The accepted invitation to visit Britain in September 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI has afforded the Vatican a major platform to promote their reactionary and bigoted ideology.
The visit is seen as a coup by Gordon Brown who is eager to boost his party’s election prospects in the upcoming general election. It will be the first visit to Britain by a Pope for 28 years.
The invitation was first made by Brown some years ago at a time when he was trying to enhance his position as prime-minister-in-waiting. Brown’s efforts to garner the Catholic vote are also reflected in his bid last year to rewrite the Act of Settlement to allow members of the royal family to marry Catholics.
For the Catholic Church, it provides an opportunity to try and regain ground lost in recent years as the scandal of child sex abuse has been exposed but also as their reactionary views are increasingly at odds with popular opinion.
Internationally the Pope has been met with protests on his visits. Even in Rome, two-years-ago, he was forced to cancel his plan to visit the prestigious university, La Sapienza, when students and professors threatened to protest over his reactionary views on abortion, homosexuality and medical research. More than 60 professors co-signed a letter demanding the invitation be withdrawn stating that the Pope’s views “offend and humiliate us”. Upon his Australian visit, people were threatened with a £2,800 fine should they cause “annoyance or inconvenience to participants” in the World Youth Day event. In Turkey, he was reduced to travelling in a bullet-proof ‘pope-mobile’.
The visit to Britain will also be part of a poaching campaign aimed at recruiting members of the Anglican Church which is split over issues concerning women bishops, gay priests and gay marriage. It might be thought that an institution purporting to be so concerned with the fate of humanity might find more life-threatening issues to be upset about. So eager to capitalise on this split, the Vatican is offering Anglicans their own ordinariates within the Catholic Church hoping that whole congregations will defect to them.
Groups campaigning for gay rights, women’s rights, civil and equal rights have demonstrated in opposition to Pope Benedict’s visit. He has attacked Britain’s equality legislation which includes, for example, the Sexual Orientation Regulations which forces Catholic adoption agencies to consider gay couples as potential adoptive parents. This has led to some of the agencies cutting ties with their Catholic diocese to keep in line with the law.
The Catholic Church has also pressured the House of Lords to reject a clause in the up-coming Equality Bill which would prevent churches from discriminating against gay or transgender job applicants. Pope Benedict maintains that such laws place an “unjust limitation on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs”. He claims that it “violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and… guaranteed” – an odd contortion of thinking that the freedom to deny other people’s freedom guarantees equality! We can see from the Vatican statement in 2003 regarding legal recognition for gay couples something of what this “natural law” is: “…Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts ‘close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved…. [They are] a serious depravity… Society owes its continued survival to the family, founded on marriage…”
The Catholic Church has also succeeded in getting British Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, to cave in to their amendment to the Sex and Relationships Education Bill due to be voted on by the end of February and implemented by September 2011. This amendment basically allows an opt-out for religious run schools. In original form the Bill would have meant that all schools would be obliged to provide teaching about relationships, including marriage, divorce, separation, same-sex and civil partnerships, contraception and safer-sex for same and opposite sex relationships.
Their hypocrisy over pretending to safeguard the well-being of young people is staggering considering the facts highlighted by the report “Supporting LGBT Lives” (published in 2009 by BeLonG To Youth Services and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network). This showed that 58% of respondents reported homophobic bullying at school with 40% being verbally threatened and 25% physically threatened. 18% of respondents had attempted suicide most linking this to their lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender identity.
Leaders of the Catholic Church protest that they are simply taking part in a public debate about these issues. However, they are in a uniquely privileged and powerful position from which they are able to exercise extraordinary influence on governments and, consequently, the lives of millions of people worldwide. It is the only religion that is an official part of the United Nations (UN) from which it can influence debates on birth control, abortion, gay rights and equal rights. A proposal for the universal decriminalisation of homosexuality was opposed by the Vatican in the UN in 2008. Fourteen of the 27 countries in the European Union are bound to the Vatican by at least one treaty.
It also wields huge economic power arising from a wide range of businesses such as hotels, restaurants, shops and private schools which it can run tax free. On the other hand, it receives enormous sums of public money with more than €4 billion paid to them every year from Italian taxes alone (The Guardian, 13 February 2009). Small wonder that protesters about his visit to Britain raise the warning that it could cost the exchequer £20 million.
The education system is the other direct route of influence for the Catholic and Anglican churches. In Britain, one in three schools are church run. In Ireland the patrons of over 90% of primary schools are Catholic bishops and around 60% of secondary pupils are educated through religious or private institutions which received state funds for 90% of teachers’ salaries and 95% of other costs. Whilst this remains the position, attempts to counteract ignorance and bigotry, particularly around issues of gender and sexuality, through education will continue to the thwarted. The privileged position of religious institutions in regard to anti-discriminatory legislation and education must end. The education system should be entirely run on a secular basis, funded through public money and a fully democratic administration.