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Press: Economist’s advice to the Pope is no panacea

22 July 2022


THE ECONOMIST, in a leader, condescended to advise the Roman Catholic Church: “Were this just a theological question, The Economist would take no view.” It knows there are obstacles: “The pope is not in the habit of taking advice from newspapers. After all, the Roman Catholic Church takes instruction from the creator of the universe.” But the paper is clear that the Creator of the universe has been misunderstood, and the clergy should be free to marry.

Essentially, the case that it makes is that the requirement of celibacy dramatically reduces the pool from which priests can be recruited, and increases the proportion of paedophiles within that pool. Even if the Church takes the measures that it has done to work against the imbalances of power within the organisation, and to ensure that predators are not protected, this will not, the paper suggests, be enough to eliminate abuse.

“If the church stopped requiring priests to be celibate (or male, for that matter), it could recruit from a much larger pool. If it also monitored them better and acted faster, fewer people would be abused. Whether that would slow the pace at which the faithful are leaving the church is hard to say. Regardless, it would be a blessing.”

This is is the management consultant’s report in all its brusque, blithe ignorance, teetering on the verge of self-parody. Taken seriously, though, the argument has a couple of flaws. The first is that it does not distinguish clearly, or at all, between paedophilia and adult sexual relations. Although there are undoubtedly huge disparities of power between, say, a bishop and a seminarian, as the report on ex-Cardinal McCarrick made clear, this isn’t quite the same as the abuse of children. Related, there is an assumption that priests are overwhelmingly or even largely heterosexual. This is not the case in the United States and, perhaps, elsewhere.

There are good reasons for the ordination of married men, but these are not they. In any case, it is not a panacea, as the remarkable picture caption to a dirty-vicar story (not a vicar, actually) in the Metro made clear. “He used a Henry Hoover (not the one pictured) because he said he was ‘feeling naughty’.”

I’m glad that the British press still has the moral sense not to misidentify an innocent Hoover. One might forget that it has these standards while reading the coverage of the Tory leadership contest.

AND so to more exalted matters. The Times had a plug for Andrew Atherstone’s new book on the Alpha course. He is also the author of a 2013 biography of Justin Welby, full of assurances for Evangelicals that the new Archbishop had not sold out on sexuality.

How times have changed, at least in this country — the new line is that “The Christian faith always has direct social implications. It is not a privatised religion but overflows into practical action and community transformation. . . Alpha’s ambition, expressed in its famous catchphrase, is to see not only ‘lives changed’ but also ‘society transformed’. Alpha has matured over three decades, with frequent revision of Gumbel’s books and films, and this emphasis has become increasingly explicit.”

Once again, the numbers tell a curious story. Just as the Church Times’s General Synod report contained almost as a throwaway the news that of the 89,000 disciples the SDF was meant to produce, only 13,000 actually exist (News, 15 July), Dr Atherstone says that “nearly five million people have attended in the US and many have become Christians as a result”. Many? How many, one wants to know? Five million, after all, is a figure that dwarfs the combined membership of all the political parties.

Alpha is a phenomenon — as Christina Patterson described it in her Sunday Times review. This is generous and, so far as I can see, entirely fair. “It’s a fascinating story and Atherstone tells it well. Clearly keen not to sensationalise, he keeps the tone calm and quotes critics as well as enthusiasts. I went to HTB from 1987 to 1990. . . In 1988 I got ill. People at HTB kept telling me God wanted to heal me. After they prayed for me, many times, it was clear that he/she/they/it didn’t.

“In the end, I concluded that I had been duped. Atherstone doesn’t seem to have spent too much time wondering how many of the 29-odd million Alpha participants might say the same.”

THE assassination of Shinzo Abe continues to illuminate the strange religiosity of Japanese society. The FT points out that there 180,500 registered religious organisations in this supposedly secular country — three times the number of the ubiquitous convenience store.

The figure comes from a story with a perfect lead: “The point where membership of a rapacious cult becomes embarrassing, an elderly former adherent told me some years ago, is at the local supermarket. That moment when, as a pensioner, you buy 10kg of the most expensive fried tofu and everyone knows you plan to throw it all into the river to propitiate a fox-god.”

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