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Newsline 14 March 2014

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The bishop’s fantasy secularism

The bishop’s fantasy secularism

Opinion | Tue, 11 Mar 2014

The Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, has given a lecture at King's College in London in which he launched a full frontal attack on secularism. But the secularism the Bishop denounces, argues Terry Sanderson, is simply a figment of his imagination.

This week the Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, gave a lecture at King's College in London about whether Christianity "should still have a voice in the public square."

The bishop, of course, concludes that it should. Needless to say, he concludes far more than that.

He begins his talk with a full frontal attack on secularism, averring that:

"Hard-line secularists, such as the National Secular Society, seek systematically to exclude any religious expression from the public square; as Alasdair Campbell once said, 'We don't do God.' Soft-core secularists, on the other hand, happily wish each other 'Merry Christmas.' They tolerate Britain's Christian traditions, as long as those who practice those traditions do not expect any privileges or discriminate against the rights of others."

In making his case for what amounts to a theocratic basis for society, he then repeats all the tired and debunked stories of supposed restrictions on religious expression in Britain – he talks of 'banned' crosses, renaming Christmas a 'Winter Festival', political-correctness-gone-mad and so on. He even invokes that cockeyed visionary Bishop Nazir Ali, one of the chief proponents of the 'Christian persecution' narrative. He also quotes extensively, like a star-struck fan, from the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI.

Did you know, by the way, that the Pope Benedict's visit to Britain was a resounding success, marred only by the protests of a noisy, but tiny minority? (Unfortunately for Bishop Egan, the Catholic Church's own research says differently).

Bishop Egan said in his lecture:

"Secularism is too flimsy a basis for British culture. It cannot guarantee human flourishing nor sustain long term the advances the British people have achieved, the great value placed on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual's rights and duties and of the equality of all citizens before the law. Instead, secularism is producing a society without foundations, one that develops randomly on the hoof through pressure-groups, legal precedent and political expediency.

Its ring-fencing of religion to the private domain, its dissolution of the ground of ethics and the basis of law, its amnesia of the past and intentional eclipse of its Christian origins, its relativism that fosters harmful ideologies and leads to victimisation of the weak, its positivistic reduction of human knowing to the empirically verifiable, its proven inability to support stable marriages and family life, its growing restriction on religious freedom, and its innate tendency towards greater surveillance and state control, all suggest that the Church has a crucial therapeutic 'anthropological mission' within 21C British society."

That's quite a catalogue of error that secularism has fallen into. But let's have a go at rewriting that paragraph for Bishop Egan, from another point of view:

Secularism is the only way that a multicultural, multi-faith Britain can survive without succumbing to the religious warfare and sectarianism that has plagued Europe for centuries – most of it emanating from the Vatican.

Secularism can sustain and build on the advances that Britain has made – all of them achieved in the face of persistent and sometimes fanatical religious resistance. It protects freedom of speech – having, in the main, dispensed with the religious concept of blasphemy, a concept that has hobbled free expression down the centuries.

Secularism, when paired with democracy, gives everyone a free vote and a chance to decide their political stance without it being dictated from the pulpit. A secular society makes its laws based on reason and fact, not on the dogmas of a long-past era that has little connection with the lives we live now.

A secular society makes its laws based on compassion, fairness and knowledge, not on the diktats of a man who elevates himself above all others and claims his power comes from a divine source and is thereby beyond question.

The people within a secular society gain their moral guidance from a number of sources. No single source can claim to have the complete truth and no religious leader can have the power to impose his own concept of goodness. Our search is individual.

Self-determination, within the law, is a marvellous thing. Far from being a retreat into selfishness, as Bishop Egan would have it, it is something to be valued and cherished.

In a secular society, rules that make no sense to us can no longer be imposed by an over-mighty church. No divorce? No contraception? No abortion? No gay rights? All these things were illegal because of religion, and all are now legal because of secularism. We will no longer have someone else's vision of what is the 'good and right' imposed on our law. This is not the tragedy Bishop Egan portrays but the advance of compassion.

Each person is now at liberty to find their own truth and their own 'good life'. No-one will be burned at the stake any more for not agreeing with the church. There is no more "heresy". We have laws that we have made together through our democratic parliament. We do not want laws that are imposed by self-elected theocrats whose self-interest know no bounds.

But in a truly secular democracy, religion is not marginalised, it is protected and valued for those who wish to observe it.

But it is not privileged.

It is not given the special status to which it has lazily become accustomed. It will have no special input into the democratic process – we all have a right to participate on equal terms, religious and non-religious alike.

