Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Papal bull

The left should praise the Lord for the Pope, says Terry Eagleton. The Catholic church is the best recruiting sergeant we could hope for

September 16, 2010
7 min read

When the Pope lands at Heathrow, he should be greeted on the tarmac by representatives of the British left reading him a loyal address from a lovingly illuminated scroll. The address should express the left’s undying gratitude for the huge numbers of atheists, materialists, dissidents, revolutionaries, assorted deadlegs and drop outs created by one of the nastiest authoritarian outfits on the planet, namely the Catholic church.

It’s true that creating atheists and radicals was never the Vatican’s intention. But it has certainly been among its major effects and we would be churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth. The Catholic church has done more than Richard Dawkins, Ian Paisley, humanist societies and Marxist materialists put together to discredit the whole idea of organised religion, and there will be many who feel that it deserves our heartfelt thanks for its endeavours.

The British left has also numbered some prominent lapsed Catholics among its members, which is not as surprising as it may seem.

The category of ‘lapsed’ Catholic, by the way, is just a cunning ruse on the part of the church to prevent anyone from ever leaving it. Rather than being expelled or resigning, you are simply shifted from one category to another, like someone who becomes a country rather than town member of the Athenaeum. In fact, in some respects ‘lapsed’ is a higher distinction than ‘loyal’ (think of Graham Greene), though not quite as high as ‘saint’.

As far as saints go, there is a problem in Anglo-Saxon nations such as Britain. When someone is up for canonisation (ie being made a saint), they need to have performed at least one miracle from beyond the grave in order to make the grade; and in the geographical distribution of miracles, Britain comes dismally low on the scale. This is because we are a godless, sceptical bunch compared, say, to Spaniards and Italians, where the miracle count, like the number of sunny days, is a good deal higher.

Cardinal Newman is currently up for canonisation, but it is proving embarrassingly difficult to scrape together the requisite number of miracles. The commonsensical British simply aren’t superstitious enough. There are far fewer weeping statues, bleeding icons, roses that never wither and old ladies whose cancerous tumours disappear without trace on kissing a portrait of Pope Pius XII (the one who fervently supported the Nazis). As one moves northwards from Naples to Newcastle, the problem becomes glaringly apparent. Perhaps the Pope can fix this spot of local difficulty when he arrives.

Ex-papist left

So, to resume, why is it not surprising that so many leftists should be former papists?

For one thing, Catholicism teaches you to think in communal, institutional terms. Liberal or Protestant individualism is alien to this. You just don’t grow up thinking in those terms. It is also true that the great majority of Catholics in Britain stem from working-class Irish immigrant stock, and are thus more likely to incline to the political left than, say, middle-class Anglicans.

For another thing, Catholics are properly unafraid of rational analysis. They are taught that reason is not at odds with faith, and they believe, unlike postmodernists, that the truth is vitally important. This is why, like leftists and unlike liberals, they are not particularly nervous of ideas and doctrines. They see them simply as a distillation of what millions of common men and women over the centuries have found themselves able to believe.

Finally, the Catholic church has a vigorous tradition of social thought, some of it anti-capitalist. You are urged to think of religious faith in terms of the practical social world, not in terms of some individual inner light.

It’s no accident, for example, that so many nurses, medics and community workers in the global South are Irish in background. The Irish Catholic church has a vile and disgusting record of child abuse yet an honourable one of nursing and educating the sick and deprived in the non-European world. This tradition of sending out missionaries dates back to the early Middle Ages, and Bono and Bob Geldof are among its latest examples. Both men are self-advertising versions of Irish missionaries. That they both hail from Dublin may be coincidental, but I don’t think so. They would have attended schools that drummed the notion of social conscience and responsibility into their skulls.

Making priests marry

One suggestion for tackling the child abuse problem is that when the Pope arrives in Britain, he should hold public ceremonies in which thousands of Catholic priests are forcibly, simultaneously married, as the Moonies do. Those who refuse to be married should be poisoned on the spot. Gay members of the clergy would be allowed to opt for civil partnerships, but nobody could remain celibate. The marriages, to be sure, would be rather hard on the women involved, so each wife would receive some modest compensation (let’s say £10 million apiece) by the Vatican selling off its treasures under pain of being dissolved.

This is not in fact the smartest of ideas. Most women would rather marry a badger than a Benedictine, and are curiously averse to being coerced into marriage, even for a constructive end. In any case, this wouldn’t end the abuse of small children. For one thing, quite a few Catholic clergy ignore their vow of celibacy. For another thing, it is not celibacy but paedophilia that drives these men to commit the crimes they do.

Here, perhaps, we should pause for a moment to take thought. Why have so few commentators raised the question of why paedophilia is so rampant among the Catholic clergy? Why don’t you find the same fearful epidemic of it in say, Lloyds Bank or the BBC?

It’s true that working as a priest in a parish gives paedophiles some access to children, but this can be much exaggerated. Clerics don’t spend all their time rehearsing boys’ choirs or visiting the junior school. It’s also true that the clerical collar traditionally conferred on these men a status above suspicion. But this is the exact reverse of the truth today. In Ireland nowadays, some people might cross the street when they see a priest approaching. In the old days it used to be a British landlord.

The point, surely, is that training of Catholic priests has been traditionally designed to ensure their sexual infantilisation. It is the kind of background geared to churning out young men incapable of grown-up relationships, who then turn to children instead. Children don’t make mature emotional demands you can’t fulfill.

Fortunately, this problem looks like solving itself in the long run. Last year, the number of clerical students in Ireland who were ordained to the priesthood was in single figures. Some decades ago it would have been in the hundreds. The Catholic priesthood is dying on its feet, and the latest scandals to afflict it are likely to help it to its grave. At one level, the church will no doubt patch up the situation and bounce back. At another, deeper level, it will never recover. And there are a great many men and women, some of them permanently traumatised, whose only prayer will be one of gratitude for that fact.

Terry Eagleton’s latest book is On Evil (Yale University Press)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite