Pope Benedict Visits Britain. Blogs

24th Sept 2011. So Joseph Ratzinger has come and gone. The latest press stories reported he does not think the UK is plagued by “aggressive secularism” as he first asserted, but is still much more deeply influenced by Christianity in its culture than he thought. Well it was a rather silly assertion and  he certainly was politely and generously received.  If as a result  he reads the liberal traditions of the UK as being inspired by Christianity – that’s fine, because many Christians have contributed towards it.
The Speaker John Bercow, gave an excellent speech of welcome in Westminster Hall in which he emphasised Britain’s committment to democracy, human rights and  tolerance.
At the sevice in Westmenster Abbey that followed Ratzinger was I thought treated to a wonderful performance of self-confident ceremonial Anglicanism complete with clouds of incense. (Anything Rome can do we can do better!) The Dean in gorgeous gold cope welcomed him and pointedly showed him the West Door carving celebrating the modern martyr Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero – murdered at his altar for standing up for human rights. A martyr however who I believe  has not yet been made a saint by that most prolific of saint saint makers Pope John Paul 2.

The Archbishop, Rowan Williams, was also on form in his address and I liked the way he walked down the aisle blessing all and sundry with the Pope. For his part Joseph Ratzinger looked small and I thought a bit overwhelmed. It must have been quite a new experience for him.  His address was uncontroversial and he had the sense not to sound off about his usual obsessions. Instead he had pre-emted some criticism by making more penitential noises about clerical sex abuse – while it seems still keeping control of his files.  Perhaps he realised that if he had tried to be confrontational he would have provoked such strong criticism through the media that he would simply have left British Catholics feeling miserable about being tarred with the same brush as him and some of his reactionary hierarchy. (With supporters like some of them who needs enemies?) No doubt he will have read the polls which show that on birth control, abortion, the treatment of gays and civil partnerships, priestly celibacy, and even the ordination of women and of course the cover up over sexual abuse, he does not have the unquestioning support of most British Catholics who increasingly find him wrong or an embarrassment to their faith – which they see as being in Jesus and his Church – and not that much in an “infallible” pope.

So what has the visit achieved?  There has been some encouragement for Catholics who have been able to attend big jamborees to see him and each other and who have suffered no significant nastinesses.  British traditions of tolerance and courtesy have been much in evidence – together with considerable public disinterest – despite the relentless full media coverage. There have however been some wonderful moments. Baroness Warsi, a Tory, a woman and a Muslim and a senior minister in the Coalition speaking out on the day of his arrival about the important role of “faith communities”. She came across as powerful, self-confident and very articulate and was I thought great on this occasion. It must have come as a great surprise to Ratzinger. While wanting faith groups to contribute to social services she was also expounding the same points I make in my article on Open RE which I wrote after “9-11″.

Generally however I do think all the media coverage has exposed the morally flawed and irrational nature of  his teachings and their consequences quite effectively to public scrutiny and to a degreee that would not have taken place if he had not come.  Another point that has been exposed thoroughly by this “State Visit” is the bogus nature of this Mussolini created “Vatican State” with no citizens, no people born there and a very shaky position under international law. Overall I think that when faced with trial by courtesy, openeness and exteneded debate authoritarian figures who come here can find the process unsettling and deeply corrosive of their pretensions. Perhaps I am naive and optimistic to hope so.


13th September. Saw the Tatchall documentary against the Pope and his Visit.  It was surprisingly well done. He seemed to come to the same conclusion as I do that Ratzinger’s views on sex and contraception are a terrible catastrophe for the church and humanity. Why?  Because in practice and in theory his teaching and direction of Vatican foreign policy has been to refuse to address the problem of human population growth by promoting a relentless campaign against the condom. The result is out of control population growth which is of course the basic cause of climate change.  By focusing on the role of Ratzinger and the hierarchy in the Phillipines he showed vivdly how disasterous these policies are for poor uneducated Catholics.

