So, the Pope has come for a State Visit which was probably thought of as a kind of reconciliation, the first time the British state would host a pope since the reformation. (Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982 was not a State Visit.) The Queen will officially meet the pope as head of the Church founded by Henry VIII, which led on to decades of torture and death as Catholics and Protestants fought over temporal power. Now disgruntled Anglicans, who can’t stand the idea of women priests,are given a fast track into the Catholic Church and even allowed to be priests with wives. This must break the heart of priests who have struggled with the issue of celibacy and either left the priesthood or been tortured by their struggle.
For the Catholic Church the timing of the visit could not be worse. The scandal of paedophilia which has been swept under the carpet by the Church has burst into the open and shocked and dismayed Catholics across the world. We know a lot more about paedophilia that we did 10 or 20 years ago. We have learned painful lessons about the way in which people with paedophile tendencies get access to children and hide what they are doing, and how the children are frightened to tell and so often not believed. The problem arose in families and relations, doctors and social workers failed to act; it arose in the Scouts, in boarding schools and many other places. For years abused children were not believed, but in the last few decades the issue has come out into the open and action has been taken to punish the perpetrators and try to bring comfort and healing to those who have been abused. So the problem is not that paedophilia is more likely to arise in the Catholic church than elsewhere, where adults have authority and control over children but that the church hid the problem and moved priests from places where they had been caught abusing children to other parishes where they could offend again. And at the same time, the church was pontificating about the need to confine all sexual activity within the institution of marriage, and even there contraception was not supposed to be used because people who wanted sex had to take the consequences and welcome large numbers of children.
I went to see a film this week called Conspiracy of Silence which is written and directed by John Deery and is about the anguish and mess that the church brings upon itself over the issue of celibacy and homosexuality. I recommend the film strongly, the story is powerful and is based on true events. My conclusion, as someone who enjoyed my Catholic childhood and gained from it commitments to truth and justice for all that has stayed with me throughout my life, is that the church is destroying itself from the inside because it is completely screwed up about sex, and anything and everything to do with sex. On abortion, contraception, celibacy, women priests, homosexuality and divorce it is completely wrong and the contortions it goes through defending the indefensible drive away vast numbers of faithful Catholics. Many remain who are good people with a deep faith in God and the spirit of service to all who are in need, but the church is deeply damaged and needs not just to change its teachings on these issues but to have more humility, less centralized authority and more space and respect for the consciences of individuals.
My hope is that the Pope’s visit will highlight all these issues and lead to open debate that might drive forward reform. The reactionaries in the church have been working hard to roll back the reforms and the spirit of reform brought to the church by Pope John XXIII in the second Vatican Council. This Pope and the one before him are part of that reactionary tide and the consequences are there for all to see.
In contrast to the state of the Catholic Church, I was invited to the Greenbelt Festival over the bank holiday at the end of August. They have decided to highlight the situation in Palestine as a central campaign and that was why I was invited. The festival has been held every year for more than 20 years and about 20,000 people attend. Most people camp and bring their children, for whom there are lots of enjoyable and safe activities. The festival provides music, art, talks on current affairs and religious issues, singing and worship in all shapes and forms. I was deeply impressed by the mood and spirit of the festival. Most people were Christians and almost all had some religious faith but there was absolutely no dogmatism. Everyone was welcome and there was a shared spirit of belief in justice and caring. I suspect that if Jesus Christ were to come back to earth he would be more comfortable at the Greenbelt Festival than in the Vatican.
Israel-Palestine peace talks
After the great hope and promise of President Obama’s speech in Cairo, reaching out to the Muslim world and promising to prioritize bringing an end to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, there has been a disappointing lack of progress. Obama initially insisted that the Israelis should cease to expand the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu refused and then after a lot of pressure agreed a vague moratorium. American insistence has now brought Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to talks, initially in Washington and then in Cairo. All serious observers are very pessimistic about the likely outcome of the talks. They are focused on establishing two states side-by-side. The Palestinian state would be based on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967. This would give the Palestinians 22% of historical Palestine. Their state would consist of the west bank of the Jordan, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip and there would have to be a corridor linking the West Bank and Gaza.
Such an outcome looks more and more impossible; the Israeli Settlement Watch project of Peace Now has recently calculated that settlers have taken 40% of Palestinian land and they are determined to take more. Successive Israeli governments have supported and funded this activity. Former Prime Minister Olmert has said more than once that if Israel fails to reach a two-state peace deal, there will be an international anti-apartheid-style campaign against an Israeli state that oppresses nearly half the people living in the territories it controls, and this will spell the end of the Jewish state. I agree with Olmert and the many others that have made this argument, but it is clear that Israel is not willing to hand over to the Palestinian the lands that belong to them in international law and therefore there will be no peace. The logic of this is that there will be one state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians. I fear there will be more bloodshed and conflict before there is a solution; but the US is not willing or able to use the leverage it has to force Israel to make peace and the EU similarly does not have the courage to stand up for international law. The stupidity of this is that a two-state solution is in the interest of Israel’s long term future, would bring an end to the oppression of the Palestinians and would remove the bleeding ulcer at the centre of the conflict between the Muslim and Arab world and the West.
My dry cleaner RIP
I have been to the same dry cleaner for the last 30 years and have seen his children grow up, his wife retire and his shop run down a little, but it was still a good dry cleaner. He was near to the shop where I buy my paper so I have probably greeted him once or twice most weeks over the last 30 years. Having been away, I noticed there was someone else in his shop. After a couple of days I asked if he was okay. The man then told me that he was dead and had hung himself. The neighbouring shops told me that he had debts and was depressed and estranged from his family. I feel really sad every time I go past the shop. I have nowhere else to mourn him so I would like to say here that I am sorry that I did not know how unhappy he was and I hope he will rest in peace.