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article imageOp-Ed: The Pope: Trying to light a Bonfire of the Vanities?

By Michael Cosgrove     Nov 7, 2010 in World
The beleaguered Catholic Church is fighting what is beginning to look more and more like a last-ditch battle and Pope Benedict XVI’s current visit to Spain is not a celebration of the faithful, but a desperate attempt to combat ‘aggressive secularism'
The Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI has been under heavy and constant bombardment from the secular world, and much of the damage has been caused by friendly fire. The long list of tactical errors and retreats speaks for itself.
There was the 2006 episode in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who had said that Prophet Mohammed’s only contribution to the world had been a series of “evil and inhuman” things. Jews were also alienated with a series of scandals involving holocaust-deniers within the Church’s ranks and he even bombed his own troops by making it easier for Anglicans to desert to the Catholic Church.
Other skirmishes include the Church’s standpoint on a wide range of issues, including birth control and abortion, homosexuality, moral values and the nature of modern society in general.
But all those events, serious as they are, pale into insignificance compared to the enormity of the pedophilia debacle, which itself was riddled with public relations disasters such as the perceived refusal of the Pope to tackle the problem correctly, that one cardinal dismissed the whole affair as being no more than “idle chatter” and that another linked homosexuality to pedophilia.
As often happens during conflict – armed or otherwise – a long series of defeats inevitably leads to low morale and defections. The ideological battle between the Church and secularity has intensified since the sixties, leading to an alarming drop in the number of practicing Catholics, particularly, but not uniquely, in Europe. Boarded up churches and churches sold for other use are now a common sight, and the corollary of this is a reduction in the number of priests, the enlarging of parishes and dioceses and a dwindling number of churchgoers. Many of those that remain are unsure of the Church’s future, with those who suggest that the Church should ‘modernize’ its approach and ideas being opposed by the traditionalists who believe the Church should hold the line at any cost.
The Pope supports the latter camp and is known for his relatively unbending stance on the basic principles, theological approach, moral, and clerical approaches that have underpinned the Church since well before he was born. And it is that stance which has characterized all of his public pronouncements during his various foreign visits. His more recent visits have had a tendency to resemble public relations campaigns however, with the Pope looking more like an underdog presidential election candidate who is on the stump trying to persuade the public using alarmist tactics than a religious man with a message of hope.
He is visiting Spain right now, and that is not a coincidence. Polls in Spain show that although 73% of Spaniards define themselves as Catholics only 14% go to church regularly. These are alarming figures in what was once one of the most practicing countries in Europe. But the fact that the Church allied itself to Franco during his 40-year dictatorship resulted in a backlash after his death, with secularity being a key component in the democratic era which followed. Add to that the various scandals described above and the result is, not surprisingly, that religious education is no longer compulsory in Spanish schools. The Pope made several references to Spain's past at the Santiago-de-Compostela cathedral.
Santiago-de-Compostela cathedral  Spain
Santiago-de-Compostela cathedral, Spain
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His message was combative and it showed that although he and the Church are under pressure he is fighting on, and his tactic is to warn his listeners about the dangers of secularity.
He called for “The Old Continent of Europe” to give a new lease of life to its “Christian roots,” saying that Europe should not preoccupy itself with material needs alone and that it should consider its “moral, social, spiritual and religious” needs too.
His implicit recognition of the Church’s declining fortunes and the menace that that represents came with the urgent words “Europe must open itself up to god” and he went on to explain his reasoning, explaining that “It is a tragedy that in Europe – notably in the nineteenth century – the conviction that god was the adversary of man and the enemy of freedom emerged. There has been an attempt to blacken true biblical faith in god.”
More tellingly, in the plane that took him to Compostela, the small town where he made that declaration, he took a swipe at “the lay philosophy, the secularism and the aggressive anti-clericalism” of the 1930’s, before Franco came to power.
This of course is a thinly-veiled attack upon modern Spain and it also shows that he is continuing to take the fight forward, just as he had during his recent visit to Britain, where he also used the “anti-secularism” argument.
The overriding impression is that of a Pope who instead of preaching to the faithful has now decided to accept – albeit in an oblique manner - that the Church is under threat in Europe and that his most important priority is to accept that reality and address it. Gone are the messages of hope to the faithful, the celebrations of the Church’s goodness and charity, the blessings for all mankind.
This visit represents a turning point. The Pope has dropped the theme of repentance for past scandals and has come out fighting, alluding to the darkness that shall envelop us if we do not heed the word of the Church in the future. The pedophile scandal is over as far as he is concerned and it may be that he has decided that as whatever he does about it will earn him no more that bad press, he may as well press on regardless.
It seems that the Pope has subtly radicalized his approach in response to what he considers to be a considerable threat. Demonizing the secular world has become the order of the day and he is desperately trying to light a Bonfire of the Vanities.
He will have to shield his torch well, for the wind that threatens to snuff it out is strong and growing stronger…
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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