Catholics in Britain have recently begun commenting on what they see as a growing trend: Over the past couple of years it has become worryingly routine to hear crass and vulgar attacks on the Church, attacks that would be regarded as wholly unacceptable if they were made against the Jewish or Islamic faiths.
Is this true or is it just a cliché? Are we over-sensitive? As a rather public supporter of Catholic causes—on radio, TV, in the press, and on my blog—I’ve certainly noticed the trend. There are increasingly crude verbal assaults on the person of the Holy Father and on the Church’s moral teachings—mostly those relating to sex, love, and marriage, but also those that oppose the deliberate killing of the very old and frail, and those that place the needs and value of humans above those of animals.
The scene has become uncomfortably familiar. The claustrophobic radio studio with headphones on, waiting. The opponent looking more cool and serene than I, but that’s my fault for poor pre-planning. We’ll be discussing, for example, new government regulations banning Catholic organizations from functioning unless they abandon formal commitment to their Church’s teachings on homosexual activity. Or the right of the Church to have a role in the provision of publicly funded education. Or the place of marriage in modern society.
Sometimes it is a fair debate—some challenging questions from the program’s presenter, albeit sometimes put in a rather ill-informed way (“But isn’t the pope simply being insulting to women here? Isn’t it time the Church changed?”) —and a forthright debate with an opponent who has a specific case to put, and puts it well. Sometimes things are stated as fact that are simply not true: “There were women priests in the early Church, weren’t there? Why was this stopped?”
If it’s a phone-in, things can degenerate into insult, especially on a late-night show. After a brief studio discussion, the phone lines are opened, and the great British public is invited to chime in. Insomniacs; slightly boozy people just home from the pub, indignant browsers of the airwaves who have suddenly come across this debate and want to have their say; patient members of a lobby group who have waited through the first part of the program in anticipation of their moment, dialing busily and settling down with relish to put forth their view.
Some are amusing: “Get that awful woman off the air. I can’t stand the sound of her voice.” Much of it reveals the panic of people hearing, for the first time, a worldview that shatters their own comfort zone, and this is especially true if one is defending the case for the Christian tradition of love, sex, marriage, and family. The shriek “I just can’t believe what I’m hearing!” is hurled—most recently I had it three times in a row from callers who followed each other, each starting his or her comments with this spluttered phrase. To challenge the contraceptive mentality is to challenge the very core of a widely held belief system—what one hears through all the comments is the cry, “But this is about me and putting my wishes first: my money, my enjoyment, my choices. I just can’t believe you would call that selfish!”
But there are also insults about the Holy Father. Not all are repeatable in a decent magazine. Among the less gross ones that I have heard over the past year or so: “Why should we listen to this old man who wears a dress?” “He makes me sick.” “What he’s saying is just evil.” And smears: “Wasn’t he a Nazi?” Then the widespread untruths: ‘The street children in Latin America—it’s the Church that has caused all that poverty.” ‘The Catholic Church causes deaths from AIDS.” And so on.
It really is worth mentally substituting “Islam” for “Catholic Church” in the previous sentences to get a true feel for the tone of this. Should we do anything? I do think it’s important to uphold the right of the Church to have a place in the public sphere, without any obligation to dilute any of her teachings. I don’t believe we should start wallowing in victimhood because people insult things that are important to us. And we do need to set the record straight on what the Church is and teaches.
Christianity has a place in Britain’s public life. Its institutions have a legitimate claim on public funds, especially where performing a very obvious public service—although we may decide to view such funding with caution if it involves our being obliged to betray our principles in any way. Better to lose some of our official institutions than betray Christ’s message—for example, if we are told that Catholic schools must suggest that “sometimes” aborting babies is all right, that there are really many gods, or that “It’s all about choice.”
Before American readers dismiss the problem by saying that the Brits simply haven’t any idea how to stand up for themselves, and should simply form their own version of a Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, it is important to understand the actual situation here. We do not have any separation of church and state in Britain. On the contrary: Our head of state was crowned in a specifically Christian ceremony and pledged to uphold that faith (albeit a Protestant form of it). Religious education, specifically Christianity, is part of the standard curriculum in schools and is meant to be taught in every classroom. (Often it is done extremely badly, and of course it is invariably done as part of a study of all religions—but there are schools where it is still taught fairly well, as I know through an ecumenically backed Schools Bible Project with which I am involved.)