The right to worship and to assemble for the expression of religious rituals (within the law) is protected. Beyond that, religion must make its case for respect, it cannot demand it. And it can only expect to be valued on the basis of its merits, not because it feels entitlement. This applies to every other interest group, too.

The weak are protected within a secular democracy as they never can be within a theocracy. We have seen both systems in operation. In a secular democracy, such as in the USA, religion can flourish, but no particular religion can rule. It has spared America from the bloody religious wars that have raged in Europe in the past and in the Middle East at present.

In a theocracy the weak are vulnerable. When the kind of society that Bishop Egan longs for was created in Ireland during the last century, where the Church was able to impose itself on a whole nation, it became a tyranny. The weak were exploited and abused. The evidence is there and still emerging. A theocracy has nothing but persecution to offer dissenting minorities.

Bishop Egan accuses secularists of forgetting the past. Far from it, it is by remembering the past that we are convinced that secularism is the safest and best answer.

It is Bishop Egan who has rewritten history, who has edited out all the evil that his Church has perpetrated and would do all over again if it gained power.

But it never will regain power – not in Britain, anyway. And nor should any other religious authority.

The secularism that Bishop Egan denounces is a figment of his imagination and an expression of his own sense of entitlement.

No, Mr Clegg, there is no "liberal dilemma" when animal rights and religious beliefs conflict

No, Mr Clegg, there is no "liberal dilemma" when animal rights and religious beliefs conflict

Opinion | Wed, 12 Mar 2014

Nick Clegg's reasoning behind his opposition to a ban on Kosher and Halal slaughter is inherently contradictory when set aside his views on LGBT rights, argues John Stephenson, who says when animal rights and religious beliefs conflict, it is religion that needs to be shown the door.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has shown his true colours as of late by declining to prioritise the welfare of animals ahead of religious practise. In an interview with the London-based radio station LBC, the leader of the Liberal Democrats told host Nick Ferrari that, while he wanted to see animal suffering minimised, he "emphatically disagreed" with the prospect of prohibiting both halal and kosher slaughter in the UK.

This was in response to a query from a listener asking if he agreed with the practises being effectively outlawed by Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, Dan Jorgensen – a move which John Blackwell of the British Veterinary Association is calling for in the UK.

At present, Muslim and Jewish communities can claim exemption from a law found in The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, which necessitates the stunning of animals before they are slaughtered.

Although there are differences between traditional Jewish (Shechita) and Islamic (Halal) slaughter methods, both involve the cutting of an animal's throat with a very sharp knife, in many cases without any form of stunning.

However, though Mr Clegg's comments have been met with condemnation throughout the media and public domain in general, such a view has been defended by political and religious commentators who stress the supposed sanctity of both liberal and political values.

Nick Thornsby for example, writing for the influential blogsite "Liberal Democrat Voice" was in disagreement with Clegg but sought to defend him, referring to his position as the result of a complex issue and a "liberal dilemma".

What's more, Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews claimed that the process is actually humane, the cut being efficient enough to "bring about an immediate and irreversible loss of sensation and death".

While the legislation's compatibility with liberal values can be debated, the claim that the slaughter method brings death immediately is simply false. In fact the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) in 2003 published a report outlining the likelihood of an animal which had foregone stunning, suffering at the hand of such methods, concluding that "such a massive injury would result in very significant pain and distress in the period before insensibility supervenes".

Worse still is that brain activity within calves has been shown to persist for up to 2 minutes suggesting that the animal suffers until its body ultimately gives up.

Nevertheless, Clegg's motivations need to be scrutinised and the idea of a "liberal dilemma" dismissed. It goes without saying that minority protection is a must, but his views appear to go against his previous comments on other important issues regarding both religion and minorities.

Clegg is an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights and for that he deserves applause, yet does he not see the parallel between the action of slaughter in the name of doctrine and the denial of civic rights and dignity to, say, gay couples committed for the same reason?

Now of course the argument can be made that legislation on areas like gay marriage is fundamentally different from the prohibition of religious slaughter, because it does not act as an "imposition" on religious values.

In fact, this is exactly the argument Clegg used in 2012 to justify a whipped vote for Liberal Democrat MPs when voting on the issue, stating that "if you are two individuals who love each other, who want to show a commitment to each other, you should be able under law to get married".

But with this in mind, would he not disagree with the ruling that in 2011 saw Peter and Hazelmary Bull ordered to pay to a gay couple £3,600 in damages for refusing them a double room at their B&B? They were clearly acting on their religious beliefs but it was the law that made for an imposition.

