Mar 142013

The quote comes at the end of this El País article last night (original in Spanish, robot English here) on the election of Pope Francis.  I have seen both hopeful and unhappy things written about this election.  Even though I am a lapsed Catholic, I wish the new pope well.  He certainly will have a helluva job to brace the ruins I perceive.

Meanwhile, practically the first thing I see this morning is this cold announcement on Google Reader.

Google Reader - July 2013

Not much more to say on this one, except that Google would appear to be reinforcing its rolling process of centralising all online debate around Google+.  It would seem that long-term the idea of us blogging at our own places and coming together through such aggregating tools is really not where Google is going to.  A Communist Google, in fact, as the model being followed seems far more USSR than USA.  I’ve already complained about other changes made a while ago to their unattended tool – and even suggested that we work out some way of buying up the whole Google Reader tinglado, lock, stock and barrel.

It won’t happen, though.  Voluntary adhesion to common goals was never the corporate way.

So whilst the Church wants to brace the ruins, Google aims to detonate them.  There’s a poetry of sorts contained in the synchronicity of the two events.


Two more thoughts to finish.  The next story shows us just how poor latterday journalistic standards – where not prejudices – have become.  An “exodus” of “overtaxed” French bankers becomes around one:

And that’s the sum total of the FT’s evidence of the “exodus,” at least in this article. In a population of 65 million we have one confirmed departure, one effort to leave, and an unspecified number of anonymous departees. (Who, we might ask, are they? Will they confirm that they left for tax reasons?)

Meanwhile, on a piece I posted over at the Speaker’s Chair blogging hub, we get an interesting discussion on Liberal Democrat election chances.  My response to a comment at the foot of the piece runs as follows:

I’m not absolutely sure the LibDems will lose as badly as people think. Yes, for many, they’ve enabled the Coalition – but I bet a huge number of that many would not have voted LibDem anyway. The little experience I have of grassroots LibDem members leads me to believe there is plenty of ideology which would not fit in either Labour or the Tories, and which serves to keep that flock together. I *can* agree with your latter half of your last sentence, mind. The only caveat being that I’m not sure Ed will have too much room for manoeuvre to do very much differently at all. But then tone and discourse are also important – and his would I’m sure be far more kindly and supportive to the most frightened in our society than IDS & Co will ever manage. In fact, a politician who can enthuse through manifest decency and infuse confidence through honesty may just be what our democracy needs right now.

Interesting cases today – in a way all connected.  Whilst the Church and the Lib Dems look to recover from awful moments during which their hierarchies have unfairly damaged their own sense and perception of what they should really stand for, my judgement in both cases is that these “flocks” (flocks of birds more than sheep) will not easily break away from their core beliefs.  Was the last pope, then, the Catholic equivalent of the current leader of the Lib Dems?  Pope Benedict XVI, the prayerful inactivist versus Nick Clegg, the pious teller of half-truths?

Maybe so.

The only certainty I do appreciate this morning is that corporate Google continues to head off in the opposite direction to history.

The Facebook model of walled gardens and ad-infested centralisation is not the way forward, nor was ever going to be.

Google is lost, much as the Lib Dems and the Roman Catholics have recently been feeling.

And, perhaps, in the end, for similar reasons.

Mar 122013

I don’t know much more than the bare bones of this particular story.  The BBC reports it rather sketchily at the moment as breaking news; even the My San Antonio website doesn’t make it all that clear whether criminal proceedings are attached to the $10 million payout by the LA archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, designed it would seem to settle four cases of child sex abuse.  There is talk of further punitive claims against the Church, mind – but I don’t think I fully understand what this means either.  Of course, $10 million can never serve to repair the abused childhood of any poor young person, but – at least in an English context – $10 million would I think be considered pretty punitive already.

