I have tried to avoid the religious threads in the past week as this was not a time to be provocative, but am I the only one to find the wall-to-wall coverage of the pope’s death and funeral to be a little bit over the top??

It’s a big story because everybody thinks it is a big story and wants to be part of a big story, thus making it a big story…

Below the fold, some extracts of two articles published in yestarday’s Guardian which provide some much needed perspective.

Not in My Name (Polly Toynbee)

With the clash of two state funerals and a wedding, unreason is in full flood this week. Yet again, rationalists who thought they understood this secular, sceptical age have been shocked at the coverage from Rome.

The BBC airwaves have disgraced themselves. The Mail went mad with its front-page headlines, “Safe in Heaven” and the next day “Amen”. Even this august organ, which sprang from the loins of nonconformist dissent, astounded many readers with its broad acres of Pope reverencing. Poor old Prince Rainier of that squalid little tax haven missed his full Hello! death rites through bad timing.

The arcane flummery brings forth dusty academics in Vaticanology, the Act of Settlement and laws of Monegasque succession. These pantomimes of power fascinate in their quaintness, but they signify nothing beyond momentary frisson.

The millions pouring into Rome (pray there is no Mecca-style disaster) herald no resurgence of Catholicism. The devout are there, but this is essentially a Diana moment, a Queen Mother’s catafalque. People queue to join great public spectacles, hoping it’s a tell-my-grandchildren event. Communing with public emotion is easy now travel is cheap. These things are driven by rolling, unctuous television telling people a great event is unfolding, focusing on the few hysterics in tears and not the many who come to feel their pain.


The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy. It has weak temporal power, so George Bush can safely pray at the corpse of the man who criticised the Iraq war and capital punishment; it simply didn’t matter as the Pope never made a serious issue of it or ordered the US church to take strong action.

The Vatican’s deeper power is in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees. With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms – this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.


At the funeral will be a convocation of mullahs, rabbis and all the other medieval faiths that increasingly conspire together against modernity. Islamic groups are sternly warning the Vatican to stand firm against liberal influences on homosexuality, abortion, contraception and the ordination of women. What is it about religion that unites them all on sex? It always expresses itself as disgust for women’s bodies, leading to a need to suppress women altogether. Why is controlling women’s bodies the shared battle flag of every faith?

(With a specific nod to lorraine and her series on the body)

We are rewriting the history of communism’s collapse (Jonathan Steele)

The deaths of the powerful elicit extravagant claims, and many of the tributes to the man being buried in Rome today have been little short of grotesque. Dumbing-down comes over obituary writers, and in their eagerness to define a clear legacy they often produce simplifications that take no account of how the world and people change.


The retrospectives that draw a line between his first visit home as Pope in 1979, the rise of Solidarity a year later and the collapse of the one-party system in 1989 are especially open to question.

They ignore martial law, which stopped Solidarity in its tracks and emasculated it for most of the 1980s. It was a defeat of enormous proportions that John Paul could not reverse until the real power-holders in eastern Europe, the men who ran the Kremlin, changed their line.


[At the 1981 Solidarity congress], all sides agonised over whether and how Moscow would intervene. There were already strong hints that the Polish army would be used rather than Soviet tanks. None of us thought a clamp-down could be avoided. Within weeks we were proved right. The Kremlin got its way with relative ease. Poland’s own communist authorities arrested thousands of Solidarity’s leaders and drove the rest underground.

John Paul’s reaction was soft. Armed resistance was not a serious option, but there were Poles who favoured mass protests, factory occupations and a campaign of civil disobedience. The Pope disappointed them. He criticised martial law but warned of bloodshed and civil war, counselling patience rather than defiance.


The impetus for Gorbachev’s reforms was not external pressure from the west, dissent in eastern Europe or the Pope’s calls to respect human rights, but economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and internal discontent within the Soviet elite.


John Paul also opposed liberation theology because he saw priests defy their bishops and challenge the church’s hierarchical structure. Even while communism still held power in Europe, he had more in common with it than many of his supporters admit. He recentralised power in the Vatican and reversed the perestroika of his predecessor-but-two John XXIII, who had given more say to local dioceses.

With the fall of “international communism”, the Vatican was left as the only authoritarian ideology with global reach. There was no let-up in the Pope’s pressures against dissent, the worst example being his excommunication of Sri Lanka’s Father Tissa Balasuriya in 1997, an impish figure who questioned the cult of Mary as a docile, submissive icon and argued that, as a minority religion in Asia, Catholicism had to be less arrogant towards other faiths.

The Pope could not accept that challenge to the Vatican’s absolutism. So it is fitting that he will be buried in the crypt from which John XXIII was removed, symbolically marking the primacy of Wojtyla’s conservative era over the liberal hopes of an earlier generation.

My position on religion is simple. Faith is an individual act which I fully respect. Churches as political institutions are extraordinarily dangerous because they bring the deathly ingredient of absolutes into human affairs, and absolute are an all-too-easy way to get to “the ends justify the means”, as the ends, being of a “magic”, or “transcendental” nature, are always superior to whatever consequences they can have in the real, imperfect world of humans.

So, I don’t care for the pope.

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