Vulnerability and Empire
On 16th September 2011, on the first day of his “State Visit” to the UK, Pope Benedict made a speech at Holyrood House, the official residence of the Queen in Scotland. In the course of that speech he said the following:
As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’.
The pope was suffering from a curious lapse of historical memory. He forgot that his predecessors signed a Condordat with Hitler, that the Catholic church in Germany prayed dutifully for der Führer on his birthday every 20th of April, and conveyed to him, through its leaders, fulsome declarations of loyalty and admiration. He forgot that the establishment of the imaginary “state” that gives him so much influence in the world today was granted to his predecessors by Mussolini, the head of a fascist state that was in close alliance with Hitler, and fought alongside him against the forces of democracy from 10th June 1940 until 8th September 1943. He conveniently forgot that his predecessors supported Franco, in Spain, against the legitimate republican government of the day, a war claiming thousands of innocent victims, in order to establish one of the longest surviving fascist dictatorships in Europe in which the church itself played such a key role. He forgot that his predecessors excommunicated not one — not a singe one — of the major war criminals, even though many of them were Catholic, and that the Vatican played a key role in enabling some of these vicious men to escape punishment. He forgot, too, that Hitler himself was a Catholic, and, although Hitler’s religion was a strange amalgam of Christian and Teutonic pagan beliefs, he never severed his relationships with the Catholic church and is known to have said that he would remain a Catholic till his dying day.
We could go on to add that there is no obvious relationship between the presence of God and religion in public life and anything that ensures the practice of virtue. Indeed, if the Vatican’s flirtation with money-laundering, the widespread coverup of the sexual abuse of children for which it is (and the pope may be) directly responsible, and its support for brutally corrupt churchmen like Marcial Maciel is anything to go by, the Vatican itself, the head of a worldwide fellowship of believers, which is, insofar as it is a state at all, a theocracy, seems chronically unable to achieve common virtue, let alone exemplary virtue.
These things should be remembered as a background to the pope’s fatuous and scurrilous remarks at Holyrood. But when we look more closely at this teeming cauldron of political intrigue and conflict that we call the Vatican we will see a system of thought and relationship mired in the past, frightened of the present, and determined to control the future. And it means to do it by binding with the chains of obligation and guilt those who are most vulnerable at the time of their greatest weakness.
I am reminded of the scene in Linden MacIntryre’s novel The Bishop’s Man, in which the bishop’s troubleshooter — to deal mainly with priests suspected of child abuse — is sent off on one mission with this advice:
Don’t hesitate [said the bishop] to use the trappings of authority. Wear everything — black suit, stock and collar. The chasuble if necessary. Hang the crucifix around your neck. Of course, I’m joking. But draw attention to the institution. And don’t forget: it’s the integrity of the institution that’s at stake. Something larger and more important than all or any of us. 
More important than all or any of us. That gets the note just right, and we have seen the church fighting, not for its integrity — for that is not what was being protected — but for the church’s image and influence, and in the process damaging whatever integrity the church might have had — and that integrity itself seems, when all the accounts are in, not to amount to very much.
And the church is still founded, just as it was in the far off days of medieval supremacy, on the weakest and the most vulnerable, those who can be swayed by the trappings of power and holiness. Quoting from The Bishop’s Man again:
There used to be rail between the people and the altar. A little fence. Women were not allowed inside the fence except to change the linen, scrub the floors. I remember women with their hair covered, working silently, efficiently, to minimize their time in the forbidden spaces. And I remember Sundays, people kneeling outside the sanctuary, elbows on the starched cloth of the altar rail, faces buried in dry, knobby hands. People lined up to receive the Blessed Sacrament, eyes intense with devotion and hope. 
So the greatest penalty was, and for many still is, to be cut off from that source of life, severed from the arteries of holiness, excommunicated. It is still a potent threat, and a means of the most refined control.
Once upon a time, in a world long ago, the church controlled practically every nook and cranny of life, but it is not like that any more. So it must choose its ground very carefully, astutely, knowing that, every time it fails to control the agenda, it loses more power. There must be some small area left where its control can be absolute, and its decisions unquestioned. It must be something around which zealots can organise, but it must not put at risk the central doctrines of the church. It must marginalise the claims that women are increasingly making to be recognised, but it must give those women something important to do, a crucial ministry, different from the ministry to which men alone are called. And then it must protect that ministry with credible threats of excommunication. It must be something else. It must be something easily ordered around the stark choices between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, Life and Death.