I expected Tatchall to be shrill as I have never liked his approach to issues (remember him  outing gays without their permission)  and I expected him to be less sympathetic towards liberal-minded Catholics, but I was impressed by his calm, moderate tone and that he took us to Tubingen and introduced Hans Kung, though he did not explain how important Kung is and how as probably the most influenial and respected theologian in Germany he has called on Ratzinger to resign.  He also explored all the points I think should have been made and though he did not take the wrongheaded thinking regarding abortion head on, he cleverly just let a frightfully nice young Englishwoman from “Catholic Voice” defend Ratzinger and hang herself by asserting that every ovum is a person from the moment of fertilisation and as such is as morally entitled to total protection as any self-aware person and that destroying such a cell is murder.  That is the point where the “pro-life” case goes right off the rails of rational discourse and becomes deeply immoral.

At first I thought Tatchall went on too long about Ratzinger’s treatment of the holocaust denying English bishop until he got the young German who plays Jesus at Oberammergau to explain how he as a German Catholic feels any acceptance of Holocaust deniers to be a terrible betrayal of his Catholic faith.

I think and hope that Ratzinger will find polite indifference and tight lipped official embarrasment of him and his views a real lesson. If on Friday he tries – as I expect he will – to express his reactionary views I am sure there will be many who will see to it that they are clearly and calmly refuted.  I hope this visit will really bring home to him the fact that he and those in the hierarchy who seek to support him have lost lost any moral authority they think they mght have in the minds of the British public – including much of the Catholic public who long for better leadership. Such reactions are far more chilling for him than confronting him with violent protests.

Dear Jack,
I appreciate you taking the trouble to reply after the Pope’s visit with what looks like a general email, but I note you do NOT attempt to answer the question I asked you ie does my poem misrepresent the teachings of Pope Benedict or his predecessors John Paul 2 or Montini?
In particular you do not face up to or engage with what I see as the moral weakness of a position that makes no distinction between a freshly fertilised human egg and a self-aware and able to suffer person.
The reason you stick to such a position it seems to me is probably because your starting point is your acceptance of papal infallibility as being a core element of your “faith” and that you fear this would be fatally undermined if you were to open your mind to the argumentswhich undermine your position. If you did you might come to see that a fetus and a fertilised cell is more accurately and usefully described as a potential person, and is not yet an actual person. I have investigated and examined this whole issue very carefully over many years and you can see the whole case laid out, including careful reading of what Ratzinger said years ago, in the paper I have written “Abortion.  Murder by Another Name?” www.johnbaxter.org.

I have interspersed my comments into your reply in bold.

03/10/2010 17:02, Jack Valero wrote:

Dear John

I am using the Sunday to catch up on some emails, especially since I’ve had a bad cold for a couple of days and forced to stay indoors…

First I would like to say that I think the Pope’s Visit went very well. Despite expectations, the Pope didn’t express “reactionary” views but praised the liberal traditions of this country and linked them to Christianity. He asked that the Christian voice be allowed to be heard, as one among many, and if it is found persuasive, people can follow it. People who wanted to protest against the Pope’s visit were of course allowed to do so (as befits a free country, which is great) but given the hundreds of thousands that turned out to hear and see the Pope in the various cities, the protestors eventually came across as intolerant, not allowing a voice different from theirs. How can you say that? The Protest the Pope movement was totally peaceful, disrupted nothing, but expressed disapproval of this Pope and many of his teachings..  See www.johnbaxter.org on the Popes visit.

At the heart of the misunderstanding is that view (pushed very hard by Tatchell in his programme and during the visit) that Pope Benedict is a reactionary and out of touch with most Catholics. This is simply untrue.(Oh no it is not) Pope Benedict is one of the deepest thinkers in the world currently alive (I agree Benedict is a clever man deeply versed in traditional Western Catholic theology, but few scholars would rate him as clever or as wise as Hans Kung or from my reading – dare I say it before you explode – Karen Armstrong), something that did not come across at all in Tatchell’s superficial parody. (Read my reaction to Tatchall also on www.johnbaxter.org) The Pope holds mainstream Catholic doctrines, just like most other Catholics. I would now like to cover some of these issues. I am sure there are others but I would like to start with these:  Child abuse. Bishop Williamson. Condoms and AIDS. Embryonic stem cell research.

