14 December 2002

Is the Pope a Catholic?
Rome is in meltdown, says Gerald Warner, and part of the problem is that in some respects John Paul II is scandalously liberal

One of the hallowed traditions of Christmas Day is the brief footage of religious leaders shown on television news bulletins. First in to bat is the Archbishop of Canterbury, allocated ten seconds to convey a message of seasonal goodwill. Next comes the Pope (‘Like to see something stronger, guv?’), addressing a crowd in St Peter’s Square, not exclusively composed of Japanese tourists. He rates only five seconds — long enough to broadcast the English-language soundbite ‘A blessed Christmas!’ but sufficiently brief to prevent the Vicar of Christ from building his part or forgetting who won in 1688.

To the majority of comatose, turkey-bloated viewers in the neo-pagan Britain of the 21st century, it provides a reassuringly familiar prelude to Only Fools and Horses. For the minority of believers, this snapshot of mainstream religious leaders may actually be less congenial. The long-suffering faithful have learnt to dread pronouncements by their own hierarchies more than attacks on their beliefs by militant atheists. One Easter message disparaging the Resurrection from David Jenkins, as Bishop of Durham, was more demoralising to Anglicans than any number of rationalist broadsides from Richard Dawkins.

This Christmas there is extra cause for apprehension among Anglicans: there is a new heresiarch on the block (at least in the estimation of conservative evangelicals), and he occupies the primatial see of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams has been widely described as a maverick. That is a polite way of saying that he has the potential to do more damage to the Church of England than any individual since Oliver Cromwell.

In a televised interview on the eve of his formal confirmation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams carried off a remarkable triple whammy, denouncing pomp and ceremony in the Church of England, canvassing the possibility of disestablishment, and endorsing homosexual conduct. That is to say, in just one broadcast he managed simultaneously to infuriate the Anglo–Catholic smells-and-bells brigade, the mainstream adherents of the national Church, and the morally conservative evangelical wing. Such effortless anti-charisma makes his confrontational predecessor, St Thomas à Becket, seem bland and conciliatory.

It was the homosexual issue that inspired the Archbishop to articulate a classic piece of episcobabble: ‘If the Bible is very clear — as I think it is — that a heterosexual indulging in homosexual activity for the sake of variety and gratification is not following the will of God, does that automatically say that that is the only sort of homosexual activity there could ever be?’

Er, no. There is widely rumoured to be another kind of homosexual activity — that which takes place between homosexuals — which many of us had rashly assumed was more common. The Williams doctrine appears to be that homosexual acts are sinful only when practised by heterosexuals. Presumably, any day now he will promulgate the analogous dogma that adultery is a sin only when committed between bachelors and spinsters. The agenda lurking behind this inanity is effectively to abolish sin by redefining it so that it can be committed only in the most improbable circumstances.

Some despairing Anglicans find themselves looking enviously towards imperious Rome, seat of uncompromising authority and doctrine. They should take off their rose-tinted spectacles and confront a reality in many ways more devastating than their own experience: Rome is in meltdown.

Is the Pope a Catholic? The jury is still out, in the view of a growing number of critics of the current pontificate. These new dissidents are not recruited from the usual suspects — the We are Church Weirdos and Easter People — but from the hardcore remnant of faithful but deeply troubled Catholics. They survey, with dismay, the fruits of a pontificate that has been far from the authoritarian, conservative caricature purveyed by the secular media.

True, there have been robust reassertions of Catholic doctrine: on marriage, sexuality, family life, abortion, clerical celibacy, the putative ordination of women. The intransigently orthodox utterances of John Paul II on these matters make it easy for radical dissenters to paint him as ultra-conservative.

That, however, is not the whole story. This ‘ultra-conservative’ Pope has also acted in ways that have scandalised devout Catholics, usually in the name of ecumenism. At Bombay, in 1986, the Vicar of Christ allowed a priestess of Shiva to anoint his forehead (already anointed in the Apostolic Succession) with the pagan sign of the Tilak. He has kissed the Koran in public and engaged in dialogue with voodoo witch doctors. Historically, countless Catholics have suffered martyrdom rather than collaborate in such gestures.

The most controversial episode took place at Assisi, on 27 October 1986. At the Pope’s invitation, representatives of world religions gathered there, including Shintoists, Zoroastrians and animists (an African religion which worships the Monty Pythonesque concept of the Great Thumb). The Buddhist delegation converted the altar of the church of San Pietro into a shrine by enthroning a statue of Buddha on top of the tabernacle, from which the Blessed Sacrament had been removed. You do not have to be a Catholic to recognise in that tableau the most palpable infraction of the First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

Where does courtesy end and apostasy begin? Catholics are afraid to evangelise —‘proselytise’ is the derogatory term now preferred — as evidenced by the Balamand Declaration, signed by the Vatican and the Orthodox Church in June 1993. By this, Rome barred itself from carrying out missionary activity in areas of Orthodox jurisdiction, stating, ‘There is no question of conversion of people from one Church to the other in order to ensure their salvation.’ Yet Christ’s instructions to his disciples were, ‘Going, therefore, teach ye all nations....’ (Matthew, 28). He did not add, ‘With the exception of the following map references....’

Criticism of a pontiff does not come easily to Catholics, although it is permitted, when the circumstances warrant it. St Catherine of Siena (not a woman to whom one would blithely have taken home a torn wage packet while smelling of strong drink, as they say in Glasgow) regularly handbagged Popes Gregory XI and Urban VI when they failed to come up to the mark. Lesser mortals take refuge in a courtier-like convention: they appeal from the Pope ill-advised to the Pope well-advised.

In that spirit, many are asking why the Pope who presided at a Mass in Papua New Guinea where the epistle was read by a bare-breasted woman will not allow the unrestricted celebration of the Latin Tridentine Mass throughout the world. More than two million people now attend the Old Rite, despite frenzied attempts to crush it by bishops tolerant of such lesser scandals as paedophile priests.

In England, the number of Catholics attending Mass is declining by 50,000 a year. If that continues, Catholicism will be extinct within 30 years. In Holland and Belgium, Mass attendance rates are around 3 per cent. Of pupils in Catholic schools here, 90 per cent lapse from religious practice before leaving. Religious instruction is bland, syncretic, one-world pap. Nobody knows the Faith any more.

What is true of Catholicism is true of other denominations. At the root of the crisis, almost as much for Anglicans as for Catholics, lies the Second Vatican Council. The infectious liberalism of Vatican II not only destroyed the old Catholic liturgy but also helped bury Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Both Anglican and Catholic liturgical texts now come from the same ecumenical consensus.

Vatican II has been made the ultimate totem of Catholicism, while the teachings of 261 popes and 20 previous ecumenical councils have been marginalised. Rome faces the same dilemma as an alcoholic: until it acknowledges the problem — Vatican II — no cure is possible. Only by revisiting that aberration of the 1960s can the Barque of Peter regain an even keel. So argue the increasingly vocal critics of a pontificate that has been, in reality, more progressive than conservative.

When our spiritual leaders invade our television screens on Christmas Day, therefore, they may encounter more scepticism among believers than among agnostics. ‘We are a pilgrim Church, called to witness and unity, in a fraternal journey with all humankind, to banish racism and discrimination from our ravaged planet....’ Bah, humbug!

Gerald Warner is a columnist for Scotland on Sunday.

© 2002 The Spectator.co.uk

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