April 06, 2005

The evil that holy men do

The Pope is dead, and I am glad.

I am glad not because his politics were opposed to mine, or because he was a bigot, or because I believe not at all in God and even less in organised religion. These would be reasons not to like the man. But they would not be reason to be glad. They would not be reason to celebrate. You do not celebrate death without a very good reason.

You celebrate the deaths of personal enemies, perhaps, but I did not know the man. You celebrate the deaths of tyrants, but although he was a tyrant of a sort, utterly authoritarian in the apex of an utterly authoritarian institution, he never killed anybody, nor ever had anybody killed. But you do, you do celebrate the death of evil men.

You celebrate it with dignity, with restraint, without any semblance of sadism or brutishness. But you celebrate nevertheless. You celebrate the death of evil men. And the Pope was evil in a way that no other man on the planet was evil. He was evil because his reign - his term of office, his Papacy - was devoted to the promotion of superstition, and hence of ignorance. To ritual, to the worship of people because of their office, to deference, to the mind emptied and the head bowed. No other man in the world had the power to promote superstition like the Pope did,. And he took the opportunity as no other man for centuries has done.

It's difficult to get over the evil of the Catholic Church to people who have never been Catholics. The main reason for this is that not having close acquaintance with superstition, they find it hard to understand what superstition is. They can understand policy, all right. They can understand that the Pope's attitude towards women, or abortion, or contraception, or anything else, might have been wrong, or even wicked. They can also understand absurdity. All this nonsense about a God, without the slightest scientific justification to back it up, and then all the Jesus and Virgin Mary stuff on top of that. How can anybody believe it?

They can understand that - or rather, they can't understand how anybody can believe it, but they can understand that it's absurd. But absurdity is not superstition in itself. Still less is it evil. To understand why the Pope was evil, you might need to have been a Catholic yourself. Or, maybe, a Muslim.

In Tariq Ali's autobiography, Street Fighting Years, he writes of the occasion when he first came to Oxford University and attended the Freshers' Fair - in the same building, I imagine, where I did the same eighteen years later. He is surprised to see a man, from (I think) the Atheist Society standing on a table shouting "Down with God! Down with God!". When Tariq joins in, the man starts shouting "Down with Allah! Down with Allah!" instead. After he has finished, Tariq speaks to the man and asks how he knew he wasn't, say, a Hindu. Never, says the man, they never feel the need. It's only the Catholics and the Muslims.

The Catholics and the Muslims. We don't just reject our religions, as one might reject a scientific theory, as one might revise one's politics. We fear the religions we leave behind, and for that reason, we hate them. We hate them, because of the ritual and superstition. We hate them because they appeal to the fear of magic. We hate them because they declare the existence of holy men in order to inspire awe.

We hate them because they operate in mediaeval ways, with magic spells, with people who claim to have power because of their direct connection to God, and because, in that way, they deliberately encourage the dreadful robe-touching, ring-kissing, icon-displaying spectacle which is currently playing in St Peter's Square. There is no dignity in that, no reason, no contentment in one's humanity. Merely submission, servility, self-loathing, deference and fear. That is the religion of imams and the religion of priests. That is the Roman Catholic Church. That is the Pope.

It is not just the Muslims and the Catholics, not literally. The Orthodox churches play much the same cards in much the same way, with their icons and their Patriarchs (and, one might add, their attachment to the nastiest of politics whenever they get the chance). Presumably many people who grow up within the Orthodox tradition develop the same fear and loathing that a Catholic will often do. They may find it easier to understand both the spectacle of mourning for the Pope, and what is so terrifying about it. But a Protestant may not. For Protestants do not have imams and priests. They have ministers, and a minister is not the same thing.

A minister has no magic. A minister is simply the leader of a congregation. A minister has no secret knowledge that is kept from the rest of the congregation, a minister's person and clothing have no special aura. A minister is not a holy man. And, not being holy, they cannot inspire fear, cannot command deference merely by the person and their presence. They cannot silence their critics on the premise that God has given them authority to do so. Terry Eagleton observes that the claim to absolute authority was the hallmark of the late John Paul II, and so it was. But it has always been the secret of the Catholic Church, the secret of its power over its adherents.