Perhaps even more telling of Clegg's confusion was his empathy with the actual beliefs that bring about the practise of Kosher and Halal slaughter, stating that "these are ancient beliefs handed down over generations". Yet those of us without a short-term memory will recall that just six months ago, Clegg referred to opponents of gay marriage as "dinosaurs", the joke being that their views are archaic, belonging to a bygone era.

If he had the courage of his convictions he would acknowledge that such bigotry often stems from religious convictions "handed down over generations" so should be justifiable under his watch.

Such duplicity has not gone unnoticed however. Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to question why Clegg had taken such as stance on religious slaughter, stating "I voted LibDem in every election since they existed. I VERY much hope Nick Clegg is not trying to appease religious lobbies" and his opposition to a ban is facing criticism from members of his own party.

Though the ability of secularism to be impartial is dismissed by its critics, anyone with a sense of consistency will acknowledge that in BOTH gay rights and the issue of ritual slaughter it is religious considerations that should first be removed from the equation. From thereon in policy can be formulated in accordance with what is considered reasonable and just from a rational perspective, without conforming to any kind of religious exceptionalism.

Perhaps for Mr Clegg however, the fabled "liberal dilemma" really does exist. Although in his case it should be called "hypocrisy".

John Stephenson a final year student at Lancaster university studying politics and international relations. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnStephenso14. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Pope's first year of papacy has been a failure on child abuse

Pope's first year of papacy has been a failure on child abuse

Opinion | Thu, 13 Mar 2014

This week marks the first anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. But as far as far as child abuse is concerned, it's just business as usual at the Vatican – but with better PR, argues Keith Porteous Wood.

At the first anniversary of his papacy, it's a good time to review the Pope's handling of the child abuse crisis, which so plagued the papacy of his predecessor.

Few would dispute that clerical child abuse was the most pressing issue, given that his predecessor's lamentable performance on this was widely thought to be the main reason that a papal election took place.

The nearest to anything positive in the whole year is the Holy See's announcement, during the examination of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (surely no coincidence) of the establishment of a Commission on clerical child abuse. A sceptical New York Times editorial announced this as "long overdue". Associated Press concluded it had been "hastily put together", an analysis reinforced by the absence of any more detail three months later.

In a wide-ranging interview in the Corriere della Sera on 5 March 2014, the Pope said the following on clerical child abuse:

"Abuse cases are horrific because they leave the deepest wounds. Benedict XVI has been very courageous and opened a path. The [Catholic] Church has moved very far along this path. Possibly more than most. Statistics on the phenomenon of child abuse are astonishing, but they also show clearly that the great majority of abuse takes place within the family and amongst neighbours. The Catholic Church is probably the only public institution that has acted with transparency and a sense of responsibility. No-one else has done more. And yet the [Catholic] Church is the only institution to have been attacked."

This short passage is remarkable for its aloofness, its shameless attempt to downplay the seriousness of the abuse by drawing invalid comparisons, its solely positive portrayal of the Church's role, its failure to acknowledge the worldwide clerical child rape on an industrial scale for decades, and probably centuries. His comments are hardly a display of the transparency demanded by the UNCRC.

Despite asking specialist lawyers recently, I am not aware of a single case where the Church has voluntarily reported a cleric or provided evidence to secular justice authorities.

No other organisation is able to maintain such a lack of transparency because no other organisation can do so by exploiting the sovereignty of the nation state. Nor is any responsibility taken in the Pope's comments for clerical child abuse, far less any contrition being shown nor any concrete action proposed.

Of course there are abuse problems with other denominations and other religions, but the reason "no-one else has done more" as he says, is most likely to be that there was more wrong in the Catholic Church than in any other single institution.

The numerous inquiries in the form of reports and commissions were not written to victimise the Church, but to expose the truth. In every case what the inquiries found was very similar, and horrific; none concluded there was no case to answer. Rather than face this, the Pope has resorted to the Church's customary unprincipled last line of defence: play the injured victim card.

It is both significant and troubling that these first words of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of substance on this topic are to praise Benedict, the man who has presided over the decades of the Church's disastrous failure appropriately to tackle child abuse since he was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1981. It is extraordinary that Francis should seek to identify with and even praise his predecessor, who, according to the PBS Frontline documentary Secrets of the Vatican aired on 25 February 2014 claims, resigned because of his inability to handle this issue.