I do – out of ignorance – wonder what’s happening here, though.  Is the Church really not of this world?  Are criminal laws not applicable for those who move in the grace-filled circles of godliness?  We hear, as over time the details seep out, of reports having been sent to the Vatican time and time again.  Someone with more money than sense then pulls out their temporal wallet and finds the means to settle what can surely never be settled.  Confession is supposed to be good for the soul, but it would appear that the Church has a very cardinal side too – and the response to these very cardinal sins is not unlike, say, Mr Murdoch’s in the face of phone-hacking scandals various.

That is to say, get out the chequebook.

By now, you must be thinking me very naive.  “Why not?” you may ask.  “If the aggrieved are happy to achieve closure through a wad of promissory notes, who should be reserving for themselves the right to intervene?”  Well, I may be naive, but I’m bloody well not stupid.

I was watching a TV interview last night with an Italian priest – a fairly young Italian priest.  He was sat on a terrace outside a bar, a cup of coffee to hand I think; a brain as sharp as anyone’s might be.  During the interview he cared to remind us of the example of St Francis of Assisi.  No airs and graces there – though plenty of a very different kind of grace.

He asked, almost pleaded, for a different kind of Church: a Church of the lay people; a Church for the real people.

A Church, essentially, which was of this world.

If the Church is to lead its faithful out of the mire in which a wider society finds itself, both politically and economically, both democratically and socially, then it needs to understand this world.  And it can only understand this world by understanding how to engage with its miseries.  To distance itself, to separate itself, to see the hand and works of the Devil in everything bad that its representatives carry out, is to repudiate all sense of personal responsibility and liability: to excise, in fact, from the people who form the Church all possibility of a true redemption.  You cannot be redeemed unless you want to be; unless you express true sadness at what you did, even as you shouldn’t have done.  But to go down the path of saying the Church is capable of no evil – and where it is, it is the acts of extraneous forces or weak men or sheer greed – is to argue that the structures of the Church have no impact on how its flock, clergy and faithful end up behaving.

This is what they said at the start of the Germany that became the seedbed of Nazism.  Structures do matter – terribly too.  The environments we construct – or perpetuate from generation to generation – affect the behaviours we exhibit.

I’m not versed in the Bible; am not versed in the religion I was born to.  But I do feel that if God existed … well, He would not choose structures for His work on earth which distanced that work from the earth He was looking to save.

In any case, it seems clear enough, with the examples I have linked to above, that such distancing from the grassroots has served no purpose whatsoever: to an outsider looking in, it would seem that there is now very little difference between a) those who, from the depths of Wapping, formerly ran the blessed News of the World; and b) those who, from the depths of the Vatican, currently evangelise the blessed Word of God.

Both, in a nasty and very ultimate place, understand the power of money to make problems go away.

Feb 242013

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s post on “Sex, horsemeat and plebeian sausage rolls (again)”, has just been accused of some of the very sins it would appear he has been criticising in the recent past:

O’Brien, who is due to retire next month, has been an outspoken opponent of gay rights, condemning homosexuality as immoral, opposing gay adoption, and most recently arguing that same-sex marriages would be “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved”. Last year he was named “bigot of the year” by the gay rights charity Stonewall.

The latest accusations are reported by the BBC in the following way:

The Observer reported that the three priests and one former priest – from the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh – complained to the Pope’s representative to Britain, nuncio Antonio Mennini, of what they claimed was the cardinal’s inappropriate behaviour towards them in the 1980s.

I suggest you read both articles before we continue.


A few issues I’d like to comment on here.  As described above, Cardinal O’Brien has been given the Stonewall “bigot of the year” award for his comments on and attitudes to gay rights.  I’m not sure that hypocrisy is quite the driver here though – at least for O’Brien himself.  In the little I know as a lapsed practitioner of Catholicism and its mores, I’m inclined to believe that the very private – and individually harmful – acts the cardinal in question is now accused of having committed can quite easily fit into his public reactions to their perceived cause.  That we see it as bigotry – even hypocrisy – is of course our right.  This doesn’t mean that O’Brien’s faith can’t lead him to regret the effect that human sexuality might have over some spiritual leader bound by his church’s law not to get involved in its activities.  In fact, if the accusations – which apparently the cardinal strongly denies – were eventually found to be true, it could only clarify his recent call for priests to be allowed to marry, procreate and make family.  Having barely survived a life of repressed sexuality, his final pre-end-of-professional-life request to make more flexible the hard edges of his church could only be admired.  Even if it still left out a substantial part of human experience.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t wish he could go further.