A minister can tell you that you are bound for hell. But a priest can have you sent there. The Archbishop can tell you that you should be silent. He can even take your job away if you are not. But the Pope can tell you that God commands your silence, and if it pleases him to do so, he can take away your immortal soul. The authority of the Pope, where he commands it, is absolute. And there is no absolute authority without fear.

It is this fear, and the means by which it is inspired and enforced, that makes a Pope such a grotesque personage. John Paul was not just a reactionary old man. Of course, he was reactionary, and one can think of all sorts of reasons for being glad for his overdue passing, in his attitude to women, in his policies towards gays, towards AIDS, towards contraception. Only a few days before his death, his agents in this country compared abortion to the policies of the Nazis - a comparison that should be made by nobody, let alone an institution that has so many far-right connections and whose apparently beloved leader saw fit to honour the followers of Franco, of the Ustashe and of Mussolini.

But in itself, these would just make him another loathsome old man among world leaders, one who people had waited to pass away so that they, too, might be able to move on. Indeed, on seeing his body laid out for the faithful to pass in front of in such numbers, I was immediately reminded of the death of Deng Xiaoping. The leader, like the Holy Father, of hundreds of millions, another bureaucratic old man in an organisation of bureaucratic old men. As if the Church were nothing but the Chinese Communist Party with votive candles.

Perhaps the comparison is instructive, enough, and perhaps the comparison, not so much with Deng Xiaoping but with the death of Stalin, is not so very strange to make. The worldwide grieving was not so very different, right down to the portraits that the faithful held. But the difference is, nevertheless, the votive candles. The Church may change its policies. It may change its position on celibacy, on contraception, and even, however unlikely it may seem, on abortion. But it cannot get rid of the votive candles. They are what mark out the Catholic Church from everything else. They are part of the sorcery. They are the triumph of faith over reason.

The late Pope created more saints, I am given to believe, than a large number of his predecessors, combined, covering a period of several hundred years. Saints? What is a saint? What is the purpose of making a saint, of creating saints, if not to increase the total quantity of superstition? Never mind (though it is scarcely irrelevant) that these saints have included all sorts of fascists and lunatics, including the madman and charlatan Padre Pio, and many worse than him. The question is, why do it? Why have saints, and why find it so important to have so may of them, if not because you want your flock to be always saying prayers to them, always lighting candles for them, always hoping superstitiously for their intercession? Is that not how the Pope wanted people to be? Is that not the antithesis of everything that is civilised and educated in the world?

That is what makes this spectacle so terrifying. Not just the fact of faith destroying reason, but the enormous power that it wields when it does so. The power that leads people to grieve for a Pope that they could not possibly have known is the same sort power that led people to grieve for Diana, only an older power, a wiser power, a conscious power, a power aware of itself and its own interests. It knows what it is doing to people and it likes them that way.

That is why reactionaries love the Catholic church, why the Telegraph and the Mail have no disagreement with it - save that their loyalties are to London rather than Rome. They like what it does to people. They like to see the mass of people bowing, praying, asking no questions, weeping for their human gods. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, there will be no scenes like these. But the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a holy man. He is just a man.

So, the Pope is dead. And with good reason, I am glad. And if the reader is inclined to sanctimony on the subject, and to say that the Pope was just a frail old man in whose death we should, as human beings, find no satisfaction, then the response (as the catechisms have it) must be: let them say so, then. Shall I recognise that the Pope was only human, when the Church themselves depend on the pretence that he was not? Let them say so. Let us have some reason. Some reason about man, some reason about faith.

Let the coverage of this bizarre and terrifying circus speak more of commentary and smell less of hagiography. Let somebody allow the suggestion that this is ludicrous, that this is neither a holy nor an admirable spectacle, that the lachrymose and superstitious worship of human beings, be they English princesses or Polish Popes, is depressing, dangerous, undignified, undemocratic. Let them accept that John Paul II was just a man like all the others. Let them admit that he was no more touched by God than are the rest of us, and then it will be possible to respond to his death, and to his life, as one would respond to the life and death of any other man. But they will not. They cannot. They cannot and they will not, because they are the Catholic Church. And the Pope is dead. And I am glad.