"In the [C]hurch's entire history, no one knew more but did less to protect kids than Benedict," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the U.S.-based victims' advocacy group SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "As head of CDF, thousands of cases of predator priests crossed his desk. Did he choose to warn families or call police about even one of those dangerous clerics? No. That, by definition, is a cover-up."

I acknowledge that there may well have been cases or procedures where Pope Benedict would have liked to have done more, but felt prevented from doing so because of internal politics.

The current Pope carefully omits to set out just what this courageously-opened path is, along which "the [C]hurch has moved very far". I fear the Pope is not moving to greater transparency but to total secrecy. The most stringent of edicts about secrecy is the one Benedict introduced in 2010, effectively centralising in the Vatican all decisions over clerical child abuse.

And what precisely will the Commission achieve? Apparently "formulate suggestions for new initiatives" - a better starting point would be to follow the concluding observations of the UNCRC, which is a panel of experts. As Ireland has just found out, internal commissions lead to cover-ups. And there have been suggestions that the Pope wants to speed up the process of dealing with accusations - presumably another way of releasing into the community even more perpetrators without criminal records.

It is not setting the bar very high on the achievements of the Church simply to state that the great majority of abuse takes place within the family and amongst neighbours. The families and neighbours haven't signed the UN Convention, don't have a professional duty of care over the children and don't claim to have supreme moral authority.

The Pope's comments are reminiscent of the rather ill-judged response by the Holy See to criticism at the UN Human Rights Committee on 22 June 2009, which does not appear on the Vatican's website as "the Vatican had chosen not to publish it, in order not to 'add gasoline to the fire' on a volatile topic". It elicited widespread condemnation from newspaper and media outlets around the world.

One element of this response understandably not repeated was that:

"From available research we now know that in the last fifty years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases."

Even at 1.5% this approaches 9,000 clergy. And most perpetrators have multiple victims and often abuse the same victim repeatedly.

Whether this is one of the statistics that the Pope regards as "astonishing", a rather mild word, is not known, but the UNCRC put the number of victims at "tens of thousands of children worldwide".

To suggest that: "The Catholic Church is probably the only public institution that has acted with transparency and a sense of responsibility" is at utter variance with the numerous formal reports in Ireland, the commission in Australia, the countless civil lawsuits and criminal trials.

And the Pope maintained this shortly after the Vatican's worst worldwide press coverage ever, following the UNCRC's report.

Unfortunately we can't dismiss these comments of the Pope as an over-defensive response to an aggressive interviewer. The interviewer was sickeningly obsequious; he started the question by saying: "Fortunately, the scandals that have perturbed the [Catholic] Church's life are now behind us." And, although we would like to have thought otherwise, the comments are in line with the Holy See's general stonewalling of the UNCRC in the last two years.

It is clear that there has been no perceptible change in the treatment of clerical child abuse since Benedict, particularly since the Holy See refuses, despite all protests, to accept that it is responsible for enforcing the Convention on the Rights of the Child throughout the worldwide Church.

It is no longer credible to hope that the Pope has not been behind, or fully supportive of, the Holy See's strategy at the UNCRC. After decades of electing arch conservative cardinals, the conclave simply wanted business as usual, but with better PR. So, in retrospect, it is no surprise that the papal election was such a short one.

What could the motives be of the Pope in making these irresponsible comments, praising his failed predecessor, continuing with business as before and telling the UN where to get off?
I fear the answer is the papal equivalent of the little boy sticking his fingers in his ears and saying defiantly to his chiding parents: "I can't hear you". It suggests the Church considers that the huge reputational and financial scale of the child abuse scandal already publicly known -- and there is much more to come -- leaves them no option but to continue to deny justice to victims by refusing them compensation (or minimising it) while shielding perpetrators from the secular authorities.

The Church and the Pope will, however, find it increasingly difficult to continue with business as usual. Even The Times has run an editorial describing the Pope's defence of the Church's record on sex abuse as "irresponsible".

International rules to prevent money-laundering and tax evasion in the EU are forcing discipline on the Vatican bank. Similarly, increasing international concerns about child abuse in the Church, in the light of the growing scandals and reports such as the one in Australia, backed up by criminal and civil legal cases and rigorous UNCRC monitoring, will make secrecy much more difficult to maintain in the Church worldwide, and the Vatican too.

Just as the Vatican risks being branded a rogue state if it does not thoroughly clean up the Vatican bank, a similar fate awaits it if it fails to scrupulously follow the UNCRC's concluding observations and finally offer full disclosure of child abuse within its ranks.

This article was originally posted at Huffington Post.

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