Pope-hate in broken Britain


A hand of friendshipIn troubled times, it is natural for humans to return to old ways of thinking. In Britain the optimism that preceded the global financial crisis was largely founded on economic prosperity. With that gone, Britons feel they have nothing to hold on to, and therefore the lead up to the papal visit has witnessed an uncovering of the unseemly tribalism of the past that was largely defined by a division between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. 

As the Pope was arriving in the UK on Thursday, social commentator Frank Furedi wrote in Spiked Online that the visit has provided the opinion leaders of Britain's cultural elite with 'a figure that it is okay to hate'. He described displays of animosity towards the Pope as 'the kind of conformism that is usually seen amongst children who, under peer pressure, compete to see who can come up with the meanest phrase to castigate the playground scapegoat'.

Catholic officials themselves appeared callous, with the Pope associating atheism with the Nazis, after Cardinal Walter Kasper had declared upon his arrival in London that 'an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain'.

The Catholic paper The Tablet dismissed Cardinal Kasper's assertion in its editorial on Friday. It suggested that the problem is common to all faiths, and also to religious believers and atheists. It alluded to the slogan 'Broken Britain' that was used by the Conservatives before the May election, arguing that the phrase should not be equated with the loss of religious faith, but instead a depletion of social capital.

We might regard the present angst in Britain as a manifestation of the growing pains that are to be expected in a world of emerging pluralism. Earlier this month, Eureka Street published Peter Kirkwood's obituary for inter-religious dialogue pioneer Raimon Panikkar. Panikkar influenced US theologian Ewert Cousins, who used the term 'mutation' to describe the period of profound religious change we're currently in the midst of.

According to Cousins, the globalisation that followed World War II precipitated a mutation into a 'global matrix of cultures' that involves 'mutational men' from the future drawing others from the past 'across the abyss of the present and into the mutational world of the future'.

The grafting together of different faiths and cultures also has implications for Australia. We can think of ourselves as part of the 'new world' and therefore somewhat immune to tribal animosities that go back for much of the past millennium. But in fact we still have a long way to go in establishing the trust and respect necessary fuse Indigenous and non-Indigenous beliefs and cultures, at least to the extent that any nation must be founded on common beliefs.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: Pope Benedict, Catholicophobia, Frank Furedi, Cardinal Walter Kasper, spiked, tablet



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Existing comments

I wasn't sure which article I should comment on today - sports violence (Beating up on football thuggery) or pluralist growing pains (Pope hate in Broken Britain) - then I realised they have a common psychological base - the brokeness of human nature. Sport has become a substitute for religion in many people's lives. Religion has become a sport in many people's, especially,opinionated elites' lives.

Religion and sport, at least in Western culture, have always been closely associated - just look at the origin of the Olympic Games in Greece. The games in honour of Zeus were held every four years without a break from 776 BCE until they were suppressed by the Christian emperor Theodosius as a pagan cult. The competitive urge in men and women will always find an outlet.

Despite the cost described by Frank O'Shea (& I agree with Frank) given the choice I'd rather see blood spilt on the playing field and not on the battle field. As for the discomfort of pluralism, given the choice, I prefer it to the certainty of totalitarianism. Regrettably some Catholic Church leaders seem to favour the latter for their followers of simple faith.

Uncle Pat | 20 September 2010  

Michael Mullins is being optimistically naive if he thinks that Islam will allow itself to be "fused" to other cultures and faiths. It does not share the common beliefs that other faiths in the Western world share. The example of the recent "Koran burning" proves this.

It is despicable for a person to set out to deliberately offend people of another faith by burning their sared texts. However, it is worse beyond measure for people of that faith to threaten violence against that person. Mobs of Muslims in various countries rioted over this and people lost their lives, all because of some obscure idiot Christian pastor.

Also disturbing was the response of many in the West. Instead of calling the Muslim reaction for what it was, irrational and childish, many commentators in the West warned of being wary of offending Muslim sensibilities. This essentially shifted the blame for Muslim intimidation and threats of violence onto others.

