The Reinvention of Nearly Everything?

Andrew Brown in today’s Guardian writes, of the protests in Madrid against the pope’s visit:

the ability of mainstream Christianity to attract a crowd of 1.5 million young people seems to me a damn sight more newsworthy, since we expect people to protest against the pope, and we do not expect them to turn out in large numbers to support or see him.

Numbers don’t prove truth, of course. But they are measures of commitment, and of political importance. Three hundred times as many people have travelled to Madrid to see the pope as have travelled to protests against him. Which group is more important to know about?

There is something of truth to this. People should be interested in the social forces that lead 1.5 million people to Madrid, and of the wider social and political implications for such a movement. So what are they? 

Pope Benedict XVI is in Madrid  for the celebration of World Youth Day. In Spanish, this translates as Jornada Mundial de la Juventud, or JMJ as per the common abbreviation. Not being well up on World Youth Day in Spanish, the first time I saw JMJ used in association with the Pope in a newspaper headline I thought it stood for Jesús Maria y José.


The Pope’s visit has caused a lot of consternation. For lots of reasons, not least for the fact that the Spanish hierarchy of the Catholic Church are megalomaniacal demagogues closely associated with the most reactionary sections of the Spanish ruling class, or the fact that the Catholic Church in Spain for the most part was deeply intertwined with Franco’s fascist regime. It is therefore seen as an affront by many Spanish people who want a fully secular state that World Youth Day’s staging in Madrid should be solicitilously attended to by the Madrid government. Those who have taken to the streets to protest have been beaten off it by the police. Here in this video, at 1:30, you can see the police beat a young woman (to whom they refer as a ‘niña’ – a young girl) and a journalist.

Various journalists have complained of their violent treatment at the hands of the police. In this video below, you can see a police officer remove the credentials of a journalist, and refuse to answer her questions as to why he is doing so. He then claims that he is unable to identify her properly because her credentials do not contain the name of her parents, her address..he then threatens to thump her, and demands that she produce identification. He then calls for her to be placed in handcuffs.

My own feeling about this is that we are witnessing a recrudescence of right-wing authoritarian Christianity as a product of the political and economic crisis sweeping Europe.

This is not quite so palpable in Ireland, since the brute facts of the abuse perpetrated by Catholic Church authorities are fresh in the public mind. But even in Ireland, there are some aspects of the reaction to the abuse scandal that bear consideration.

First of all, in his much-praised speech in the Dáil, Enda Kenny spoke not only in his capacity as Taoiseach but as a faithful member of the Catholic Church. He used Catholic teaching to repudiate the actions of the Church hierarchy. He spoke of the ‘good priests’, the ‘Church’s light and goodness’. He talked about what the Church needed to do for its own good (‘to be a penitent Church’). He said that it needed to do this ‘in the name of God’, and ‘for the good of the institution’. He spoke of his agreement with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. And yet the robustness of his statement that the Church should not be above the law of the State -hardly a radical stance- was greeted as though it were a heroic and epoch-changing declaration.


More recently, Wednesday night in fact, TV3 broadcast an edition of Tonight With Vincent Browne, presented by Libertas founder Declan Ganley.


Ganley is also the ‘chairman and chief executive‘ of St. Columbanus AGThis Swiss asset management company claims on its website that the firm was:

named after St. Columbanus who emerged from the austerity of Celtic Christianity to become one of the most outstanding sources of cultural, educational, and spiritual renewal in Europe, which was struggling to create a new unity from the many regional conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries.

On the Browne programme, Ganley featured David Quinn, Irish Independent columnist and head of the Iona Institute, a right-wing Catholic think-tank. Also present was Breda O’Brien, a fellow member of the Iona Institute, and Kevin O’Connell, a former Metropolitan Police commissioner . The topic under discussion was the London riots. The emphasis of the discussion, resolutely enforced by the leaden insistence of Ganley, was that the riots could be explained in terms of absent fathers and abdication of parental responsibility, and that prevailing political and economic conditions had nothing to do with it.

Richard Boyd Barrett of the United Left Alliance was ceaselessly interrupted and the right-wing commentators were given free rein to make their case, unencumbered by any need to cite evidence or justify assessments. While this may be merely a stronger dose of the formula usually pursued by the normal presenter, it is striking that Ganley had been given the slot in the first instance. In one of his previous appearances on the show, in which he had been invited to respond to a new book on Marx by Kieran Allen, Ganley used the opportunity to bark anti-communist gobbledygook, demonstrating in the process that he had not even bothered to read the book. It might therefore seem odd that he should be considered a suitable candidate to present a current affairs programme. But the pedigree did not matter: in the end, it was welcomed. And this provided Ganley the opportunity to dedicate a full programme to the association of morality with police.


