Writing in the Globe and Mail
, Doug Saunders captured what seems to be a general sense of anger and disgust with Pope Benedict XVI in his article "Concentric circles of antipapal fury await the Pope in Britain"
While the Pope’s visit – the first time a pontiff has come to Britain as a head of state, rather than a religious figure – is intended to heal a widening schism between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, “rarely has a religious leader’s visit been anticipated with the level of dissent, hostility and open contempt seen in Britain this week.
Police are spending record sums, estimated at £10-million per day, protecting the pontiff against expected mass protests in one of Europe’s least religious countries, where the cover-up of child rape by Vatican officials has galvanized public opinion.
But British Catholics seem equally indifferent to their spiritual leader’s visit. A public-opinion poll by Ipsos MORI showed that only 6 per cent of believers planned to attend the Pope’s masses, and only 11 per cent felt the Vatican had dealt with the child-abuse scandal well.
Another poll, by ComRes for the BBC, showed that more than half of British Catholics have had their faith shaken by the child sex-abuse scandal. And, in an indication of the country’s liberal leanings, a full 62 per cent want to see women ordained as priests, a position the conservative Pope Benedict has vociferously opposed.
Indeed, some Britons are so angry with the Pope that they'd like to prosecute him for crimes against humanity, on account of his complicity in cover-ups of child sex abuse.
This is the land that has produced the most outspoken and well-organized anti-religious voices in the world, and some of them – including noted British atheist campaigners Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – have called for the Pope’s arrest. Stephen Hawking, the Oxford University physicist, chose the week before the Pope’s visit to declare that there was no possibility of any spiritual origin to the universe, a statement that some say was aimed at the Vatican.
More serious challenges may also await. Monday saw the release of a carefully argued legal brief by Geoffrey Robertson, a well-regarded human-rights lawyer, making the case for criminal actions against the Pope for his alleged role in covering up child sex abuse.
“He can’t be arrested on this visit because he is here as a head of state rather than a religious leader, and therefore has immunity,” Mr. Robertson said, “but he clearly falls under international law, for having assisted in the protection of sex offenders in a mass atrocity, and could be prosecuted in international law under the doctrine of command responsibility.”
While not stating my personal opinion as to the advisability of prosecuting the Pope or the legitimacy of his ideological stances, I would like to suggest that one reason why so many Roman Catholics have reacted so badly to the sex abuse and the coverups--and, indeed, other believers in other faith traditions who have gone or are going through the same process--is because they feel guilty for their role.
What do I mean? No religion is especially meaningful if it doesn't have followers, especially willing followers. Speaking in relation to this particular crisis, for centuries, if not millennia, thousands of millions of people in thousands of communities both large and small accepted their membership in a faith community with boundaries and beliefs defined by the Roman Catholic Church. In some places, like French Canada or Ireland, the Church played a critical role in forming national identities. Elsewhere, the Church helped reinforce local identities, in ways as various as the assimilation of pagan gods as the Virgin Mary in post-Conquest Mexico to the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to the urban missions set up by enterprising priests and religious orders in industrializing cities the world over. The people who belonged to this faith community certainly defined their membership in this community on their own terms, accepting or rejecting whichever elements of dogma they wanted, but they made the choice to belong, in their own day-to-day referendum.
Then came the revelations of these crimes. People believed in the goodness of their faith community, and so also believed in the goodness of the people running and representing their faith community. That may have been a non-rational assumption, but to some extent the religious experience is non-rational. Most of the laity didn't know, but some people did know. There have been stories about individuals who had uneasy suspicions about one person or another, stories about victims whose stories were discounted as lies by their families, stories about families thinking a cleric's relationship to their child was laudable and not pedophilic, stories about communities willing to consider these cases as exceptional and not worth attacking the Church over. Without the willingness of huge numbers of people to believe that these things couldn't be happening, that the leaders of the church wouldn't enable the perpetrators, I think it's safe to say that there would be rather fewer victims.
It's at this point that the public rage comes in. People dislike being betrayed by the people they respect; people dislike even less finding out that they let themselves be played as fools, or worse, as unwitting collaborators, or still worse yet, as willing collaborators.