I know I’ve been goofing off these last few months, but I do have an excuse. My 92-year old mother who lives in a care home and suffers from Alzheimer’s recently had a serious stroke. The result is precisely what my brother and I (her only surviving relatives) had not wanted; instead of peacefully going to sleep one night and not waking up the next morning she is now fighting for her life in hospital, with an array of tubes inserted in her nose, mouth and wrist. This should never happen to someone so old and frail, but there you are. The god that 1.3 billion Roman Catholics so fervently believe in chose to make her suffer some final horror and indignity before her death, which can’t be far off now. I know I’m expected to think something along the lines of “thy will be done”, but all I can come up with are largely unprintable expressions of a far less devout nature.
I singled out the Roman Catholics but I’m aware, of course, that much the same unquestioning belief in a benign supreme being is shared by other Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world. Still, it’s Catholicism that arouses in me the most passionate surges of atheist fervour and anti-authoritarian resentment. This has to do with the fact that my mother’s second husband (and my brother’s biological father) was a bit of a Catholic priest in his spare time - of which, owing to his congenital inability to hold down a job, he had plenty. Given the fact that his clerical career was somewhat restricted by his aversion to celibacy (and who can blame him, for Ma in those days was a good-looking dame who respected the idea of chastity but didn’t feel it should stand in the way of a good time), his church was a modest affair, lacking the vaulted roof, marble pillars and pipe organ that one might reasonably expect in a branch office of the Holy See. Not to put too fine a point on it, what should have been a basilica the size of St. Peter’s was in fact the attic of our small council house in a western suburb of Amsterdam. The altar -a plank supported by two piles of bricks- looked very much the real article, as it was covered in a white sheet of the finest polyester, embossed with a gold-coloured cross. A small tabernacle holding a gold-plated chalice and two enormous wax candles completed the display. Particularly fond was our priest of his incense-burning thurible, a heavy brass contraption on a chain, which spewed acrid smoke that occasionally billowed out through the attic skylight, alerting the neighbours to the impending start of our worship.
Even smaller than the church itself was the congregation, consisting as it did of my mother, myself and my little brother. Every Sunday morning before breakfast a little bell would ring, as a sign that it was time for the three of us to climb upstairs where Pa would await us, enveloped in a cloud of incense and dressed in the finest ecclesiastical clobber. A full Mass (in Latin) followed, in the course of which the three faithful were to give their responses (also in Latin). For example, when our priest would well-wish us with the traditional “Dominus vobiscum” the three of us would return the compliment with a tremulous “et cum spirito tuo”. So we would sit there, for well over an hour of “oremuses” and “sursum cordas”, until the words “ite, missa est” would send us scurrying down the stairs in search of breakfast. I used to hate every minute of it and, inevitably, came to hate the man who inflicted all this on a mere twelve-year old. Still, I can safely say that the loony he undoubtedly was never, ever, hurt a hair on any child’s head. Neither did he share the propensity to lie, deceive, manipulate and terrorize that characterizes the church to which his very human urges had forever denied him access.
The Lord be with you…..and with your spirit…..I was back to age twelve again last week, when I heard those words on BBC television. The Pope, who was on a state visit to England and Scotland was celebrating Mass in London. Before that he had already met the Queen, toured Edinburgh in his popemobile and done a gig in a park in Glasgow. Two things were on Benedict XVI’s mind: how to silence the ever louder protests against the way the Vatican has failed to deal with the burgeoning scandal of clerical child abuse and, even more urgently, how to stem the tide of -what he called- “the aggressive secularization of society”. Having done little or nothing to bring the seemingly endless procession of frocked child rapists to justice (another man would have handed them all over to the police) not much remained for him but to apologize and express regret. And apologize again and express even more regret. It didn’t take too long before Britain and the watching world (except the Catholics, obviously) were heartily sick of the gushing contrition and remorse that remained so stubbornly devoid of positive action. In any other walk of life child abusers are dealt with very severely, both inside and outside the courts, losing their jobs, marriages, freedom and possibly even their very lives. But not in the Roman Catholic Church.
No, the miscreants who really push this Pope’s endurance to the limits are of a different type. They include, apart from homosexuals and women seeking to join the ministry, the current crop of outspoken god-deniers. It’s true, of course, that after many years of unbelieving in anonymity, atheists are at last showing their colours and trumpeting their views. To my mind it’s a welcome antidote to the mindless, spineless, unquestioning submission to religious indoctrination that is the lifeblood of the monotheistic faiths. Had their churches and their coffers been fuller, what would have been the chance of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope and the Chief Rabbi standing shoulder to shoulder on a dais, fulminating against a small, albeit vocal, bunch of freethinkers who prefer the illuminating power of reason, scientific evidence and discovery to the sensory deprivation, guilt and vain hope of future reward that come with blind faith? None whatsoever. They hate each other far more than they fear Dawkins. But needs must: bums in pews and pennies on the collection plate will keep the circus going. They’ve got to hang together lest, at some future time when the minds of the faithful have finally been set free, they’ll be made to hang separately. Metaphorically speaking, of course: atheists have no need to resort to any kind of violence, sexual or otherwise.
Still, one niggly thought remains. Dawkins recently embossed a London bus with the slogan: There Probably Is No God – So Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life. Could it be that the child abusing clerics have known this for a long time already?