Well it's on. Perhaps the most controversial Papal visit in recent memory is set to begin tomorrow - to the United Kingdom. And isn't the legendary British press and wider media making not just a meal of it - it's a sumptuous banquet. It's not just the loathsome tabloids that are at the party. The so called quality media and an otherwise respected publishing house are having a lot of fun in that old pastime and casual distraction from real sport - Catholic baiting.
Many years ago, a very experienced Melbourne journalist told me that apart from Australian Rules, the great sport in Melbourne that frequently turned up in the press was taking a rise out of the Catholics and seeing how stupidly they could be portrayed or portray themselves. Then watch the reaction. The publishers loved it. It always raised a laugh and did what newspapers had to do - sell copies. And my informant was a practicing Catholic who worked for The Age, deemed by paranoid Catholics of many past generations to be the home of WASP anti-Catholicism. He was taking a wry look at his employer and his fellow Catholics who complied with what may have been the proprietor's predisposition by providing living instances of the basis for old time prejudices.
But here we are with this Papal visit to the UK providing another platform for the simple minded gibberish of Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, getting column inches for arguments that a graduate of Philosophy 101 or a basic course in the history and philosophy of science could see the flaws in. The Church and the Papacy are the firm wall of irrationality protecting not just a total enemy of rational appreciation of the universe but something much worse: a social conspiracy to demean humanity and imprison the minds and hearts of otherwise free human beings, now rendered incapable of realising their humanity by this oppressive monolith. But wait, there's more. Otherwise credible publishing houses like Penguin Books are cashing in on the Papal visit by publishing the oh so very important, sometime Australian whose Australian accent absolutely noone recognises, Geoffrey Robertson QC, with the simply preposterous claim that whole apparatus of Church law conspires to prevent criminals being brought to justice. If only it were that simple!
As with all prejudicial judgements - whether about races, politicians or football teams - the germ of some truth is so inflated that it becomes the all encompassing explanation of what's wrong with the world,"them" or any offending party. it's the sort of self-indulgent argument frequently heard in pubs and bars and best left there. But it's now given oxygen in the so called "quality" media and nothing so epitomised it as the serious talk show on the BBC this week that began with the grounding breaking news that the Irish bishops smothered information about criminal priests followed by, wait for it, Richard Dawkins live explaining why everyone who's a believer is either ignorant and obscurantist or worse, a conscious enemy of free thought. The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Observer are hot in pursuit, following that old conviction of the Packers who always found that a Catholic cover to their Bulletin magazine, showing up something that the Church's hierarchy or some Catholic institution had done wrong again, would sell double the copies of a regular edition.
It's fun being a Catholic: you get so much attention.
But what's the mirror image reaction to this onslaught that Church officials follow and become the confirmation of? All too often, it's defensive response that speaks only to the faithful as leaders who reassure the unsettled faithful that the world and its demands are menacing, peremptory and certainly not to be believed. It becomes a hunkering down and believing that only the hard hats will save us from the avalanche about to descend on us. It's just not the path of reaction to follow.
It's the one that the Church throughout the 19th Century indulged in to its mortal peril. The way the Vatican in particular and Church leadership in general didn't just distance itself from movements like the spread of democracy or critical thought applied to core texts on which Christianity was based (for example the Old and New Testaments) and many others but condemned them as either wrong or outright evil. And it meant that the Catholic Church limped into the 20th Century a frightened and beleaguered community.
And the Church won't emerge from its current torments if it persists in a defensive response. Pope Benedict told pilgrims coming to the Wednesday Angelus last week at Castel Gandolfo that the proper response to clerical sexual abuse was not radical structural reform but a more intense application to prayer and penance. Well it is the latter but, if every single enquiry into the phenomenon around the world is to be believed, it's not an either/or choice but a both/and one: sanctity yes but major reform of structures and cultures.
It wasn't till Vatican 2 that the Catholic Church as a world wide community did something it hadn't done for quite a while: listened. And what it heard wasn't very reassuring and involved a lot of change - like recognising that people who disagree with us are not simply wrong and bad. No, they just disagree with us and don't share our presuppositions. Like recognising that the Church has been left behind in some respects as a compassionate and humane force when completely non-Christian movements, ideas and forces show up shortcomings and deficiencies in Church conduct and policies - Pope John XXIII's embrace in Encyclicals of human rights already acknowledged and accepted throughout the world or Vatican 2's appreciation of non-Christians, non-Catholics and the dignity and inviolability of conscience. All of these appreciations others - not everyone of course - had come to well before the Church acknowledged them.
One thing the world - the chattering classes in the British media in anticipation of the Papal visit, through the Courts in America and in many places in Australia - is saying to the Church now is this and it's simple: wake up to yourselves and have look around you; catch up with where an awful lot of people have reached in their understanding of what it is to be good, compassionate and responsible. Through the tumult and the shouting, there's something here for the Church to learn. Maybe it's time again to do what Jesus asked us to do: look at the signs of the times. Or perhaps to listen to John XXIII's opening words at the Council when he said he wanted to part company with the doom sayers and let the Spirit in. To respond to the taunts of a doubting world whose doubts about Catholics have been enlarged by the display of our manifest flaws, an attitude of attentive listening might be just the tonic.
Michael Kelly SJ is founder of Church Resources and currently executive director of Union of Catholic Asian News.
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