And this is precisely what the Vatican proceeded to do. Nothing could be simpler. They would choose the image of the struggle between Life and Death itself. The church, of course, would stand for Life; its opponents would stand for Death. So the church would henceforth be Pro-Life, battling the forces of an evil Culture of Death. It is the paradigmatic struggle first limned with such effectiveness in John’s gospel, where the Word is seen as Light coming into the Darkness, and Darkness chose Darkness instead of Light.
And, as in all such epic struggles, since the world simply does not divide so easily into good and evil, the church would start with a lie. Cutting through the disputes of centuries, it would claim as absolutes — and this is untrue – that the church always opposed abortion, and has never condoned suicide. So the claim would be that the church has always stood sentinel over the beginnings and the endings of life, and — this is the catchword — has always protected the vulnerable. None of this is true, but when it comes to large political struggles, as Hitler knew, what will be remembered, in the end, is not the cruelty and the lies, but that the victor won. Who remembers now the genocide of the Armenians? Who remembers the genocide of the Cathars?
And so the pro-life, anti-choice movement was born. This included, we must remember, the anti-contraception movement as well. The latter is one battle that the church seems destined to lose, and so it has, to some extent, separated it from the two other struggles, against abortion and assisted dying, but it is important to remember that they were once part of a single whole. As Cahal Cardinal Daly says in a small book that may be seen as one of the opening salvos in the struggle against the so-called “culture of death”, entitled Morals, Law and Life:
The works of the scientific humanists are there to prove that man’s attitude to contraception determines whether he will think it wrong or right for a mother to kill her defective child, or for a doctor to “gently and humanely extinguish his patient’s life.” 
One characteristic of the struggle lies in the lurid colours of disaster in which the church paints its opponents’ basenesses and perfidy. Abortionists kill children, and those who help someone to die a peaceful rather than a horrifying death, murder their patients, and someone like Terry Schaivo suffered from “cognitive disability“. What will happen, says Christine Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, in a recent “study” entitled, Assisted Suicide — How the Chattering Classes have got it Wrong, is that:
The elderly, people with severe disabilities, the mentally unstable, and those with terminal illnesses will be presented with self-inflicted death as a natural, normal and expected final solution. 
Notice how casually she throws in the terminology that the Nazis used for their unspeakably evil plan to exterminate of the Jews. The proposal that assisted dying be legalised is turned into a policy of extermination. The whole publication is composed of innuendo of this kind. This is not reasonable analysis; it is shrill programmatic propaganda. It is characteristic of the church’s diversionary tactic of directing attention away from its instruments of control, by camouflaging them as concern for the weak and the vulnerable.
But why, we must ask, are the old or the sick or the disabled classed with minors and others deemed unable to make reasonable choices for themselves? Why? For the simple reason that the church must exercise absolute control somewhere, and the beginning and the end of life are the places that it has chosen. These are places where the church may have expected little opposition, but in any event where it seemed possible to formulate a description that would legitimise the church’s claim that it is in those places that control is required. Conveniently, dying people have no time to protest, and the unborn cannot. But there is no reason to think that the disabled or the dying are especially vulnerable to deception. And, while it is true that the so-called “pre-born” cannot choose for themselves, that is not because they are vulnerable; it is simply because they are not yet persons who have a right to choose. The church’s claim to choose for them is intrusive and theocratic. And if there is any question about that, consider the excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride, the woman who saved the life of the pregnant woman with pulmonary hypertension at St. Joseph’s hospital in Arizona.
[This] caring nun who did her duty as a medical caretaker has been excommunicated by the main organization, for the intolerable crime of saving the life of a fellow human being. [see "The New Inquisition"]
Or consider a country where the church’s writ banning all abortions runs with full force and vigour, El Salvador, the Pro-Life Nation, where there is
… not only a total ban on abortion, but also an active law-enforcement apparatus — the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor’s office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women, a unit charged with capturing, trying and incarcerating an unusual kind of criminal. Like the woman I was waiting to meet. ["Pro-Life Nation," p. 1]
A country where a woman can be imprisoned for up to 30 years for aborting her unborn foetus, where the woman’s very body becomes a crime scene to be forensically examined. A country where the constitution defines human life as beginning at conception. If you want to know what Roman Catholic theocracy looks like in practice, El Salvador is a good place to look. I wrote in an earlier post about the social pathology of religion. In El Salvador you can see this pathology up close and personal in the full enjoyment of its privileges. It is as ugly as any expression of religion you might expect to see. The god of this religion, which Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Strangroom call, in their book, Does God Hate Women?, ”A God of Bullies,” is the purest expression of the cult of the celibate old men of the Vatican. It is not one that anyone should admire, nor are its dictates intended to enhance life or to help us flourish. It’s sole purpose and rationale is to retain absolute control over an empire that rules the hearts of millions. And it will turn anything, cynically, to its purpose, if it will achieve this end.