Criticisms of the Catholic Church, Islamist violence and religious intolerance are chiefly and sometimes exclusively championed by people well-known for their anti-religious sentiment. Rather than disparaging religion, it is more respectable to lack any strong beliefs, but also treat religious ideas delicately. However, a whiff of religiosity seems to protect the interests of sinister groups – groups that would otherwise be called out due to our willingness to brush crimes that would cripple most other institutions under the carpet. If we fail to distinguish between abuse and cultural practice, and we are tolerant of the intolerant, we risk abandoning vulnerable members of society. If we are to extend the protection of a civil society to all our members, criticisms of religious institutions need to be more mainstream.
Since antiquity, religion has demanded a monopoly on moral and existential truths. Such claims have been promoted with both the pen and the sword, and it has left a legacy of respect that persists today for the “wisdom” of religion. Off the back of this legacy, churchmen have long been revered as having expertise about separate magisteria that is beyond the capabilities of scientists and secular law makers to explore. In spite of the Papal State’s history of crimes and moral transgressions, we are unwilling to see the historical entity that was the Catholic Church as a force for evil. Its influence has been tremendously important in authoring and promoting hugely anti-Semitic and anti-witch doctrine, doctrine which legitimised the torture, imprisonment and execution of hundreds of thousands of innocent people throughout the Middle Ages. The Historian, Daniel J Goldhagen, argues convincingly that prejudice from the catholic Right essentially lay the foundations for the anti-Jewish ideology inherent in Nazism, a mischaracterisation of an entire ethnic group that still troubles Europe today. Further, despite around one-third of Germans in Nazi Germany identifying as catholic, and the Führer’s exploitation of Catholic rhetoric, the failure of the Catholic Church to excommunicate or openly oppose Nazi activity leaves quite a legacy of potential culpability.
However, this is not a phenomenon that only affects historical activities. Today it literally operates outside law, which is just as well considering allegations. The Vatican state is no mere honorary artefact of the past. When paedophilic Chilean priest, Fernando Karadima, was found guilty of sexually abusing minors by an internal inquiry, he was sentenced to a life of ‘penance and prayer’. He entirely escaped secular justice in a way that would not be possible without institutional support.
Although the Vatican created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to stamp out such abuse, this well-intentioned step was marred by leadership under committed bigot and apologist, Monsignor Tony Anatrella. Anatrella publicly said, “it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects [of child sex abuse] to authorities, the police or state prosecutors”. The competence of the committee is in question as Anatrella’s claim to expertise is a profession that has no regulatory body. Furthermore, there is a complete absence of those who survived abuse at the hands of priests with the ranks of this special unit. Peter Saunders, an ex-member of the commission (who has himself survived abuse), initially described the Pontiff as a “good” man who “wants to do the right thing”, but left due to pressure because of criticisms of how the Vatican handled these cases. He criticises condoning ‘spanking’ – considering the damage violence against children can cause. One can’t help but wonder: if the Church were fully subject to the laws of a western nation, would the state police would take this seriously?
Consider for a moment the outrage that would erupt if, say, Nicky Morgan had said, “Head teachers need not report teachers abusing children unless the parents are miffed”, or if Jeremy Hunt relieved medical professionals of the responsibility to immediately report sexual abuse. To be clear: the Vatican did not give its bishops permission to cover up child abuse. However, it is clearly telling them that the reporting of child abuse is at their discretion; and it is failing to take all the steps required to end the abuse of children at the hands of priests.
In spite of such actions, we would rather smile politely at the pictures of grandfatherly Pope Francis than publicly engage with the reality of the homophobic, misogynistic things these men have said. We do not hold the church to account today for its campaign to disrupt medical science through opposition to Stem Cell research based on demonstrable nonsense, and spreading misinformation about condoms and HIV. In spite of these clearly deplorable activities, public support demands that Obama, one of the most powerful leaders of the free world, receive Francis with a dignitary’s respect and full pomp and ceremony. However, it is not just the Catholic Church that we can be too hesitant about criticising. Obama has deliberately avoided using the term ‘Islamist’, and many naively insist that Jihadism is not religiously inspired, and “terrorism has no religion”. Ben Affleck happily described an association of Islam as an ideology with an atypical amount of violence as “gross and racist”. The point is not that we should all conclude that Islam is violent, but that as a religion it is assumed to be peaceful. Such assumptions are often to the dismay of Muslim activists, such as Maajid Nawaz, who are trying to trigger an Islamic reformation. John Le Carré has remained relatively unscathed in spite of his morally bankrupt justification of violence against writer Salman Rushdie. Without automatic respect for religion, the statement, “nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion and be published with impunity” would be condemned as exactly what it is – a defence of violence enacted to stifle freedom of expression.
As a nation, we tolerate faith schools. A school is a place where you are taught what our society can know to be true, a faith is something you believe irrespective of having a reasonable methodology. This contradiction in terms is a place where children go to be educated, and the school is entirely free with the tax-payer’s support to tell children that one religion is true, all adults know deep down this religion is true and scientists think the claims in this religion are true. Worse still, these schools are unregistered, illegal, and do not teach basic english, science or mathematics. We should no more tolerate faith schools than we would tolerate Conservative schools, communist schools or Nazi schools.
The role of critic to these unconscionable actions cannot fall solely to those like Richard Dawkins, who are marginalised by virtue of being ‘particularly’ secular. Objection to child sex abuse is not a niche position; when public figures, like Stephen Fry, openly denounce the Catholic Church, it must not be brushed off as a moment of eccentricity that we can ignore to focus on the kindly face of the presenter of QI. Tim Minchin’s ‘Pope Song’ makes the profound and important point that covering for, enabling, and protecting abusers is equal to facilitating the abuse, and what the individual or the institution “believes about Jesus … or his mother” is irrelevant.
Since their inception, followers of Catholicism and Islamic groups have contributed to a wealth of culture and knowledge to the world, from the Sistine chapel filled with rousing hymns and the Al Haram mosque, to quaint Spanish monasteries. I should not like to see all that be taken away; but the ability to say anything hateful without reproach should be taken away. It falls to the average university student, the average Lourdes enthusiast, and the British Muslim to be appalled and, when asked, “Why isn’t the Catholic Church taking these issues seriously” to not be satisfied, or even polite about it, until the only reasonable answer is, “they are”.