Of particular note here was David Quinn’s invocation of Edmund Burke, whom he claimed had spoken of an ‘inner policeman’ -derived from parental and clerical authority- that removed the need for more police on the street. It scarcely matters here if the ‘inner policeman’ is a religious deity in disguise or the incarnation of a forbidding patriarchal male superego: what it demonstrates is how austerity becomes fertile ground for an authoritarian imagination. It is worth noting in passing that Edmund Burke -who was pro-slavery and believed that the law of the market was the law of god- recognised that an authority based on fear would rob the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning.


(A few little drops of fear always comes in handy when consolidating democracies)

We should therefore ask what real resistance there is in Ireland to a revamped version of Catholicism based on a veneration of capitalism-and-freedom and accompanied by a message of renewal and rebuilding.

Back to Spain. Below is a translated piece by Juan Carlos Monedero, more of whose work I translated here.

Benedict XVI in Spain, Ratzinger in the Puerta del Sol, 15-M in the street.

History tells us it is a religious custom to exterminate those who, having a same intellectual fixation -consistent with believing in imaginary or real beings with highly unlikely- attribute those extraordinary facts to a being with a different affilation to one’s own. Sin was not initially so much about not unbelief, but believing in the same thing with slight differences. It was only with the development of civilisation that the number of atheists grew. This increased the range of candidates for execution, since as well as the heretics, there were now the wicked and the godless. It should not be surprising that, from time to time, religious believers reach an agreement to get rid of a common enemy, leaving their history of fighting for later. At the end of the day, who cares if an atheist gets stabbed by a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or an Orthodox?

Though it might seem strange, to burn those who profess a different religion is part of the evolutionary process, even though, at the same time, it is still a clear sign that it is not enough for the process of hominization to be complete to assume that the process of humanisation is also complete. When homo sapiens developed langauge, he began to bury the dead (something that no other species does). A cold eye cast over the past can freeze the smile of those who do not dare to think of themselves as one of eternity’s random episodes. What happens when the gods are everything but kind? If instead of being an explanation for evil they are its directors?

The neanderthals, that extinct ancestor of ours -that gave way to the cro-magnons from which today’s humans come, including the pope- already worshipped the dead. This meant that they thought in some sort of life after death and in some keeper for the inn beyond the grave. And yet, they disappeared as a species. When a whole human species intelligent enough to believe in gods disappears, is it because it wasn’t sufficiently developed to believe in the true god? If this were the case, what guarantees are there that today’s homo sapiens, which has given so many indications of brutality and backwardness, is not condemned to the same fate, such that those gods in which it believes abandon it and make it disappear from the world? As Isidore of Seville said, live as if you were going to die tomorrow and study as if you were going to live forever.

The less believable something is, the more pomp and circumstance it needs. To crown a king needs more pageantry than hanging a sash on an elected president. Judges have so little credibility that they need to dress up. It is unthinkable to have an army without dungeons for those who question the stripes. And the Catholic Church prefers to spend 50 million euro on proselytising rather than send that money to the Horn of Africa. Jesus Christ, if he were alive today, would be in Somalia. Though he would have been excommunicated by Rome beforehand. The pope, on the other hand, prefers Spain. And to prepare his visit, Ratzinger sent the Jungen Katholiken to take the Puerta del Sol. It could have been nice to live and let live in Madrid (with those communities who have been locked in, making the streets their own). But that was not how it turned out. They lack the irreverence of the young. A young person who does not ask questions of herself has been born old. Some of these young Catholics, after leaving McDonalds in Arenal street, tried to stop the secular march from entering Sol. But theindignados had already learned the way. “This plaza/belongs to the pope”, said the Catholics. And the indignados, looking on them with clemency, thought: “what ignorance”. Although, with the things of the beyond, who could find the right argument?

Days earlier, within the 15-M movement the pope’s visit was discussed. As is often the case, the movement showed its wisdom. It has nothing against the individual beliefs of anyone, but against a religion that wants to tell everyone else how they have to behave. And, moreover, with public money. This is, mainly, the complaint against the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the administrative successor of the Holy Inquisition). But it is obvious that there are more reasons.

In 1953, the US and the Vatican were the countries that broke the international isolation of the Francoist dictatorship, which was born out of the defeat of the constitutional government of the Republic. The gringos did it in exchange for military bases. The Church, in exchange for privileges.


It was the same Catholic Church that blessed Franco’s cannons, that allowed the dictator to enter cathedrals under a canopy, that placed its corps of priests in the service of the denunciation, punishment and repression of Republican men and women. 


The same Church that has not sought forgiveneess for the Francoist genocide supported by the Catholich hierarchy. It was Ratzinger who recommended that the pilgrims visit the Valley of the Fallen, the mausoleum in honour of fascism, built by Republican slave labour.


Difficult to say hello to him nicely on the streets of Madrid. One keeps imagining him making the Nazi salute.

