole but a pick ‘n’ mix of policies, and it’s reasonably straightforward for the leader to change the policy. Religion, of course, is all about revealed truths and just doesn’t work that way.
There’s also a social question. Some of the more Anglophile elements in Irish society, like the Irish Unionist Alliance or the Socialist Workers Party, like to bang on about the need for a separation of church and state. This suggests to me that they haven’t read the 1937 constitution. But, while there is a constitutional separation of church and state, both north and south, Irish culture is still very much informed by the mix of Catholicism and Calvinism. By contrast, although England doesn’t have a separation of church and state, English society – especially in terms of the metropolitan middle classes – is one of the most secular in the world. Culturally speaking, English secular liberals tend to know very little about religion, they don’t have much experience of dealing with religious people and so they often flounder when having to deal with religious questions.
This cultural background is something that works against Pope Benny big time. Theologically speaking, Papa Ratzi is arguably a good deal less reactionary than his predecessor, JP2. But then JP2, the rock ‘n’ roll pope, had a degree of media savvy that Ratzinger doesn’t have, and importantly could shuffle off unpopular pronouncements onto Ratzinger. Benedict, on the other hand, likes to make these statements himself. This grates on the secular liberals, who like their religious leaders to be like the Dalai Lama or Bono, “spiritual” in a vague way but not very religious, and certainly not prone to tell people how to live their lives.
But there’s also an issue of specific anti-Catholic sentiment. Historically speaking, British popular anti-Catholicism has based itself on an identification of Catholicism with absolutism. This isn’t entirely untrue, but it’s only partially true. One obvious elephant in the room is that it’s been precisely a British Protestant tradition to turn the church into an arm of the state. There’s also the issue of Catholic political theology, deriving mostly from Aquinas, which isn’t free of its own ambiguities and contradictions, but which has a few subtle distinctions that are usually missed. Most important for our purposes is that, while Catholic doctrine doesn’t recognise a sharp separation between church and state in the American revolutionary sense, it does draw a serious distinction between the two. Indeed, since at least the Counter-Reformation one major preoccupation has been keeping the state from meddling in the Church’s internal affairs.
But anyway, it’s worthwhile returning to Locke on the question of religious toleration. Here you have to realise that, while Locke made a courageous argument for the toleration of the Non-Conformist sects, he explicitly excluded toleration of the Catholic Church because of, well, its intolerance. (You’ll note the obvious parallel with much modern discourse about Islam.) This continues to the present day, in a sort of Beavis and Butt-head form – like when Cardinal O’Brien makes a speech on abortion, and lots of Guardian liberals start fretting about the problem of Catholic MPs potentially voting their conscience on the issue. Sometimes this even expresses itself in dopey ideas like preventing them from having a say on issues dear to the heart of secular liberals.
Yes, to come full circle, liberalism can often develop quite an illiberal streak when confronted with views that nice progressive-minded people see as irrational reaction. The British tradition of the state meddling in the church legitimates this. Or, if you’re on the left, you can draw on the French Jacobin tradition, although advocates of French-style laïcité do at least get embarrassed by things like the Jacobin attempt to set up a civil religion, complete with its own temples. But still, even in New Labour there’s an element of this. Take the gay adoption row, and the refusal to exempt Catholic adoption agencies. You had New Labour attempting to legislate the Catholic Church into a pro-gay position, and not many Guardian readers seemed to think this was illiberal.
Look, my preference is for the setup you have enshrined in the American constitution, where it’s laid down that the state doesn’t establish any religion, nor does it interfere in any religion. Furthermore, although I’d be sympathetic to Catholic reform movements such as exist in Germany and Austria, you can’t get away from the fact that these movements are led by Catholics, not by secular liberals. Frankly, I may agree more with Peter Tatchell or Eamonn McCann or Johann Hari than with Pope Benedict, but I don’t think it’s up to Peter or Eamonn or Johann to say what Catholic doctrine should be.
Finally, let’s return to the condoms issue. Where Benny has gone astray is in departing from the realm of theology (where he knows his stuff) to that of science (where he doesn’t). The evidence of consequences – which is where social science comes in – suggests that his approach isn’t the most effective in fighting HIV. But there are a couple of things that need to be taken into account. One is that, in a country like Angola, the Catholic relief agencies are so thick on the ground that you can’t have a development strategy without them. By contrast, you won’t find many humanitarian projects run by the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association, who are much too busy trying to get onto Thought For The Day.
And it must be reiterated that we’re not talking about a single development strategy that the Pope is wantonly sabotaging, but about two distinct strategies for changing the culture. There is the strategy based on getting African peasants to use condoms. There is the Pope’s strategy for getting African peasants to live a Christian life – by which he doesn’t mean watching The Vicar of Dibley and putting a quid in the collection plate, but abiding by some basic standards of sexual continence. To be honest, neither is a magic bullet, both fall down on real-life lapses in behaviour, and I suspect that the condom-based strategy is both more effective and an easier sell. But those are the real parameters. Caricaturing them doesn’t really get us very far.