The Pope’s opportunity to overcome the vested interests in Christianity


The Pope’s visit to the UK at the end of last week and over the week-end dominated the media to such an extent that it is impossible to avoid the subject.

As a lapsed Catholic, who is now an atheist, I believe I have a right to my own say.

And I may have a world-changing Insight, in which the marketing and media industries could have a role. I am aware my Insights are not always accepted, not when I reveal them anyway, but I think I have one, which I will come to at the end.

For now, please forgive me if I start at the beginning.

I experienced one of those strange British childhoods where, at the age of nine, I was sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Nottinghamshire. We had cricket pitches, football fields and woods to camp in. We had a swimming pool and bicycles to race around the grounds. Indoors, we had table-tennis and snooker tables.

But this was no English heaven – because my parents lived in Hong Kong.

So, in those days, ‘home’ was a 25-hour flight away including three sleep-denying stops such as Rome, Tel Aviv and New Delhi.

Leaving Hong Kong, at the end of the holidays, when it was time for us weeping, expatriate children to go back to school, BOAC employed extra people to tear us from our distraught parents and physically force us, kicking and screaming, onto the plane. One of the cabin crew held you down, the other fastened your seat-belt.

I don’t think my parents liked this system but, in those days, it was ‘the norm’.  Indeed, such was it the norm, that it was in my father’s contract that the company, for whom he worked all his life, paid our school fees. At the end of the war, having served throughout the Middle East, he had ended up in India and, for a host of reasons, this lead to a successful career in the Far East, ending up in Hong Kong.

I have to admit that the little boy who the world now sees as privileged, because I was privately-educated, was profoundly miserable at school. For most of my adult life, I was able to compartmentalise this misery. I hid it away. Put it to one side. Then, later, when my own kids reached the age of nine, all these negative thoughts came flooding back. Worse, I was jealous of my own kids coming home every day. That’s quite heavy.

When I was their age, we attended Mass every morning. We ‘served’ at the altar. Confession was compulsory once a week, as were The Sacraments of the Cross.

So last week, the memories, the smells, the pictures in my mind and the inner misery of my Catholic prep school all came back. The Papal robes, the cassocks of his entourage, the hymns and the language were all scarily, creepily familiar. I could smell the incense on TV.

Because I feel entitled to a personal perspective, I come now to the various celebrities and ‘opinion formers’ who jumped on the Papal bandwagon.

Is Peter Tatchell really an opinion former? God forbid.

These people live in the ‘secular’ world which the Pope opposes. This was his key message. The USP of his trip.

Thanks to this issue, and its vast media exposure, the word ‘secular’ has attained new levels of awareness and infiltrated our lives – to the extent that ‘secular’ has defined itself as the antithesis of the word ‘Pope’. Not Buddhism, not Islam, not even Protestantism.

Pope – secular. Secular – Pope. They go together. Except, of course, they don’t.

The core issues which enrage our secular opinion formers are, it seems to me, fivefold – child abuse, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and women priests.

I have listed these five issues deliberately in the order above.

First, child abuse.

At my privileged Roman Catholic prep school, I was not abused. Well, I was, in that I was beaten almost weekly. The Headmaster had two leather slippers. One had a section of sole missing, which meant the nails stuck out so, for worse offences, you were patterned with six crescents of holes in your bum. These bled. The other slipper was full of sole (sic). This did not leave bloody marks but it bloody hurt.

I was not sexually abused. But I know it happened, by the Chaplain as it happens.

If them, why not me? Perhaps I was ugly. Hopefully, I was so unloved, miserable and stroppy that no one would touch me. Lucky me.

My view on child abuse is that it is a criminal offence and that the law, however secular, overrides religious belief. So, if any Catholic priests, however senior, are found to have sexually abused children, then they should be prosecuted and punished. They can go to Hell, as far as I am concerned.

This includes anyone who may have covered up such behaviour. As I know from my own experience of litigation, covering up a criminal offence makes you an ‘accessory to the crime’. Not that you necessarily get punished, of course. But you should be.

