Papal bull?
English PEN director Jonathan Heawood is looking forward to hearing what Pope Benedict XVI has to say on his visit to Britain
16 Sep 10

English PEN director Jonathan Heawood is looking forward to hearing what Pope Benedict XVI has to say on his visit to Britain

Tomorrow afternoon I will take my seat in London’s Westminster Hall for a speech by Pope Benedict XVI. I am not a Catholic, nor an admirer of Joseph Ratzinger. God knows why I have been invited (and He hasn’t told me). Is it because the Pope wants my endorsement, despite his appalling record on human rights? Certainly, a lot of my friends and colleagues feel that, simply by entering a room with him (albeit a very large room, with nearly 2,000 other guests), I am according Ratzinger a respect that he doesn’t deserve. Perhaps they’re right. But I find something oddly primitive about the idea that I will be tainted by association; or that the Pope’s ideas will gain in strength by being heard. There’s an echo here of the Pope’s own censorious attitude towards ideas that he doesn’t like. He believes that ordinary Catholics should see no evil and hear no evil. The anti-Pope protesters take a similar line.

In 1985 the Pope — then Cardinal Ratzinger — wrote that the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — the list of works historically banned by the Catholic Church — still has “moral force”. The Index was abandoned in 1966 yet it provides a list of those authors whose books have been banned by the Church over four centuries, including great writers and philosophers such as Rabelais, Diderot, Balzac, Zola, Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (the French rate highly in the Index).

Ratzinger — in his capacity as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith — wrote: “A decision against distributing and recommending a work, which has not been condemned lightly, may be reversed, but only after profound changes that neutralize the harm which such a publication could bring forth among the ordinary faithful.”

In other words, honest, workaday Catholics cannot be trusted to read some of the great thinkers of the European tradition because of the harm that might be done to them by engaging with ideas of liberty, equality, sexual freedom or existentialism. Priests, on the other hand, were permitted to read some of this material, for educational purposes. One set of rules for the clergy and another set for the faithful.

The Pope’s address earlier this year to English and Welsh bishops advanced his view that Catholic clerics have a degree of free speech that is denied to their followers. In response to fears that human rights law would prevent Catholic adoption agencies from excluding gay parents, he exhorted the bishops to maintain ‘longstanding British traditions of freedom of expression’ by speaking out on behalf of the Catholic Church. This ‘freedom of expression’ sounds remarkably similar to the old concept of “talking”. He simply means that one powerful group (Catholic bishops) should speak to another powerful group (lawmakers) in an attempt to lobby for changes in the law.

He claimed that the bishops would be “giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them”. Why do they lack the means? Is it because of longstanding British traditions of free speech? Or because the Catholic Church does not include a “talkback facility”; does not encourage internal dialogue; does not hold priests to account; and does not allow ‘the ordinary faithful’ to read, think, and speak for themselves?

Of course, the bishops have their free speech too — without it, there would be no freedom of religion in the UK. But this freedom cuts both ways. And if the Pope expects to be heard on this visit, he will have to learn to listen, and to trust in the capacity of the “ordinary faithful” to engage with — and if they wish, act upon — ideas which undermine not simply his faith, but his authority. I believe that this is the real meaning of freedom of expression. But perhaps the Pope believes otherwise. I look forward to hearing his views.