There is also another matter that comes to mind.  Again, I’m really not privy to the powerplays of the Roman Catholic Church.  I can only look from the very outside in and try and understand it as I might any other highly hierarchical and corporately organised institution.  But as one of the priests in the Observer report says of the Church’s wider behaviours:

“It tends to cover up and protect the system at all costs,” said one of the complainants. “The church is beautiful, but it has a dark side and that has to do with accountability. If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit.”

And in this I begin to wonder.  That these accusations should come to light just before the election of the next pope, instead of twenty years ago – or even as recently as 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI himself became pope – doesn’t seem an entirely innocent act.  And that comment – “If the system is to be improved, maybe it needs to be dismantled a bit” – is really rather telling, at least for me.  As the Observer also concludes (the bold is mine):

All four have been reluctant to raise their concerns. They are, though, concerned that the church will ignore their complaints, and want the conclave electing the new pope to be “clean”. According to canon law, no cardinal who is eligible to vote can be prevented from doing so.

Does that mean, therefore, that Pope Benedict’s conclave wasn’t “clean”?  And if so, what else is about to tumble out of the papal closets?  And, exactly, why now?

It doesn’t half seem – again, for an outsider attempting to look in – that the Church has outgrown its ability to behave in a reliably correct manner.  Hierarchy has its place, of course – but extreme hierarchy, in the secular world at least, leads to all kinds of abuse.  From the big old-fashioned state to the big new-fashioned corporation, the massive lack of true accountability – and the widespread tendencies to hide and obfuscate abuse in amongst long chains of command – are prevalent in almost every structure out there.  Whether private or public, the same instincts prevail.  Why should the temporal representatives of God be any different?

So is it right to describe Catholics who abuse as bigots and hypocrites?  Not necessarily.  They may simply be human – with all the frailties such a condition implies.  Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t require them to bear witness – as, indeed, we all should do in these lives of ours – to those things of an incompatible nature they have said and done throughout their time on this curiously complex planet.

Inappropriate acts which are clearly incompatible with the all-too-human teachings of a man who was allegedly anything but.

Feb 232013

I know it shouldn’t any more – but what people say, the words they use and the underlying assumptions such words reveal still has the power to shock me.

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, for example, has this to say of the future nature of the priesthood:

“It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”

I notice two things here – both of which serve to shock me.  Firstly, the reassuring reminder that it’s women these free spirits are looking for as companions.  Secondly, that it’s a free world Cardinal O’Brien is observing.

Amazing, isn’t it?  And there was I, thinking the real problem has been a not insignificant number of priests who – through the decades – have demonstrated how they’ve wanted anything but the onerous obligations of marriage and family, when engaging in the perverse delights of illicit flesh.

These words are almost as revealing as the following comments on the poor.  Again, we get a representative of the powers-that-be uncovering their most primitive prejudices:

Germany’s development minister has suggested food tainted with horsemeat should be distributed to the poor.

Dirk Niebel said he supported the proposal by a member of the governing CDU party, and concluded: “We can’t just throw away good food.”

A German church concurs:

[…] Prelate Bernhard Felmberg, the senior representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has backed the proposal.

“We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” the priest said.

“But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

Quite.  No solution at all.

So how about, instead, we serve it up for as long as it lasts to all those politicians, church representatives and other moneyed members of society who believe, in their innermost sanctums, that the poor are truly deserving – but only of the crumbs from the high tables that clearly plague us?

This is verily beyond the palest of pales.  If the poor are deserving right now of receiving “tainted” beef, if – as the German development minister argues – “unfortunately there are people [in Germany] for whom it is financially tight, even for food […]”, then these very same disadvantaged were also just as deserving before recent events took their sorry course.

