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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

The Vatican will not be changed by persuasion, it has to be forced

Terry Sanderson on the futility of trying to reason with the Vatican

Before the Pope’s visit to the UK, a group called Catholic Voices was set up to refute criticism of the Vatican, the pontiff and the Church generally. These propagandists — chief among whom, Jack Valero, the boss of Opus Dei in Britain — were trained to obscure, distort and contradict arguments about issues such as priestly child abuse, the Vatican’s ban on condoms in the fight against AIDS and the treatment of women and homosexuals by the Church.

Catholic Voices turned out to be quite ruthless and there seemed to be no sophistry or distortion they would not employ to wrong-foot those who opposed Vatican teachings. I know this is true because I took part in several radio debates with representatives of the group and was often taken aback by the depths they were prepared to plumb in order to protect the Church from criticism.

In an interview on BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live show, Mr Valero insisted that the Catholic Church does not have a ban on condoms. At a debate in Conway Hall, Austen Ivereigh said that the Vatican’s claims that condoms are pervious and permit HIV to penetrate was not made by anyone significant at the Vatican but by some renegade “nutter”. As our own Executive Director corrected him then, that “nutter” just happened to be the Head of the Pontifical Council of the Family, the late Cardinal Trujillo, who repeated the lie many times and who was never contradicted by the Vatican.

Austen Ivereigh’s style of argument in discussions prompted by the pope’s visit was irritatingly, let’s say, disingenuous. You can read about my personal beef with it here.

The debate at Conway Hall had indeed become rather impassioned, as you would expect over such issues and some contributions from the floor were lively. The Chair assiduously curtailed those she thought were going too far – and most of these were of people incensed up by Ivereigh’s evasiveness. Mr Ivereigh chose to play victim and tell waiting journalists that the debate had been a “bear pit” and suggest he had been very brave to confront these uncivilised and intolerant atheists.

My contempt for Catholic Voices was complete. They seemed quite prepared to make excuses for the Vatican’s vile cover ups of child abuse and its catastrophic denial of contraception to women in poverty-stricken countries. In similar style, the Vatican itself was trying this week to re-write its history of criminal negligence and inability to take responsibility for its immoral actions by issuing a letter saying that abuse victims should join with it to obtain justice. This was the day after it had deployed para-miltary police to turn away a peaceful demonstration at the Vatican by victims of clerical abuse.

The only reason the Vatican had issued the letter was that the victims’ candle-lit demonstration had made headlines around the world. The victims hadn’t gone to Rome to negotiate, they had gone to challenge and accuse. That’s the way to get change.

So I was somewhat perplexed to discover this week that the Central London Humanist Group, together with Paul Sims, the news editor of the New Humanist magazine, had entered into talks with Catholic Voices with the purpose of “clarifying areas of disagreement”.

The two hour meeting was set up because “both groups wished to organise a smaller, more respectful meeting” than the Conway Hall debate which, according to Mr Sims, had been “loud and rowdy” and — pass the smelling salts! — at which there had been heckling!

Mr Sims is the kind of humanist who likes to compliment himself on being “moderate”, on taking the “middle ground” and not being one of the “aggressive atheists” of which his holiness so strongly disapproves.

He doesn’t like people being disrespectful to those they oppose. He is obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices. What exactly is to be achieved is not quite clear, because talking to the head of Opus Dei about any prospect of “change” in cruel Vatican teachings is an activity surely worthy of King Canute.

The Vatican is not a democracy. It is not open to negotiation and nor is its minions. The Pope has a direct line to God. He knows he’s right and the rest of us are wrong. What compromise can be reached with such an institution?

Abuse survivor Sue Cox discovered that last week when she joined the protest at the Vatican. Under international media pressure, the head of the Vatican press office, Frederico Lombardi, was forced out of his lair to meet protestors. Here’s how Sue, an NSS member, reported the event:

The meeting only happened because the Vatican realised that their inclination to arrest the organisers of our peaceful representation (on what charges we cannot imagine) in front of the glare of the world’s media would not do the Catholic Church’s pursuit of ‘bella figura’ any good. Consequently what ensued was a stage-managed affair whereby this man [Lombardi], who during the meeting held his hands aloft and said he was without influence or power, epitomised the cold detachment of the Church and was merely intent on finding opportunities to spin.

He wanted to read out a letter that had been concocted by the Vatican on the auspices of it being a joint statement about working together – untrue and ultimately inappropriate. The Church has systematically and patently disqualified themselves from any healing, displaying a tragic lack of interest in the horrors that they continually cover up.

In fact, as I have repeatedly said, the whole Catholic Church is a fatally narcissistic organisation and it was shocking to see this personified. The lack of empathy, the half-hearted, begrudging involvement but no humility — just haughty grandiosity — was palpable. It was clear to everyone there that the meeting was pointless, the Vatican were not focused on the needs of the representation or listening, truly listening to the message that so many people had come together to make.

You wouldn’t have thought so from Lombardi’s distorted account of the meeting.

There are millions of Catholics of goodwill who also don’t agree with the Pope’s teachings and who completely disregard them in their personal life. This poll and this poll, two of many similar ones, clearly illustrate that. If any change is to come to the teachings of Benedict XVI or his successors they will come about because the grassroots will not tolerate them any more or that opponents vigorously challenge them.

They will not come about through trying to appease the staunchest defenders of the status quo. The kind of appeasement engaged in by Mr Sims and his friends last week.

Indeed, such appeasement is counterproductive, giving the propagandists the opportunity to reinforce the idea that there are “reasonable secularists” (the ones who labour under the delusion that some sort of “negotiation” is possible with the Catholic leadership) and the “aggressive secularists” who pose a real challenge to the Vatican’s cruelty and might actually force change (but who are, in some way, undesirable).

I would recommend to Paul Sims and the Central London Humanists that they stop trying to reason with an organisation that considers anyone who criticises it to be blasphemers and heretics and join the all-out attack by the “aggressive secularists” that the Pope so fears.

See also:

Irish abuse victims complain about treatment by Vatican police

Desperate abuse victim tries to sue Vatican for neglect but beats up his alleged abuser

Published Fri, 05 Nov 2010