Un-Catholic at Pride: Protest the Pope, or Ignore Him?

While walking down Oxford Street with other gay/lesbian Catholics, I suddenly found myself faced with a BBC television camera and reporter. “What,” she asked, “do you think of the pope’s UK visit?”

This has become highly topical, and highly emotional here. Even today, there are some permanent tensions which have their background in the historical development of the Anglican church, and the subsequent suppression of the Catholic faith, when Catholicism was seen as a form of treason (and incidentally, lumped  together with heresy and sodomy as the greatest of sins against religion. Today, traces of the legal restrictions remain in the unequal status of the “established” Anglican church and the others, while deep suspicion lingers in some quarters about the Catholic (and other) faith schools, about the regular interventions by Catholic bishops in political debates on abortion legislation,  civil partnerships / gay marriage, gay adoption rights, and most recently about the successful attempts to thwart parts of recent equality legislation intended to prevent discrimination by church employers. The stories of clerical abuse and inadequate church response over the past year have simply added to the hostility of a small anti-Catholic minority, and a wider anti-papal/ anti-Vatican feeling of some others (including many progressive Catholics). What has really added fuel to the fire, is that this is to be treated as a state visit, with substantial cost to the British taxpayer, at a time when the new government is announcing plans to slash expenditure across a wide front. No wonder some people are angry.

This particularly includes the LGBT community, and so there was a strong anti-papal presence at the London Pride parade, with a banner, and leaflet distributors. The reporter in front of me was clearly preparing a program not on Gay Pride specifically, but a broader current affairs program on the papal visit, with gay and gay Catholic reactions just one element.

So, how would you respond on the spur of the moment, in a short and snappy soundbite, to a question as broad as that?  I tried to say that it was a complex issue, I spoke of Jayden Cameron’s remarks on the powerful spiritual presence during Benedict’s presence in Prague which is bigger than the political symbolism of the visit, but that nevertheless that symbolism is also important. I said that personally, I would “probably” ignore the visit, joining in neither the celebrations nor the demonstrations. The problem with doing either is that both responses simply serve to entrench the idea that the papacy matters. I added, somewhat incoherently, that in truth the papacy is largely “irrelevant”, and that “this” (pointing to the parade, but thinking of a much wider context”) was more important.

You can relax. I don’t believe my ramblings (or my face) will be on your TV screens. The journos moved on to speak to Fr Bernard Lynch, who with his clerical collar and unambiguous self-declared status as a gay priest, married to a beloved husband, was far more newsworthy and telegenic. His face and words will make it through the editors’ cutting floor, not mine.

My words stayed with me though, and I have often thought over them since. I could have expressed them more clearly, but I have become daily more convinced that my initial, spontaneous response was sound. Of course the pope is not literally “irrelevant” – but he and the office he holds, are far less important than popularly assumed. We need to be diminishing that significance, not re-inforcing it by building him up as either hero or villain.

In arguing that the papacy is less important than we suppose, I am not denying its obvious power, and the harm that it does. I believe firmly that the centralization of power in the Vatican, in the hands of an isolated, supposedly celibate clergy, is part of the fundamental problems facing the modern church, from sexual abuse (of children and adults), to ludicrously unrealistic doctrines on sexual ethics, to a collapse in the ordained ministry, to the appalling treatment (material and emotional) of those priests we do have. I have frequently written about the iniquities of centralized papal power and the episcopal hegemony that goes with it.

Protests, however, are not the only way, and usually not the most effective way, to bring down an oppressive, unjust regime. Mahatma Gandhi led India to independence by satyagraha, or active non-compliance; Martin Luther King led the US civil rights movement with similar tactics. In South Africa, I watched apartheid crumble as people began to simply ignore an increasing range of unjust laws, starting with the minor regulations on social segregation, through employment law, school segregation and residential apartheid, culminating in open defiance of the powerful security legislation and police state structures that attempted to hold it all in place.  (The Catholic and other churches, please note, were active participants in much of this non-compliance with the law, most famously by staring to ignore regulations on school separation, later by ignoring restrictions on residential segregation for clergy. Some individual priests and bishops went much further than this). One of my most powerful memories is of joining a huge public protest march in (October 1989?) through central Johannesburg, in which I was surrounded by people singing Zulu praise -poems  in honour of Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC and other resistance movements – even though these groups were officially banned, promoting them was a serious criminal offence, and police were all around. A few months later, Mandela was released and the dismantling of apartheid began.

The point though, was that this was the culmination of a process, not the start.  This had been preceded by many decades of changing the mindset of the South African people. This process is even more important in the Church, where the effective legal power over individuals other than its direct employees, is – zero. The only power that the church has over us is through its control of our minds, in the belief that the only path to “salvation” is through the Church, and in particular through its self-appointed rulers, the bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy that controls them. At the apex of the whole edifice, the world’s largest multinational corporation and largest employer, is the pope, who has enormous control over the direct and indirect employees of the church, but who has no possible legal sanction against any other individual who displeases him. Even excommunication, his strongest possible penalty, is of no consequence to me unless I allow myself to see it so.

While the problems of the modern church are self-evident all around us, I suspect that the signs of healthy renewal are also plainly before our eyes: in the overwhelming majority of Catholics who simply ignore inappropriate sexual rules in their personal lives, and who offer a genuine welcome in many parishes to the outcasts that the Vatican would prefer to exclude, and in the smaller  but growing number of priests and worshipping communities that are prepared to resist or directly flaunt attempts at central control – womenpriests, for example, or those priests who have left the formal employ of the church to marry,  and continue to exercise some form of freelance ministry. There are many others.

We do need to continue assessing, discussing and responding to the failures of the institutional church and of specific papal actions. But I believe that these proposed grand gestures of public protest will not help the important task of decoupling our minds from papal control, and instead will reinforce it. When Benedict arrives in this country for his visit, I shall observe, reflect, and report on it – from the comfort of my home, not from any public barricades. When autocratic central control finally disappears form the Catholic church, as it has from others and as it inevitable must, I hope it will go in the manner described by the Catholic poet TS Eliot:

This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but a whimper

[The Hollow Men]



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