That the powerful now argue the poor have suddenly become deserving of our charity, and at exactly the same time that metric tonnes of mislabelled horsemeat need to be summarily shifted, is a rank duplicity of the very worst sort.  One hardly needs to be an expert in stratospheric spin to understand that heavy business interests will be pulling in all sorts of favours from their meek and puppet-mastered politicians, as someone tries to salvage as much resource as possible from the disaster.  And what better way than make the poor pay for their poverty?

What better way than via taxpayer-funded graft?

We’re back, I fear, to those prejudiced Tories of yore – for they’re all the same, whatever political allegiances they pointedly profess – who are always trying to slap taxes on plebeian caravans, Cornish pasties and grannies.

We’re back, in fact, to those very plebeian sausage rolls.

Money buys everything.

It just doesn’t buy it for everyone.

Now does it?

Feb 022013

Before I continue, let it be clear: I am a firmly lapsed Catholic.  One of the things that Catholics do to you is make it impossible to unCatholic yourself.  There is always this feeling that one day you will return to the fold.  And even those of us who slide away from its ways may believe, as Chris points out, that this isn’t entirely a bad thing to be entangled by:

[…] Why are religious people often happier than others? A big reason is that religion is a form of insurance, an asset that pays off well in bad states of the world, such as bereavement or unemployment, thus preventing big falls inwell-being. Those who reply that religious belief is irrational are like those who claim that a financial asset is over-priced; the statement is only relevant if holders of the asset come to believe it.

Anyhow.  With all the above caveats about as upfront as is possible, I am minded to dance around yet another curious tale today.  The BBC reports it thus:

Sandwich shop chain Pret A Manger has withdrawn a new “Virgin Mary” brand of crisps following religious complaints.

The firm, with about 350 shops in the UK, launched the spicy tomato crisps – based on the non-alcoholic version of a Bloody Mary cocktail – last week.

This prompted complaints, including from Catholic groups, that it was an offensive reference to Jesus’s mother.

The article in question takes us to a website called Protect the Pope, where its tagline leads us to believe that that it aims to “Protect the Catholic Church through Prayer, Truth and the Law”.  The following comment is then posted by the person who apparently runs the site (the bold is mine):

Protect the Pope comment:  Clive Schlee and Pret A Manger deserve our unreserved thanks for listening to our concerns as Catholics and for acting so quickly to remove the brand of crisps. It seems fitting that Pret A Manger are planning to give any unsold crisps to the homeless. Thanks also to the readers of Protect the Pope for contacting Pret A Manger to express their concerns. God bless you all for your passion and desire to stand up for our Catholic faith.  I’d like to express my special thanks to the reader of Protect the Pope who first brought this news to our attention, but wants to remain anonymous.  One of the things we need to go away and think about is what this incident tells us about how we defend our faith in the future. We’ve been passive for too long in the face of mockery of our faith and discrimination against us as Catholics. We can change things!

As one of the comments to this post points out, the first thought that might come to the mind of (at least) a lapsed Catholic like myself is:

Congratulations on the crisp victory. Now see if you can do something useful such as tackle AIDS in Africa or solve the problem of child mortality or maybe something a bit simpler, maybe see if you can bring child rapists in your organisation to justice. No? Stick to worrying about crisps then as its about your level of usefulness.

Now I repost these comments gingerly, not least because members of my family are devout Catholics.  By nature, I would not share the tone of the last comment and yet am conscious where such unhappiness comes from.  The Daily Record summarised, a while ago, the Church’s inability to deal with paedophilia within its ranks here.  Meanwhile, Wikipedia has the following to say on the matter:

In the United States the 2004 John Jay Report commissioned and funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was based on volunteer surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The 2004 John Jay Report was based on a study of 10,667 allegations against 4,392 priests accused of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002.[55]

The surveys filtered provided information from diocesan files on each priest accused of sexual abuse and on each of the priest’s victims to the research team, in a format which did not disclose the names of the accused priests or the dioceses where they worked. The dioceses were encouraged to issue reports of their own based on the surveys that they had completed.