After the short parenthesis of the Second Vatican Council and the Church of the poor promoted by John XVIII, John Paul II, and his armed wing, the current Pope Benedict XVI, set about breaking the spine of liberation theology. In this task of demolishing the greatest renewal of the Church in the past two centuries, they relied on the Legion of Christ and Opus Dei, the latter elevated to Personal Prelature. Do we need reminding that the founder of the Legion, Father Maciel, was responsible for polygamy, paedophilia and corruption?


Do we need reminding that Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer was an important pillar of the Francoist dictatorship? Ratzinger was the main instigator of the cover up of the crimes of paedophilia within the Church. If in democratic Ireland there is evidence of more than 25,000 cases of abuse of minors, what happened under the dictatorship in Spain? Only in 2010, Benedict XVI denounced the “appalling crime” of paedophilia. But when the Irish authorities sought to apply the same laws to priests as to any other civilian, the Pope recalled his ambassador, in a clear threat of breaking off diplomatic relations. The crimes of the Church have tribunals that only concern their god.

In Spain we have spent too much time putting up with the privileges of the Catholic Church, despite Spain being a secular country. Privileges in education, where public money is used to finance religious schools; privileges in tax returns, where one is invited to dedicate the social contribution (even in 2011!) to the Catholic Church; privileges in the funding of priests and their presence in public spaces; privileges in the funding of activities of proselytism (such as the current visit); privileges in the dereliction of duties on the part of prosecuting authorities on a multitude of crimes -sexual, real estate, banking, media, homophobic, patriarchal, racist or of other types committed by members of the priesthood. Privileges that emanate from a Concordat negotiated before the Constitution and whose Francoist character makes it incompatible withour democracy. When a group of crazed individuals who confer extrasensory qualities on the state show contempt for the lives of others [not sure what he’s talking about here – R], the law ejects them from institutions and closes, even without any proof, their magazines and newspapers. And why should the press organ of the archbishop of Madrid be afforded the luxury of calling for rape to be removed from the penal code? Why does this ecclesiastical invitation to rapists, in a country that still murders women, not receive penal prosecution?

Ratzinger in Madrid has come to the city that has woken up. The city that is telling tired Europe how it has to reinvent itself. Since Machiavelli at least, one does not believe in coincidences. Cameron the conservative blames the disturbances in London on the “loss of values”. Not on the rupture of the egalitarian foundations of democracy. He repeats, albeit with less intelligence, Daniel Bell’s argument in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), a work intended to do its little bit for the struggle between the crisis of legitimacy that the left explained and the request for governmentality and demand for Moral-Christian rearmament of the right. And one of the main intellectual battles is going to be fought in Madrid. On the side of the Vatican -and Spanish national-catholicism- there will be an attempt to raise the religious Reconquista from the capital of the kingdom. The 15-M movement, on the other side, is going to keep calling for a democracy that is worthy of the name, and that is incompatible with the dark kingdom as signified by the obscurantist, authoritarian and reactionary conception of the Vatican. The right wing is clear in its aim. The police charge in the Puerta del Sol makes one think that the government is still stumbling. If social democracy, which has lost its direction since adopting the third way, loses the banner of secularism, what does it have left?


All the more reason to continue to call for the reinvention of nearly everything.



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2 responses to “The Reinvention of Nearly Everything?

  1. I wonder about these young people coming out to see the pope. How much of it is religious conviction and how much of it is desire for spectacle, much like a rock concert, part of celebrity culture? Much of what I see in Ireland is such a hollowed out catholicism. It is a far cry from the catholicism in which I fervently believed. I was nun, by the way. So many children make their 1st communion, all full of the dress, hairstyle, parasol, celebration lunch in a hotel and all that pomp and nonsense. How many make their 2nd communion? I asked one recently and she looked at me quizzically. My communion was sincere (deluded but sincere). All participating in it believed in it. I think that is rare now.

  2. Andrew Brown is trying to be as judicious as he can in that op-ed piece over there on CiF. He is partly right but in his attempted judiciousness ignores precisely what you have brought to our attention. I suggest that 5,000 protesters get more coverage than 1.5m pilgrims because the latter is still considered ‘normal regular’ behaviour. Catholics gathering in the name of JMJ (take your pick) fits the confines of the Spanish establishment’s aims well or is this merely using outcome as explanation? His UK visit in September was about spectacle but there, protests were seemingly not met by state violence. Sure, don’t we expect large crowds where Benedict goes, right? Right. The footage from above is shocking (did I see one of the officers giving a one armed salute?) but hardly surprising for all of the links between the Spanish state and the hierarchy that you have outlined. There would be little resistance to a capitalism-and-freedom resurgence because we all want jobs now don’t we? The sublimation of almost everything else to that, including turning a blind eye to abuse , is what allows Ganley to remain uncontested. As for motives Helena: we’ll never know the motivations I am afraid, we can only see the results of those motivations. In some ways it is the latter that counts more. Part of the problem with one conception of secularism here in Ireland is that ‘we secularists’ seek not only to change behaviour but minds in that process. It is a not so subtle form of internal discipline.

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