Monday, March 23, 2009

The Pope's message is not the problem

William Rees-Mogg is a former distinguished editor of The Times.

In today`s Times, he discussed the recent problems affecting the "Pope`s image".

He says that the image of Benedict XVI as "ultra-conservative" is patently wrong. The problem is the Vatican "and its PR machine".

"On his visit, the Pope created an avoidable news story by defending the Church's ban on condoms, even as part of the campaign against Aids. The Pope argues that Aids is spread by promiscuity, and that it is essential to attack the root evil of promiscuity, in line with two millennia of Christian teaching, rather than to encourage condoms as a protection against its consequences.

This has been widely criticised as an ultra-conservative doctrine but it can be supported by the difference in rates of Aids infection in different cultures. Some cultures, and some religions, allow much greater sexual liberty, with its risks. If the Pope were to change the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, that might weaken the cultural taboo against promiscuity. It is not a decision he could take lightly - nor is it obvious that it would lower the number of victims of Aids.

It all looks simple: condoms good, Pope reactionary. It is not simple at all. All societies impose some code of sexual conduct, usually formed around religious beliefs. Cultures that lack concepts of sexual discipline are not usually good societies in which to live. Certainly they are not societies with good control over sexually transmitted diseases. The case for liberalism needs to be scrutinised as thoughtfully as the conservative case.

However, apart from the merits of the argument over sexual discipline, there is a problem of the public perception of the Pope's image. He is not an ultra-conservative spoiling for a fight. He is not a Pius IX, becoming increasingly defensive in his old age, still less a Pius X, who persecuted some of the finest theological intellects of the early 20th century for so-called modernism, which would now be regarded as unobjectionable and orthodox.

Catholics have all become relatively modernist since Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Of course, the Catholic Church has to interact with the modern world. The Pope is himself an intellectual, curious about science and ideas. He is open to argument and debate. My own impression is that he sees the inevitability of the Church adjusting to modern ideas, but wants to make minor revisions to the post-Vatican II settlement, intended to give somewhat greater freedom to what one might call Tridentine Catholics. His move towards greater freedom to use the Tridentine Mass is an example. The post-Vatican II settlement made it very difficult to get permission to use the form of the Mass adopted by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Conservative Catholics have a strong attachment to the Latin liturgy and some strongly prefer the Tridentine form of that liturgy.

Pope Benedict sympathises with this view. He is surely right, from a liberal, as well as a conservative, standpoint. For 400 years, the Tridentine rite was the universal rite of the Church. It was excessively authoritarian of small committees in the Vatican to try to abolish it. The Pope wants to restore the Church's connection to its own historic past; that does not mean that he wants to set the clock back.

Yet something has gone wrong. In recent weeks, stories from Rome have painted a picture not of the moderately conservative Pope that is the reality, but of a papal reactionary who does not exist. Several minor stories, such as the withdrawal of the excommunication of a cranky pseudo-bishop who happens to have denied the Holocaust, have been overinterpreted in the press.

I sympathise with the moderate extension of freedom that the Pope wishes to give the conservatives. Excommunication has more often done harm than good. Elizabeth I was excommunicated, and that divided Christianity in Britain for 400 years. I cannot imagine many circumstances in which one should criticise a Pope for restoring the communion. Of course Holocaust denial - of which the Pope seems to have been unaware - is stupid and odious, but I would hesitate to criticise him for allowing freedom of speech even to the deluded.

Some of these arguments concern genuine issues of doctrine or conscience, but much of the trouble arises from failure to modernise the media responses of the Vatican. The media have moved into a 24-hour, seven-day global news system. The Vatican has not.

It is no longer possible to run a national government as a small-scale news operation. The Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide structure with more than a billion members. This Pope succeeded John Paul II who was a genius at communication. He does not have the same charisma. He should professionalise the Vatican's news operation to match Sky, CNN, the BBC or al-Jazeera."