The report stated there were approximately 10,667 reported victims (younger than 18 years) of clergy sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002:

  • Around 81% of these victims were male.
  • Female victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests tended to be younger than the males. Data analyzed by John Jay researchers, shows that the number and proportion of sexual misconduct directed at girls under 8 years old was higher than that experienced by boys the same age.[56]
  • 22.6% were age 10 or younger, 51% were between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% were between the ages to 15 to 17 years.[57][58][59]
  • A substantial number (almost 2000) of very young children were victimized by priests during this time period.
  • 9,281 victim surveys had information about an investigation. In 6,696 (72%) cases, an investigation of the allegation was carried out. Of these, 4,570 (80%) were substantiated; 1,028 (18%) were unsubstantiated; 83 (1.5%) were found to be false. In 56 cases, priests were reported to deny the allegations.
  • More than 10 percent of these allegations were characterized as not substantiated because diocese or order could not determine whether the alleged abuse actually took place.
  • For approximately 20 percent of the allegations, the priest was deceased or inactive at the time of the receipt of the allegation and typically no investigation was conducted in these circumstances.
  • In 38.4% of allegations, the abuse is alleged to have occurred within a single year, in 21.8% the alleged abuse lasted more than a year but less than 2 years, in 28% between 2 and 4 years, in 10.2% between 5 and 9 years and, in under 1%, 10 or more years.

The 4,392 priests who were accused amount to approximately 4% of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during that time. Of these 4,392, approximately:

  • 56 percent had one reported allegation against them; 27 percent had two or three allegations against them; nearly 14 percent had four to nine allegations against them; 3 percent (149 priests) had 10 or more allegations against them. These 149 priests were responsible for almost 3,000 victims, or 27 percent of the allegations.[57]
  • The allegations were substantiated for 1,872 priests and unsubstantiated for 824 priests. They were thought to be credible for 1,671 priests and not credible for 345 priests. 298 priests and deacons who had been completely exonerated are not included in the study.
  • 50 percent were 35 years of age or younger at the time of the first instance of alleged abuse.[57]
  • Almost 70 percent were ordained before 1970.[57]
  • Fewer than 7 percent were reported to have themselves been victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. Although 19 percent had alcohol or substance abuse problems, 9 percent were reported to have been using drugs or alcohol during the instances of abuse.[57]

So perhaps the bitter accusations we often hear about “child rapists” at the heart of the Church – and which presumably upset the Catholics who complain of mockery and oppression down through the ages – are a mite more understandable in the light of such apparent abuses of trust.  Especially when Wikipedia also reminds us:

In the 1950s, Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of a religious order that treats Roman Catholic priests who molest children, concluded “(such) offenders were unlikely to change and should not be returned to ministry,” and this was discussed with Pope Paul VI (1897 – 1978) and “in correspondence with several bishops.”[6] In 2001, sex abuse cases were first required to be reported to Rome.[7]The Dallas Morning News did a year-long investigation, after the 2002 revelation that cases of abuse were widespread in the Church.[1] The results made public in 2004 showed that even after the public outcry, priests were moved out of the countries where they had been accused and were still in “settings that bring them into contact with children, despite church claims to the contrary.”[1] Among the investigation’s findings is that nearly half of 200 cases “involved clergy who tried to elude law enforcement.”[1] In July 2010, the Vatican doubled the length of time after the 18th birthday of the victim that clergymen can be tried in a church court and streamlined the processes for removing “pedophile priests.”[8][9][10]

What, then, does all the above have to do with a packet of “Virgin Mary” crisps?  Firstly, I hardly think the Catholic Church is truly suffering the oppression which other times seriously engendered.  These, for example, are the kinds of payments the US Church is able to afford today:

The molestation and rape of children by priests in America has resulted in more than $3.3 billion of settlements over the past 15 years, $1.3 billion of that in California. The total is likely to increase as more states follow California and Delaware in relaxing the statute of limitations on these crimes, most of which were reported long after they happened. For an organisation with revenues of $170 billion that might seem manageable. But settlements are made by individual dioceses and religious orders, whose pockets are less deep than those of the church as a whole.