Patrick James | 20 September 2010  

The British Media seems to be in a frenzy to stir up hatred against the Pope. The Pope is being blamed for virtually all the child abuse crimes carried out by members of the Catholic Church clergy. It is interesting how little attention is actually given to the fact that the Queen is also the head of the Anglican Church. If the head of one church (Pope) is viewed as responsible for the crimes of its clergy, how does the head of another church (The Queen) escape responsibility?

Beat Odermatt | 20 September 2010  

The British Media seems to be in a frenzy to stir up hatred against the Pope. The Pope is being blamed for virtually all the child abuse crimes carried out by members of the Catholic Church clergy. It is interesting how little attention is actually given to the fact that the Queen is also the head of the Anglican Church. If the head of one church (Pope) is viewed as responsible for the crimes of its clergy, how does the head of another church (The Queen) escape responsibility?

Beat Odermatt | 20 September 2010  

I write as a Melbournian living in London; one who is an active Catholic working for a Catholic agency involved in organising the papal visit.

You do not have to look to the media for 'anti-papal' sentiment. Let me just look around my office. Many of us, thinking and reasonable people, find the issue of 'the pope' disturbing.
Revlations of abuse by clergy is devastating. However, what adds to the horror is the level of involvement of Pope Benedict. His signature (as Cardinal Ratzinger) appears on documents, now quite public, which clearly put the reputation of the church and the offending clergy above care of the victims. Now, (as Pope Benedict) he could show his 'change of heart' and put in place measures to address this - but he still refuses to hand over files or to insist that Bishops report all cases of abuse to police. Add to this claims that 'diplomatic immunity' or 'canon law' prevent the application of international law and I find myself stunned beyond belief.

I looked and listened hard, this week, for the shadow of the man who gathered the little children around him as a lesson to his disciples. Sadly I did not catch even a glimpse. What that does to my faith in God is nothing - it doesnt stunt it the least. To my faith in the Church though? Im not sure I have any left.

Margaret Carswell | 20 September 2010  

Pope needs bullet-proofed glass.
What does a country need then?
Are media the guns that shoot out from the bullet-proofed glass?

AZURE | 20 September 2010  

It is good to see an honest, thought out comment like that of Margaret Carswell among the cliches of others. Beat also might consider looking at the various uses of language in the phrase "head of the church". They have quite different connotations. And in passing I would much rather give thanks to the Episopelian Bishop who said he was more concerned with spiritual bankruptcy than economic than to consider as christian the ducking and weaving of the Catholic hirearchy starting with "the head of the church".

Brian poidevin | 21 September 2010  

Expressions of pope hate during the UK visit were not confined to the UK. Here in Australia the hate-speak that appeared on the Facebook site of the Australian Atheist Foundation during the pope's UK trip was extraordinary. People writing about how they would like to take to Benny with a fencepost in the interests of a "more aggressive secularism", and no-one batting an eyelid. Anyone wondering how the Terror came to be unleashed during the French Revolution, or why thousands of nuns and priests were butchered during the Spanish Civil War, need hardly look any further.

There is much to criticise about contemporary papalism; the Vatican's handling of the clerical abuse crisis has been appallingly inept; and members of the leadership group seem to shoot themselves in the foot on an almost daily basis with remarks that are stupid or offensive or out of touch. But I'm not sure these factors are enough to explain the widespread public mood of pope-hatred at the present moment.

stephen crittenden | 24 September 2010  

I don`t think that this article or the general tone of the comments do justice to the Pope`s UK visit or the response to it.Sure, the Papacy and the Bishops have mishandled lots of stuff, can be a terrible embarrassment at times to their own side, and to some extent deserve a fair whacking. But the hatred of the secular-atheistic media/elites has been something different and visceral; fortunately this was NOT reflected in the response of the general community in the UK(and nor would it be in Australia I believe). This general response was positive and welcoming, which is not at all bad for a country brought up on Bloody Mary and the burning of Guy Fawkes every year! Indeed, given the media frenzie the public response was very warm and may have been a bit of a reaction against the atheistic extremists. It was a national consensus for goodwill to the Pope,and his message, that as a Catholic community we should both savour and build on.

Eugene | 24 September 2010  

To Margaret Carswell, you will be happy to know that Alan, Dershowitz, one of the world’s most prominent lawyers on human rights says: “I think Pope Benedict has probably done more to protect young children since becoming Pope than any previous Pope.”

