We are currently in, I suppose, one of those joyful intermissions – which the late Christopher Hitchens once hoped would last forever – in which the world does not have a pope. This, of course, is not quite true, but until that famous miasma rises up over the Vatican, the planet we humbly call home feels like a place with clearer views. I mean, of course, moral views, the ones that really matter and can’t be charged to a credit card whilst on holiday.
Amongst other things, the resignation of Ratzinger has prompted me to think about the thoughtless regularity with which the concepts of religion and morality are thrust together, as though they are mutually dependent, symbiotic salvations in an increasingly godless age. There is a strange obstinacy – a kind of sleight of hand, even – that goes on in the Australian media, perpetually drawing together these two ideas which sit, in actuality, more like chalk and cheese than two peas in a pod. Have they, after all, forgotten the bishops who helped Nazi war criminals escape post-war Germany? That the Spanish clergy murdered countless leftists and innocents during that country’s holocaustic civil war? That I might be stabbed or shot if I uploaded an illustration of the prophet Mohammed with this blog, that the Catholic hierarchy in this country might arrange my safe transfer to a parish in New Zealand if I told them I had been raping children for thirty years? Let these drops in the ocean, plucked from the top of my head, suffice.
The ABC and the Australian are, at the best of times, uneasy bedfellows. Anti-Aunty shtick appears in the Oz with monotonous constancy these days. Media Watch frequently and justifiably fires back, though with far less belligerence than the Australian’s notoriously prickly editorials. The occasions on which these two oppositional juggernauts find common ground are rare, and unseemly. That they have done so on the matter of the resignation of the Pope should not surprise or disgust and yet it does.
On Wednesday the 13th of February, the Australian ran predictably obsequious pieces on Pope Benedict XVI. Tess Livingstone called him ‘a man of grace and wisdom’, whatever that means, whilst that edition’s editorial preposterously lionised him as ‘an intellectual leader and student of the sublime’ (whatever that means). Bizarrely, the same editorial singled out the ABC for criticism, for its ‘shallow commentary... symptomatic of the obsessions of an insider class that struggles with conservatism, faith and pluralism.’
Perhaps the Oz, like me, was unprepared for the attack dog antics of the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics unit, Scott Stephens. The mellifluent Stephens is a religious apologist par excellence, a pseudo-intellectual obscurantist devoted to civil discourse except, it seems, when even uncontroversial claims about religious crimes are put to him. The straight-talking Peter FitzSimons, when he had the temerity to suggest on a recent episode of ABC’s The Drum that the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the child sexual abuse crisis had been inadequate, was thundered at by Stephens, who called his point of view ‘stupid.’ FitzSimons then challenged Stephens to refute claims made by Christopher Hitchens in 2010, and rerun by the Sydney Morning Herald on the occasion of Pope Benedict’s resignation, that Ratzinger was both individually and institutionally responsible for covering up acts of child sexual abuse within the Church. All Stephens could muster in reply was to say that Hitchens had been ‘wrong.’ Presumably the SMH’s editors didn’t think so because they put it on the front page. One imagines that, had FitzSimons’ and Stephens’ positions been reversed, the Australian would have sanctioned yet another frothy-mouthed editorial damning the ABC’s failure to meet its own standards of impartiality. The newspaper was similarly mute on Stephens’ improper tweet likening the PM to a ‘condescending primary school teacher’, rightly assessed (amongst other similarly opinionated tweets) by Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes to be a breach of the national broadcaster’s guidelines. So much for ‘ABC groupthink.’
In reality, the Australian ought to have shown more gratitude to have an ideological compatriot at work within the ABC, prosecuting a virtually identical case for the Pope’s legacy. Perhaps, on the other hand, the irony that Stephens was, for a change, genuinely contemptuous of the ABC’s impartiality remit was not lost on the paper’s editors. Broadly speaking, the Stephens/Oz take on the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI was this: a highly intelligent and cultured theologian, the 85 year-old had the humility to resign because of ill-health. He confronted the child abuse scandal head-on and, in all other ways, reinvigorated the Catholic Church during difficult times.
The Hitchens article referred to above would make as good a starting place as any from which to gauge the full blinkeredness of these tributes, but there is no shortage of candidates. Geoffrey Robertson’s The Case of the Pope is one such contender, a typically thorough (and devastating) examination of Ratzinger’s accountability for the Vatican’s ongoing abuse of human rights. Robertson views the Pope as, in a very real sense, the head of a criminal conspiracy to protect paedophile priests. The Australian’s assertion that Benedict’s approach to this issue was ‘hard-headed and forensic’ is consummate twaddle. That the child sex abuse crisis is deemed deserving of no more than a single short paragraph in the same editorial is equally worthy of contempt. The seemingly permanent scandal of the Vatican’s murderous opposition to the use of condoms in HIV-stricken Africa doesn’t even rate a mention. What does? The first papal Twitter message, presented as evidence that Benedict was ‘not deaf to the demands of the modern world.’
It must be asked, as well, why no mention was made, either by Stephens or the Australian, of the internal ructions which have plagued the Vatican in recent times. Surely the controversy surrounding the leaking of papal correspondence – said by the Guardian to depict the Vatican as ‘a seething hotbed of intrigue and infighting’ – is pertinent to Ratzinger’s legacy? No mention, either, of credible claims that a ‘gay network’ exists inside the Holy See, seemingly at odds with papal doctrine which instructs that homosexual sex is ‘intrinsically disordered.’ It has even been suggested – credibly, I believe – that Pope Benedict’s resignation was less to do with his ‘humility’ or ‘selflessness’ than his despair at the Vatican’s internal divisions (he is on record as saying these divisions ‘marred the face of the church.’)
What is it that prohibits newspapers like the Australian, and ABC commentators like Scott Stephens, from offering clear- (as opposed to dewy-) eyed assessments of Pope Benedict XVI? Perhaps, in Stephens, there is more than a little self-justification at play. The Australian, on the other hand, can scarcely report the national forecast these days without poisonous ideological bias. It has politicised the pope in much the same way it has climate change and refugees, seeking to use whoever occupies the position as another warrior in its interminable ‘culture wars.’ It can see nothing in Pope Benedict, or any other pontiff for that matter, that it cannot see in its own reflection.
It is truly nauseating that the same outlets which greeted Pope Benedict’s departure with fulsome praise and sycophantic assessments of his time as pontiff met last year’s establishment of a Royal Commission into church child sex abuse with, at best, mealy-mouthed caution. This is sheer moral bankruptcy. When will this country’s self-proclaimed ‘interrogators of power’ stop fawning and start doing some actual journalism, and when will the national broadcaster end the fantastical and unwarranted tribute to religion’s value in the public debate about morality that its Religion and Ethics unit represents?