It hardly seems, then, that oppression is the name of the game.  Unless, of course, any of you out there really think that those $3.3 billion of settlements were unjustly – and perhaps indecently – obtained.

Secondly, those who honestly believe that a $170 billion organisation cannot survive the sale of a packet of crisps which indirectly references one of its icons has to be living on another planet (perhaps one that doesn’t circle the sun …).  They do, after all (coarsely I do have to admit), say that any publicity is good publicity.  And I have to say that a packet of crisps, whatever the name, surely can’t be worse than a drip-fed sequence of – you must accept – self-inflicted paedophile stories.

But what I mostly find so distasteful about this whole tale is not the baggage I’ve outlined in this post – a baggage which the Church has been acquiring remorselessly over the past couple of decades.  No.  What I mostly find so distasteful about this whole tale is the helplessness which its devotees clearly feel as their beloved juggernaut of supposedly good deeds careers wildly out of their control.

For as a general rule, the vast majority of Catholics I have met at a personal and one-to-one level are good, kindly, thoughtful and gentle souls.  I would much rather find myself in their presence than many other people I know.  So all I can assume is that the real issue to hand here lies somewhere else – in a far more confusing place.  That a name of a snack should so violently offend can only make me wonder whether Catholics actually feel defenceless not only when faced with the outside world but also when faced with the reality of their own hierarchies.  A thinking person, whether religious or not, cannot fail to see the disjunction between what the Church proclaims is correct and just and how the Church actually behaves.  And perhaps, without realising it, there are many more Catholics who deep down feel unsure if everything is quite right with the representative of God in this world.

A kind of Stockholm syndrome of the religious perhaps?

A syndrome which drives them fiercely to reject all and every negativity from without – even as those from within continue to fester, hardly registered and hardly heard.

Jan 032012

Paul has just posted an excellent piece called “What’s wrong with Labour?” – well worth reading in full.  I wonder as a result whether the problem with our left-wing politicians is that they are too ashamed of what they do – of the mistakes they have made and will continue, as ordinary human beings, to inevitably be responsible for.

Let’s look at it from a broader progressive perspective.  Do we go into politics to do good and make the world better?  If so, does going into politics to make the world better require us to be better people than the people who vote for us?

I note the Spanish experience.  The losing candidate in the latest Spanish general election, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, is already reappearing on Spanish radio and TV with all guns blazing.  Compare this behaviour with Gordon Brown’s post-election disappearance without a trace – and even the Shadow Cabinet’s relative restraint since then in the face of the biggest deconstruction of a body politic since World War Two – and we surely must ask ourselves why this is happening.

Is it, perhaps, because the UK Labour Party is far closer to the politicised Christian beliefs of Northern European Calvinism – and finds itself unable to accept the relief of redemption and repeated renewal which Catholicism unconsciously offers those peoples who still claim to be a part of its philosophy? 

We must, it would seem, as British progressives, pay publicly for our sins and suffer for a respectable period in silence and political mourning.

So whilst the Coalition government has been getting away with figurative murder, the Labour Party and its followers have been affording themselves the luxury of repentance – at the expense of a hugely important minority of defenceless voters who neither have a ready-made voice nor the means to fashion one.

Perhaps it is time that those who would describe themselves progressives choose whether they are in politics to do right or be good.

For it would appear that – at least for now – any attempt to act out both sides of the coin is simply incompatible with the aim of forging a generation which might one day win an election.


There is one final thought which serves only to depress me even further: whilst some might effectively choose between doing right or being good, and still manage to serve a constructive purpose on the planet, others – on a quite different moral plane – might decide quite the opposite: that is to say, choose either to do wrong or be bad. 

With the added advantage that it’s probably quite seamlessly easy to manage to do wrong and be bad at exactly the same time.