At April 06, 2005 11:35 am, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

I seem to remember reading somewhere that John Paul II created more saints that ALL the other popes put together.

Don't know if that is true or not. I would be interested to find out.

At April 07, 2005 2:10 am, Anonymous Alwyn W Turner said...

I thank you for a beautifully written and - odd though it sounds - tasteful piece. The best thing I've read in response to the man's death.

At April 11, 2005 3:12 am, Blogger exleper said...

Superb. I really did enjoy reading that. Are you perhaps a Guardian columnist in disguise?

I think we should be told.

At June 08, 2006 3:51 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make some excellent points, and you write very well.
And the Archbishop of Canterbury may not be evil, but he is certainly extremely naive. I quote:
"We have become so suspicious of the power of words and the way that power is exercised to defend those who fear to be criticised.
The first assumption we make is that we're faced with spin of some kind, with an agenda being forced on us - like a magician forcing a card on the audience."
"We don't trust power" - really? why's that then sir?
(verb. quote via the BBC)


At December 29, 2007 10:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, dear me, what a revolting piece of Papist-baiting! Something I'll never understand about the English, this VISCERAL hatred of "the Pope of Rome" and his followers -- even George Orwell suffered from it. And the reasons adduced are always so transparent! A suggestion: when a piece you've written (and this is the only one I've read by you so far that qualifies (yes, I am reading through the entire archive!)) could, with appropriate substitutions (s/Catholic Church/International Islamo-fascist Conspiracy/g, etc, etc), almost pass for a piece by Oliver Kamm, it's perhaps time to exercise editoral discretion and bin it.

At December 31, 2007 10:12 am, Blogger ejh said...

What a fantastically stupid posting, to which the key is this: the reasons adduced are always so transparent. When people start telling me my reasons are not the reasons I give, by definition they can't be argued with, can they? Either address yourself to the actual piece or don't bother.

At January 10, 2008 11:19 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What a fantastically stupid posting, to which the key is this: the reasons adduced are always so transparent. When people start telling me my reasons are not the reasons I give, by definition they can't be argued with, can they? Either address yourself to the actual piece or don't bother."

"Address myself to the actual piece"? Certainly. And what would you like as an encore? A detailed critique of `The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'?

Justin, I have difficulty believing you are really so na�ve. Your piece is a sustained outpouring of anti-Catholic *feeling* -- feeling, not reason. Since it is not rational, it can't be addressed rationally. You clearly have strong feeling about the Catholic Church -- as have Ian Paisley and Christopher Hitchens, for example. But strength of feeling is no argument.

I put it to you that, as an Englishman, you owe it to yourself to critically examine your feelings against Catholicism, if only because such feelings were and are tuppence-hapenny in England -- it's not as though you're even going against the current. You might in this examination care to think about what oh-so-self-righteous opposition to Papist obscurantism and tyranny actually led to on a neighbouring island, not so long ago, and whether the relicts of those natives whom your ancestors failed to exterminate might perhaps be conceded a little sensitivity on the subject?

At January 11, 2008 7:40 am, Blogger ejh said...

It's another really stupid posting. You don't actually know who my ancestors were or where they comme from, nor have you addressed yourself to my argument at all, but you've decided where my arguments derive from (without apparently even noticing that unlike most Englishmen, whose attitudes I apparently share, I'm a Catholic by birth and education).

As I say, by definition it is impossible to debate with somebody who has decided that the views one expresses are not one's actual views. I'd therefore propose that you don't: or that if you wish to continue, you append a name to your posting. Any unsigned posting will be deleted.

At July 11, 2008 1:40 am, Anonymous DAMIEN said...

Fantastic piece. I was educated by the Marist Brothers in Australia and am thankful for their commitment to the education of children. But as for the rest of it, forget it. The Catholic Church is the enemy of Constitutional Government. As far as dead princesses go, I am a monarchist, but to me there is no mystery about the Crown - it is merely an efficient form of Government and any 'worship' of it is just a pleasant charade... a bit like the Church of England, really. I was appalled by the 'Diana phenomenon' but do have a soft spot for our boring, stodgy old Queen. No need for incense and magic there.


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