He says: “there are terrible people in ANY institution”. Just look at ANY secular organisation and observe the large a number of persons who are there solely for their own self-interest.

He says: (on close examination of all the documentation and correspondence immediately freely available on request to independent lawyers) and the Pope‘s behaviour “the Pope has … blamed the scandal on the Church itself …(and importantly) has taken steps to change everything“. But that there have also been many many cases of false accusation, and attempted extortion.

Several individuals in the church certainly have been handed over for prosecution, “And they should be prosecuted, BUT there's no evidence whatever that (the problem) was in any way attributable to the Pope“. “And largely it was the fault of (civil) law enforcement. Law enforcement had no barriers to going in and aggressively prosecuting these crimes“ and “ but you don't (then) blame the Church when law enforcement fails to prosecute.” and that the Pope in fact “took steps that a churchman should be taking; steps to try to rid the Church of people (ie, who had committed crimes), he changed the rules as to reporting these things to civil society and I think on balance he did a fairly commendable job”.

But I note that atheists still avert their eyes to the world-wide (ongoing) crimes by other atheists in sexual exploitation of many millions of children and women and human trafficking in their race to personal millions. They have no “god” to be answerable to; no human right to honour.
I note that the silence from atheists on this issue is deafening.

MJS | 01 October 2010  

Since this article appeared we have had another round of Pope-bashing on Q and A, with current cultural icon swaggering ex-pat Aussie Geoffrey Robertson going over the top in his references to sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy and his ridiculous theatrical antics re putting the Pope on trial. This was, of course, encouraged by mindless twitters along the base of the screen and an unusually benevolent patience on the part of Tony Jones, who is normally highly interventionist and quick to rein in discussion when he doesn't particularly like the opinion of some panellist or other...

As an expatriate Briton myself, I think some of your correspondents do not quite appreciate the historical context in the UK. Onto traditional anti-Catholic prejudice, which is partly class-based ( apart from the bizarre recusant old Catholic family tradition, which is marginal and always has been, most Catholics in the UK have until recently been of Irish origin and thus generally looked down on by the majority)has been grafted the more recent anti-religious, aggressive atheism of Dawkins et al. All, of course, as feminist theologian Tina Beattie has pointed out, white Anglo-Saxon (ex-) Protestant males, thus used to being at the top of the pecking order and having their views instantly respected. This is most clearly seen in the Guardian, once my favourite British paper, which started out from an honest northern non-conformist base, never particularly sympathetic to catholicism, for reasons outlined above, and which has now morphed into an outlet for southern, ie, London based middle class urban elites, hostile to all faiths, except perhaps Judaism, where a sense of guilt for the Holocaust restrains many from attacking the religion, and sometimes also the secular side, ie Zionism. These attitudes are culturally and historically based.

Unfortunately some of these ideas eventually trickle down here in Australia where we now have some 'wannabe' Dawkinses but few counterbalancing figures such as Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, etc who are both distinguished scientists and believers. Nor do we have, among the cultural critics anyone like Terry Eagleton, who has returned to his Liverpool Irish Catholic roots and done a pretty good job on Dawkins/Hitchens, et al.
This is probably why Robertson gets such an uncritical reception here in Australia..big fish in small intellectual pond...

Ann | 08 October 2010  

Your headline does not reflect the Britain I know. Though I am not RC, living in UK I did not see much enmity about Pope Benedict XVI from other Christian denominations. Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Pope shared a platform and worshipped together in each of their Westminster cathedrals, the Pope was received by the Queen, the Prime Minister, a civic reception in Parliament, and he spoke to thousands of youth in Hyde Park about John Henry Newman, who (from the address) "traced the course of his life to a powerful experience of conversion which he had as a young man" - at that time during the evangelical revival which also spawned the abolition of slavery by Wilberforce and others.

In that spirit, people of all ages and different faith backgrounds were left with a challenge to live out their personal beliefs in the broader society instead of "viewing religion as purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion". Like you say in Australia, we in UK need to take this visit last month as a reminder that we can't carry on as business as usual amidst secular materialism.

Quotes from Catholic Herald online.

Edward Howard | 11 October 2010  

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