Being rude about the Pope

Until I was 22 I lived in Northern Ireland, and it was almost obligatory there and then for protestant politicians to be critical (to put it it mildly) about the Pope. People here on the mainland got a glimpse of that sort of rhetoric when Ian Paisley heckled John Paul II in the European parliament in 1988. (The sort of stunt which was repeated by Nigel Farage’s attack on Herman Van Rompuy in February.)

Back in those days “Pope” was not a word used by most devout Catholics. “The Holy Father” was the term that was Politically Correct, before Political Correctness was invented.

Fast forward to 2010 and some wits in the Foreign Office circulating a spoof itinerary for Pope Benedict’s visit, involving him in events promoting things that were certain to be most repugnant to him. I could see the point that many of the Pope’s doctrinal pronouncements make a a great gulf between him and much of western society. They also make a gulf between his church and many other Christian churches. A background in Ireland makes one very sensitive to the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church to speak for Christianity as a whole, as it often comes over as arrogant.

However, the job of the Foreign Office is to keep a channel of communication open, even when we don’t much like what we see at the other end. This means Politeness and Consideration (also PC) and this document falls well short of it. The Pope has a dual role – as a Head of State and as head of one christian denomination; as such he needs to be treated with respect. Circulating the spoof shows that the respect was lacking. Even if it was private, things can Come Out in our surveillance and freedom of information society. We all need to think about the things that amuse us, but could hurt others, then, from time to time “button our lip”. It wasn’t kind.


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