Some weeks ago I accepted an invitation as part of the group of ‘Members of Parliament and Civil Society’ to listen to an address by His Holiness Pope Benedict in Westminster Hall on 17th Sep 2010. I had been invited because of my position on the executive committee of the Network of Buddhist Organisations and because I had contributed to a variety of government led committees over the past few years. The previous government had made efforts to include individuals from faith groups in a wide range of interfaith and consultative faith councils and I had offered a Buddhist viewpoint on proposed legislation and community matters where I felt it possible to do so.
And so I found myself negotiating several security checks and entering a large and drafty Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster and a space which I had previously only walked through on my way to meetings.
On this occasion the space was filled with rows of seating sufficient for the nearly two thousand guests invited to hear the pope. We had to arrive much earlier than the pope and his entourage and so I had over an hour of sitting amongst the ‘great and the good’ and observing them arriving and taking their seats; for some reason the peers in particular reminding me of Bertie Wooster's observation that his great aunts greeted each other – ‘like mastodons meeting across primeval swamps’.
There were some theatrical moments, such as when a troop of household cavalry (unfortunately without their horses) marched across the end of the hall with swords drawn, and then just before the pope’s entry the state trumpeters sounded an impressive fanfare. Various groups of senior Catholic and Anglican clerics and a few from other faiths had already arranged themselves as the pope and Rowan Williams and attendants arrived, descended the steps and took their positions on chairs at the head of the hall.
I noted that the speaker of the House of Commons made some welcoming remarks which also included a reference to the trial of Sir Thomas More, who had been found guilty of treason for siding with the then pope rather than with King Henry the eighth in events which led to the great split between the English Church and the Church of Rome and created our current rather complex and curious brand of democratic theocracy.
This reference made it clear to all that the relationship between the Holy See and the English state has not often been an amicable and constructive one.
The pope’s address (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2010/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100917_societa-civile_en.html) contained no surprises. He asserted the Churches primacy in matters of morality and ‘truth’ stating - ‘If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.’
It is unfortunate that the pope’s claim for the moral superiority of the Catholic Church has been so seriously compromised by many damaging revelations of sexual abuse and the reluctance of the Church to respond compassionately and honestly to this. The Churches reaction to problems has always seemed to be a self-serving one intended to hush things up and blame others.
There are also many, including me, who regard the policies of the Catholic Church on sexual matters, contraception, and the status of women, as deeply misguided and harmful. (See The Pope and AIDS for example). Having myself experienced cruel behaviour from Catholic nuns when at primary school and heard my mother speaking of the emotional and physical cruelty inflicted on her and her sister at the hands of Catholic nuns, I am understandably sceptical when I hear the Catholic hierarchy making claims for its moral superiority.
The pope also asked that religion not be marginalised and Christians be allowed to follow their conscience when this clashes with the requirements of their workplace.
But considered properly, this is a much more complex issue, and perhaps the simplest response is to say that employees have the ultimate choice of resigning if they do not like what they are asked to do; and in a democratic society, of contributing their voices to opposing legislation or behaviour in the workplace with which they disagree.
An awkward fact for the senior Catholic hierarchy, and which applies to all other major faiths, is that faith communities do not all support the same beliefs, doctrines and policies, but are actually tapestries of different opinions, practices, conflicting teachings and different schools. So to speak of Catholic conscience as though it is obvious what this is, and is synonymous with the Vatican's policies, is to misrepresent matters. For example, see Catholics for Choice at: http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/about/default.asp
So who defines the 'Christian conscience'? Is it the Vatican, or individual Catholics, or protestants, or methodists or any of a large number of other denominations? If the workplace is allowed to become a battleground for conflicting (and subjective) religious conscience and different religious groups are given what amount to special privileges in the workplace, the result will be an increase in division and conflict. Our innate tendency to tribalism needs no such encouragement.
The pope also dislikes secularism and atheism, even though it is secularism that supports freedom of religion (surely a good thing?) and atheism cannot simply be equated with inhuman behaviour such as exemplified in Nazism. This was a comparison that the pope could hardly wait to make soon after he landed in Scotland. Surely Hitler was motivated by 'religious' nationalism, the glory of the fatherland, and the acquiring of personal power rather than any great opposition to religious belief?
And there are many philosophical and religious movements such as the various traditions of Buddhism that are acknowledged for their peaceful and compassionate behaviour and their profound psychological and ethical systems, and yet which are non-theistic, since a creator god does not feature as a core belief.
It is tempting to think that the instincts of the Catholic Church were set in antiquity by its position at the political heart of the Roman Empire with a large dose of arrogance, self-serving attitudes and wealth coming from that inheritance. The Catholic Church was forged towards the end of the Roman Empire by the Emperor's Constantine and Theodosius as a political tool to bring cohesion to an empire under threat. The resultant self-importance and sense of entitlement to interfere in the internal politics of any nation has never left the Catholic Church. Perhaps this close and long connection between the Catholic Church, politics, and power is why politicians can feel so at home in this church. And perhaps it is more accurate to regard the Catholic Church as primarily a politically motivated organisation, than one interested in truly spiritual matters.
Although there are many good Catholics at all levels in the church, they behave well in spite of, and often in opposition to, the teachings coming from the male clerical hierarchy at the head of their Church. The Vatican hierarchy seems blind to alternative viewpoints.
Lest we imagine that it is only the Catholic Church which suffers from these issues, we should look carefully and objectively at the institutions with which we engage. Power really does seem to corrupt and one can find examples of authoritarian, self-serving and misogynistic regimes in other faith institutions. And Buddhism is not exempt from this problem.
The problem may appear to be that of keeping institutions true to their aims and yet in sympathy with current conditions. However, it is probably at least as helpful to consider this as an issue of how power is held and used and how livelihoods and status are maintained. And of course, these factors are interwoven. Whatever else they are, religions are often the source of livelihoods and social status for many, and good livelihoods and status are things that people have always been prepared to fight for.
There is little doubt that the Catholic Church feels embattled in its former European heartland and that it characterises this as the result of recent aggressive secularism. This seems misguided. There has been a protracted retreat of most traditional religions in Europe over several centuries and this is as much to do with citizens feeling sufficiently confident and financially able to make their own choices as it is to the values of the enlightenment and the scientific world-view gaining greater currency. The old religious model of a dominant male clerical hierarchy, institutionalised autocracy, and unquestioning obedience from followers, is an oppressive hang-over from antiquity that is unacceptable to modern, well-educated and prosperous citizens.
At the end of the programme, after the pope had individually met previous and present parliamentary leaders, he walked down the aisle passing close to the guests on the way out. A frail figure involved in powerful religious, political and social upheaval. I was surprised to feel some sympathy towards him as he passed by – or perhaps the pope was simply getting the benefit of my sense of relief that my stint as an ‘extra’ was over.