We don’t necessarily want to lose all this, or be pushed into a position where there is a tacit acceptance of the Christian Faith as something small, victimized, or cut off from the mainstream, needing special treatment along the lines of “minority rights.” This would be an injustice to history and a distortion of the current reality. Millions of people in Britain regard themselves as Christian, most of whom would think of Catholics as people who shared centralities of the faith with Anglicans and those of other denominations. All of this means that it is unhelpful to think of Catholicism as a sort of cult or tribal group that needs to be tackled with the jargon that has been associated with race relations and official Commissions for Equality and so on.
The Rt. Hon. John Gummer, MP, a convert to Catholicism—is putting forward a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament to outlaw discrimination against Catholics. It hasn’t got a chance of becoming law; it’s just an opportunity to make a statement and get a debate going. But I don’t agree with him. If we make Catholics into a victim group, even in a debate that is really just a gesture, it seems a pity.
What we need to do is speak up for ourselves. I don’t want a law that stops people being rude to the pope, and certainly not one that stops people being rude to me.
But I would like to see a more robust attitude within the Church itself—and, yes, among Christians generally. We need to have, for the wider Christian cause, the same sort of commitment and enthusiasm that we have managed to achieve in the pro-life movement. It can be done. We need people connecting to radio phone-ins, writing letters of support to TV producers who allow a fair debate and letters of complaint to the relevant authorities when there is blatant bias. We need to correct inaccuracies about history (victims of the Inquisition were not numbered in millions; there are not uncountable graves of infants beneath medieval nunneries; and let’s tell the real story of the Crusades, not today’s muddled version).
And here America can serve as an example—as to some extent it is doing already—with its far larger Catholic and Christian base; its sense of vigor and enterprise; its Catholic colleges and institutes of various kinds; and its publishing network of magazines, newsletters, books, pamphlets, and more. We badly need information with which to launch counterattacks when there is crude and inaccurate information in the mass media; merely shouting down our opponents won’t work, even if we thought we should or could do it, but ignoring them won’t work either.
I sense that the only way forward is for us, as individuals—and, more usefully, as organized groups—to assert ourselves. The most irritating thing of all is not really the battle in the TV studio but the bland and well-intentioned comments afterward from fellow Christians who say that they don’t like to speak up, but they did think I was given a tough time. Veteran Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who waged many a courageous battle against pornography in the 1960s and 1970s, told me that the one thing she found annoying was the sort of person who would sidle up on recognizing her and say something like, “I’m not one to speak out publicly, but I’d just like to say that I do actually agree with you.” It sounds ungracious not to be thankful for such support, but, like Whitehouse, I find it grates after a while, especially as the person concerned always seems to be so pleased with his or her non-activity and sense of conferring a pacifist’s noble blessing on a belligerent soldier.
Sorry, but this is not a time for noncombatants in the culture wars. Rather than whisper support to me privately, why not stick up for our common Faith and values with a quick letter to the editor, a donation to a group campaigning on this issue, or—while recognizing that this is not for everyone— membership in some group that is trying to tackle the issue?
Perhaps, as some gleefully suggest, it’s all going to get worse, and what we are seeing now is the opening salvo of a campaign that will result in a retreat by the Church to the catacombs. If that’s the way ahead, we shouldn’t hurry there. Here in Britain we have a special heritage: The priest-hides in old manor houses and secret messages passed from cottage to cottage during the Reformation were not through choice but necessity, and the message of St. Edmund Campion and other heroes was of forthright battle, not of retreat. His secret printing press produced pamphlets challenging untruths, presenting Catholic doctrine, rejoicing in the debate. That’s the example to follow. If you met him this evening, and he asked, “How’s it going in England now?,” would it be adequate to answer, “Well, it’s all rather difficult, so I find it best to keep quiet”?