Anyway, last week, “Pope Benedict XVI admitted that the Catholic Church was too slow to tackle paedophilia by priests….(and)… apologised for the ‘unspeakable crimes’ committed by Catholic priests who sexually abused children”. You can’t say it clearer than that. However, as a lapsed Catholic, I can accept the apology but I am afraid you’ve still lost me.

Contraception. I do not agree with the Roman Catholic stance on this issue. In secular Britain, I believe this is an area of individual choice which most of us are capable of making. In other countries, without the benefit of wonderful health and educational systems such as ours, and where different values pertain, I think the Catholic position is positively dangerous and would argue against it. As a lapsed Catholic, this alone would keep me from the flock.

Abortion. This follows contraception or, rather, it doesn’t. Ditto the above.

Homosexuality. Sorry, not my bag, but I don’t agree. Live and let live.

Women priests. Of course there should be. No brainer.

So I am sorry your Holiness, you have lost me. I am lapsed and staying lapsed.

But I have an Insight that might encourage me and many other atheists and non-Christians (not, note, non-Catholics but non-Christians) change our atheist lives in our secular society. 

Last week, you may even have taken the first couple of steps to executing the objective I am about to propose.

For the first time, you shook hands with an woman priest in Westminster Abbey.

For the first time, you visited the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace.

For the first time, you made an official Papal visit to Britain.

As supreme pontiff, pontifex maximus and vicar of Christ, you had a one-to-one chat with our Queen, defender of the faith and supreme governor of the Church of England.

So here’s the deal.

Why don’t you guys get together and unite all the Christian factions together to create one united Christian faith?

When I was young, I vowed I would never return to the Church until you all achieve this. If the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Lutherans and other Christian churches cannot join together, then why should I rejoin you?

I am very sad you cannot show this leadership. Frankly, if Northern Ireland can overcome their problems, why can’t you guys get back together? You are the preachers.

Up and down this country, at our happiest and our saddest moments, when we are baptised or marry or mourn, we go to Church. But then, when we walk down your aisles, out of the doors of your historic churches and into your evocative graveyards to the sound of the most beautiful, resonant, moving music, you lose us.

I am the son of a Catholic mother and an Anglican father. My wife is Lutheran. We were married in a wonderful Cathedral in provincial Sweden.

And do you know what? Behind the main altar were three smaller Chapels and one of them was dedicated to Thomas a Becket. Like my family, he came from Kent.

Years later, one Christmas, as part of a school project, one of my children and I set out to discover why this English saint had been remembered in this way in the middle of Sweden. We discovered that Becket had fled to France and spent two years in the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny. There he made such an impression on some travelling Swedish priests that, when they heard of his later fate, they dedicated a Chapel in Linkoping Cathedral to his memory. This was in the 12th Century, hundreds of years before Henry VIII wanted his divorce.

Now, in the 21st Century, wouldn’t it be great if Christianity could unite and agree one set of values and transmit a modern, relevant social and moral message that would encourage us all back to Church to meet once more as local communities?

Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than pontificating, you did this on a consensual basis?

And wouldn’t it be easy for you to get together and work out a way of communicating the Christian values you espouse? A message that, by defining the true Christian spirit and the way we live our lives, we could all buy into and follow together as one Christian Church.

Then you could use your combined wealth to raise a budget to transmit this message using all the technological tools and human skills that we currently use to market cereal and washing powder to influence the behavioural values that unite our society rather than divide us?

That, Your Holiness, would make your trip to Britain, and your cup of tea with the Queen, really worthwhile.

I believe, if he were to come back down to Earth, this is a brief Christ himself might set.

Until then, I fear that all the leaders of all the Christian churches are all too human to see the bigger picture and achieve this.

You have too many palaces, too much status, too much property, too much money, too much pride, too much baggage and too much to lose.

Ultimately, you have too many vested interests.


About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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