On Churches and Dictators: The Pope Comes to Britain

By Eric Heinze If Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t go down as one of history’s most beloved pontiffs, he’ll certainly go … Continued

By Eric Heinze

If Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t go down as one of history’s most beloved pontiffs, he’ll certainly go down as one of the more noticed. We have seen it this month in the run-up to his visit in Britain. Some campaigners condemn Benedict’s presence on British soil altogether, appalled at his Church’s intransigence on pedophilia, contraception, abortion, or gay rights. Others, seeing him more as a clergyman than as a head of state, simply rage at the 20 million pounds of taxpayer funds to be spent on it.

Long one of Britain’s more colourful right-wing personalities, the Member of Parliament Ann Widdecombe has spoken out to defend the Church. Writing recently in the left-leaning Guardian, Widdecombe laments a permanent disadvantage for Roman Catholicism in today’s slash-and-burn political world. Politicians, she reminds us, can counter hostility by boasting about their achievements. The clergy can do no such thing: ‘the church does not do PR. If only it did then much of the controversy around the papal visit would fade into insignificance. But unfortunately for the modern media, there are some quite specific divine injunctions forbidding it.’

Widdecombe’s conservative credentials were sealed years ago when she converted to Roman Catholcism, after the Church of England opened priestly ordination to women. As prisons minister under a Tory government, she infamously defended the handcuffing of pregnant women giving birth while in hospital. She never mentioned where they might run off to. Tories like Widdecombe often mirror their counterparts among American Republicans. They insist on traditional values, yet claim an equal commitment to individual rights. More and more in today’s world, those two ideals clash, causing rifts among conservatives.

Widdecombe smelled a rat when the British government was forced to apologise for a leaked Foreign Office memo, in which civil servants mockingly suggested that the Pope should sleep over with poor people, bless a gay marriage, or open abortion or AIDS clinics. She echoed another prominent Catholic in sighing, ‘Don’t they realise the church runs more Aids clinics across the world than any single nation?’

Such retorts can be persuasive. They shame us for allowing media hysteria to eclipse Catholicism’s many accomplishments. ‘Christ said, “do not your good deeds to be seen before men”, so the church dutifully hides them or at least refrains from ostentatiously displaying them.’

On closer reflection, however, there is something disturbing about Widdecombe’s logic. What’s curious, particularly in view of that Tory’s love of individual liberty, is that hers is precisely the reasoning used to defend totalitarian dictatorships. When we chastise Cuba for crushing individual expression, the reply is remarkably similar: ‘But look at the good health care!’ If conservative Ann Witticombe is using the same claims made to defend Fidel Castro, something’s gone wrong. The problem with such an argument, particularly when advanced by a committed Christian, is its crude utilitarianism. It collapses ethics into costs and benefits. But ethical pluses and minuses do not balance each other out in such a straightforward way.

I’d certainly not wish to rob Cubans of their health care, nor the world’s poor of the goods the Church has bestowed. However, as Aristotle pointed out, good health or alleviation of poverty are not ends in themselves, but only means for achieving the greater end of a robust, participating citizenry. To promote material welfare while destroying that greater aim is the way we raise sheep, making them healthy but inert, and not the way to organise human institutions.

The Church’s inhumanity towards its child victims, its callousness, particularly in developing states, towards the plight of gays and pregnant women cannot merely be tossed into a balance with charitable works, however vigorously those works may be undertaken. In the same way, Cuba’s health care may be a plus, but not one which so snappily weighs up against its regime of pervasive repression. If we believe in ethics as something more than sheer material benefits, then we cannot accept a pay-as-you-go justice, by which an institution’s, or government’s, deeply inhumane policies merely become balanced out by tossing goodies to the masses.

The modern Church may have adapted to liberal democratic values somewhat better than Castro’s Cuba. And, of course, the Church’s abuses certainly cannot be likened, in sheer numbers, to those of Stalin or Mao. However, given the hierarchically enforced secrecy and privilege with which the Church’s most heinous violations have perennially been handled, Widdecombe’s inadvertent recourse to totalitarian logic may be no accident. Strictly speaking, both the Papacy and totalitarian dictatorship are merely structural variants of the monarchical principle. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, just days before the Pope’s arrival, a high-level Belgian report has been published, confirming that Child sex abuse by clergy or church workers has taken place in every Roman Catholic congregation in Belgium.

Equally timed for the Pope’s visit has been the publication of The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse by the distinguished human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson. Robinson claims, ‘instead of reporting to law enforcement authorities those priests it knows to be guilty of raping children, and to be likely to rape more children in the future, it has been dealing with them [with] utmost pontifical secrecy.’

I do not know whether, in the end, we stand at Heaven’s Gates to witness all of our deeds recorded on a balance sheet, the good weighed against the evil. If we do, however, perhaps we should expect that the accounting methods may be more intricate than some would have wished.

Eric Heinze, Professor of Law
Queen Mary, University of London

Eric Heinze
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  • malcomj

    I am no fan of Cardinal Rat, and I read Widdecombe’s piece in the Guardian.But the truth of the matter is that there are, by some estimates, a billion Catholics and Ratzinger – truly the Dick Cheney of the Vatican – runs the second largest charitable organization in the world, second only to the Red Cross. The Vatican has, with mix success, appealed to the Commonwealth of Virginia to prevent some executions, opposed the Iraq War, unemployment created by rampant capitalism.For those reasons, alone, B16 is worth listening to.