Child Abuse This is a scourge in the Catholic Church and I am as angry (sadness, disgust, horror rather than anger I think) as you, and perhaps angrier as it is my church where these paedophile priests have caused the immense damage (the “immense damage” please – is not primarily to the reputation of the Church, but to the lives of all those victims and their families who have had to live with the consequences – and they add up to thousands and thousands.) we have come to learn about. But once we stand back from the horrible things that happened and look at the statistics, we find that: 75% of all child abuse happens in the family; the rest happens in schools and sports centres; only a tiny percentage happens in churches, and it has happened uniformly across all denominations.

(This reads like special pleading, as if you are trying to make the occurence of clerical sex abuse as something that overall has only affected a tiny minority. For most of my life that is what I thought, but as reports have come out about incidents in the USA, Ireland, Germany and the latest in Belgium the numbers of victims become huge and of course when you say “schools and sports centres” no other church I think has or has had control of so many social welfare and educational institutions as the Catholic Church.  What is more the real point is that it has been the Catholic hierarchy that has covered up and moved priests, monks and even promoted bishops and cardinals with dodgy records and in doing so have been quite surprisingly blind to their primary moral duty which is to the children and young people in their care. In the Anglican Church abusers have simply been sacked and reported to the police. I know of no main line denomination that has done differently. The Catholic problem has been INSTITUTIONAL and so has destroyed the good name of countless dedicated celibate priests and religious in the process)

The Catholic Church in the UK put in place tough rules in place in 2001. Right now it is the only institution in the UK which publishes at the end of each year the number and type of child abuse accusations made against it. No school, no centre, no other church does this. The last year for which there is data (2008), there were 4 contemporary accusations of child abuse by Catholic priests. In the same year the NSPCC has said that there were 21,000 allegations of child abuse in the UK by people other than priests. Even the government has praised the Catholic Church as the institution leading the way in dealing with this problem which is endemic in society.  (I accept the Catholic Church has cleaned up its act and has good safe-guarding practices in place now. That is not much to be “proud”of, rather it is terrible that good priests and religious have been placed under suspicion as a result of past bad practice – and the problem for them is that more past bad practice continues to come to light as victims feel more able to speak out.)

So the issue is not how to make the Church safe now. The Church is safe in 2010. The issue is to find out why the abuse took place (in the 70s and 80s) and why it was not dealt with properly.(The answer to that is I think blindingly obvious.  Far, far too often the hierarchy placed the reputation of the Church above supporting the abused) For myself I am not so much angry at finding that a priest is a monster (there are bad people everywhere) but at the institutional (and deep moral) failure of the Church to deal with it at the time. (Yes but I doubt if it is just an historical problem.  The culture of cover-up goes deep as the remarks of some Roman Cardinals have demonstrated – right up to the papal visit)

Control of errant priests has always been and still is in the hands of the local bishop (In every case appointed by and responsible to the Pope for all their actions) It was local bishops who moved the priests from one place to another in search of a therapeutic answer (well that is a very generous interpretation of what seems to have happened in too many cases) (like the rest of society at the time): this is the scandal. Some of these bishops have resigned and others still need to.”


In 2001, Pope John Paul asked Cardinal Ratzinger to write to all bishops in the world and ask them to send to the Vatican all pending files on child abuse. The purpose was so that they could be speeded up and dealt with much more quickly. It was assumed that all files where about people who had already been dealt with by the police and now the Church needed to consider whether to expel them. No cover up was ordered, just the opposite. The effect was that the problem was finally dealt with properly all over the world (UK, USA, etc). Peter Tatchell’s assertion that from then on all was covered by pontifical secrecy is just untrue and does not fit the facts at all.

There are no secret documents that the Vatican is holding, as Tatchell keeps saying. This is a Dan Brown type of myth he has started. All the documents in the Vatican are copies of documents sent by bishops which are already with the local police! That’s why no police force anywhere in the world has asked the Vatican for any documents, ever.  (Really? If you are right what a pity this has not been made much clearer)

Bishop Williamson

Tatchell tells the story with a lot of emotion in his programme but leaves out a crucial fact: bishop Williamson is NOT a bishop in good standing in the Catholic Church. He cannot dress as a bishop (although he does in defiance of the Pope), he cannot celebrate Mass or ordain anyone, or do anything at all in the Church. The only thing that has happened is that the excommunication he incurred for being illegally ordained has been lifted. Williamson has to retract his views on the holocaust, among many other things, before he can be accepted in the Catholic fold.  (I thought Tatchall had gone over the top with this one, until he got the Oberammergau “Jesus” to speak.)


