18 September 2010

The Papal Visit: Meaning and Momentousness

Coat of arms of Benedict XVI Looking through some of my old diaries I found an entry from Christmas 2003:

As the glory of the sunset faded, to be replaced by that of the seasonal illuminations, we came across a big gathering on the Mound. It was the official opening and blessing of the nativity diorama. We were seduced into staying for the whole service by the spectacular scarlet cape of Cardinal Keith O’Brien (the various protestant ministers were dull by comparison, both in appearance and personality).

He blessed the mothers, working hard to look after their children and husbands; he blessed the fathers, working hard to support their families; and he blessed the children.

What about me? What about the women who don’t want to spend all of their time looking after their husbands and children? What about the women who don’t even have children? What about the homosexuals?

All-in-all a heartening message of peace, love, compassion and oppressive reactionary hegemony.

But really I’m not cynical and bitterly anti-religious, as some others are. I can see its irrationality while at the same time value its refreshing humanistic worldview.

I was quite surprised to read that last line, because I had been thinking that my current feelings of affection for religion were the expression of a recent, and sudden, turn away from militant atheism; and that this in turn was a contrarian reaction (such a reaction is very typical of me) to the fashionable Dawkinsism.

But the passage above pretty well expresses my current view, although I would not so flippantly brand religion as irrational today – partly because in studying philosophy I have found that the rational might not be quite what I thought it was – and the bit about “oppressive reactionary hegemony” was obviously a throwaway comment.

Although I have been to Saint Peter’s, I reckon on Thursday I was closer to the Pope than I have ever been, because I live close to the west end of Princes Street, along which he rode in the Popemobile as part of his visit to Edinburgh. As he turned on to Lothian Road I watched the live broadcast, pictures captured by the cameraman from the helicopter that hovered directly above my house.

The Pope is Like Niagara Falls

Not an amazing anecdote, but I did feel a curious kind of excitement. I began to feel how momentous an occasion it was. Let me explain.

It was similar to the feeling I had when I visited Niagara Falls. I have heard people say they were not very impressed with it, and this has always frustrated me: I knew they were somehow wrong. If you go there with nothing but a demand to be stunned, in the way you might go to see a Hollywood action blockbuster, then you will not be doing it justice. You will be like the hordes of tourists who gather in crowds around the Mona Lisa only to walk away wearing expressions of disappointment.

You need to have something to bring to bear. You need to have a take on it. Niagara becomes the spectacular sight that it certainly is when you know how much water is churning away beneath the boat, where all that water is coming from, what it looks like from the air, and how it lies within the huge system of the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River. This is what Niagara Falls means, and you have to know what it means to appreciate it. Being deeply stunned, amazed and awed is active.

The dismissive attitude to natural wonders, great works of art, and the mean disappointment one hears from people who have visited the pyramids at Giza – this disease of philistine cynicism infects this country perhaps like no other, and it’s been greatly in evidence during the Pope’s visit.

It comes in two flavours. On the one hand there is the principled opposition around issues such as child abuse, which overlaps with the highly vocal Dawkinsist atheism; and on the other hand there is all the petty moaning about the expense and disruption, making it seem like we have suddenly turned into a nation of taxi-drivers. Whatever the specifics, I think many of these people have a peculiar take on the Papal visit that does an injustice to history and humanity.

Me, The Pope and The Helicopter

Sitting in my room watching the uneventful broadcast of the Popemobile trundling up Lothian Road, as the helicopter hovered up above me, I brought to bear on the situation my knowledge that this was the leader of a church of a billion members, the latest in a line of men going back to Saint Peter in the first century; the leader of a church that has shaped Western civilization, philosophy and science in the most essential ways; a church that has produced – not incidentally, but stemming from its intrinsic character and doctrines – philosophers of the highest calibre and some of the most beautiful buildings in the world. And just by my proximity, and the odd triangulation of myself, the Pope and the helicopter, I felt involved.

I have considerable sympathy and solidarity with many who criticize the Catholic church, both its current doctrine and its history of internecine struggle, oppression, corruption and complicity in violence. Many Catholics, too, are equally critical of the Church’s history (if not its doctrine).

But I contend that we should all, believer and non, bring to bear this understanding of the Pope that I have expressed, and appreciate the Papal visit’s momentousness.

From this background, we are free to move on to the topical matters. So in the next post I’ll be looking at some of the content of the Pope’s speeches, and the reactions to them.

It seems fitting to end with this quotation:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

(Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

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