Papal Obsequies

I usually like David Aaronovitch’s columns (even though, or perhaps because, they sometimes make me squirm slightly – not enough to rattle the chair, but enough to rearrange a few dust particles), but I take issue with something in this one. It’s about the pope and the ructions last week, and what to make of it.

The cover of last week’s New Statesman, for example, proclaims of the dead Pope that ‘he did more to spread Aids in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. By opposing the use of condoms, the argument went, the church had created intense and unnecessary suffering.
But this won’t do, either. The church has only succeeded in Africa by tolerating polygamy, and, as the Statesman admits, its teaching on birth control hasn’t prevented a dramatic drop in family sizes in some African countries. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the church is being magically obeyed on condoms, while being ignored on everything else. In other words, where doctrine conflicts with culture, doctrine loses. It wasn’t the Pope that done it.

Wait. One, Aaronovitch doesn’t know (or if he does he certainly doesn’t say) how many people in Africa do ‘magically’ obey the church on condoms. Two, is it likely that the number of people obeying the church on condoms is actually zero? None at all? Surely not. If not, doesn’t that dismissal seem a little quick? A tad hasty? It does to me. Three, the stakes are high – a horrible lingering early death that often leaves destitute orphans, some of whom go into prostitution for want of alternatives and soon die of AIDS themselves, leaving even more destitute siblings – so again the dismissal seems too quick. Four, what about the rest of the world? Especially the rest of the Third World? The Vatican’s murderous condom-ban was certainly not confined to Africa; it was global. Five, as is well known, there is already difficulty in getting men to use condoms, because men don’t like wearing them; the more subordinated women are, the harder it is for them to insist that men wear condoms; this is especially true for prostitutes – some of whom are the very young daughters of AIDS victims and other destitute people; therefore any religious edict that could give an apparent moral or religious gloss to men’s reluctance to wear them will be warmly welcomed and used by many men who will cheerfully ignore other religious edicts; such religious edicts are therefore extremely, lethally harmful to women. And six, even if not one person on the planet heeded the Vatican’s ban, it would still be wicked and disgusting of the pope to have tried it. Bottomlessly disgusting. Mindless, superstitious, pointless, stupid, and savagely cruel. The putative ‘reason’ for the church’s ridiculous insistence on banning contraception is so wildly out of proportion to its disastrous possible effects – a horrible slow degrading miserable death at an early age – that it’s surely beyond defense. And that’s the relevant point when talking about the pope, isn’t it? The fact that he tried to ban condoms, not whether or not he succeeded? He wanted to succeed, and that’s an incredibly bad, savage thing to have wanted to do. He was a bad man. Yes no doubt he meant well by his own lights – but he was desperately wrong about the lights, wasn’t he.

No, I much prefer Polly Toynbee’s take on this one. Toynbee rocks, as Chris Whiley said in sending me the link.

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.

We had some idiotic headlines here, too. Of course that’s less suprising here – sad to say.

It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol’ boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace – why not?…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…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.

That’s more like it. It really is beyond comprehension. The more you think about it the more beyond comprehension it is. They must have known their ban would cause people to get a horrible fatal illness – and yet that didn’t stop them. It is hard to understand.

This is said often, even in this unctuous week – and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost.

In 1971 I interviewed Mother Teresa and asked how she justified letting starving babies be born to die on Calcutta streets for lack of contraception. She said sublimely that every baby entering the world was another soul created in praise of God, even if it lived only a few hours. She was never keen on cures: suffering was a gift of God that enabled those who cared for the afflicted to demonstrate their love. She was beatified by John Paul II for their shared religious mania. Those who met them talk of an aura of love, power, listening and intensity. But goodness is in doing good; good intent is no excuse for murderous error.

Another soul created in praise of God, even for only a few hours. How beautiful, how ‘spiritual’ – except that the praise-hungry god doesn’t exist, while the woman who had the baby that died does.

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?

Because women are sluts, obviously. Hail Mary.

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