Condoms and AIDS

What a travesty of the truth we are being sold by Tatchell’s documentary and the general commentariate about this issue.

The Catholic position is this: sex has a meaning and therefore a moral component. Sex was made for marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman to form a family if they can. The Church is against promiscuity and all sex outside of marriage (and all sex inside marriage that is not “open to the possibility of pregnancy”, interesting you omit to say that. In fact your omission is misleading) including rape and sexual violence. These are precisely the things that fuel the spread of AIDS  (no. careless promiscuity and unprotected sex spread AIDS) and the Church works against them. The Catholic Church preaches abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage (and no use of birth control in marriage). If we all did that we could end with AIDS within a generation. (If only human nature were different AIDS would be no problem!) The Catholic Church is not against condoms, it’s against promiscuity. (Did you actually watch the Tatchall documentary  and his report on the behaviour of the hierarchy and its war against condoms in the Phillipines? If the “Church” is not against condoms why does it not advocate their use for couples when one partner is HIV positive?)

When the Pope said that condoms campaigns have not worked and have made the problem    ( which problem? AIDS or birth control) worse, he was only repeating what scientists have been saying for ages.(To say that is to sound barking mad – like the woman in the documentary – seriously) Take Edward C Green from Harvard, for example, who is an atheist. He says that while one condom might work to halt the infection once, condom campaigns have not worked. That’s just a fact. (Of course condoms on their own will not solve the problems either of AIDS or of unwanted children, but their widespread use will and does reduce and alleviate these – and the big problem is not just AIDS it is OUT OF CONTROL POPULATION GROWTH. Points made well in the documentary)

The Catholic Church looks after 25% of all AIDS sufferers in cities in Africa and closer to 100% of those outside the cities. It has an enormous amount of credibility in combating this problem. (A credibility which is constantly undermined by the condom ban and lies about condoms) Campaigns which include behaviour change have worked to reduce the incidence of AIDS dramatically, as in Uganda. If the Church has a method that works, why should it take one that doesn’t work?(And why should it do all in its power to stop those who oppose it from advocating or promoting alternatives. Of course behaviour change is needed – particularly in Africa – but given the whole Catholic moral package on sex the results are not good and of course it has done much more than that.  Using its highly questionable status as a State it has blocked condom distribution through aid agencies wherever it can.)

But Tatchell and others prefer a dogma (condoms must be used)  (What makes you talk like that? Must be used? Should be available for those who wish to to use them which is – I would have thought QUITE DIFFERENT) to saving lives (preaching abstinence, fidelity and behaviour change)  (Time for you to read my poem again! Three cheers for the Phillipino and African cardinals and bishops for “saving lives.” by telling their flocks that the use of condoms is a. sinful and b completely useless as a protection against AIDS or unwanted pregnancy.).

Embryonic stem cell research

The big lie behind Tatchell’s programme in this area is that we were not told that all the cures achieved so far have been through adult stem cell research – about 60+ cures so far. Embryonic stem cell research has produced no cures at all, zero, zilch – only cancers. Adult stem cell research has no ethical problems and is being promoted and paid for by many governments as well as the Church.

All scientists would agree that there are limits to science, eg you cannot kill a human being to save another. The point is where you draw the line. You may not agree that an embryo is a human person but you should respect the view of those who do, and have a reasoned argument about it, the very kind that was totally missing from Tatchell’s programme. (Which takes us back to the issue I put to you first and which you have not addressed.  You simply assert – as a matter of “faith”  that an embryo is a person rather than a potential person. Please read what I have written carefully. Please start with my short article “Who Suffers”.

That’s all for now!

All the best


So Jack,
There you have my response.  Note I am not anti-Catholic, I am not anti-Christian and I endeavour to keep my mind open and to change my mind when I see the evidence leads me to do so.
With best wishes,