Holy Royal Humbug

Ebenezer Scrooge thought that any festivities were humbug, particularly Christmas and anything else which might stop him making money and which disrupted his normal way of life. I can sympathise – not so much about the money which I’m not very good at but certainly about the disruption. Last week I was in London which was preparing for the Royal Wedding and this weekend I am a fugitive from Rome which has been invaded by a million or so people celebrating the beatification of Pope John Paul II. There are many similarities in the two gatherings.

Both are massive media and public events calling for organisation, security and media management; both have invited huge commercial exploitation and speculation with huge costs for the two cities and huge benefits for the private sector. Unlike big sporting events or music festivals, both are quintessentially political celebrations as a show of power and influence with a significant presence of heads of state and government with no doubt quite a lot of informal diplomacy going on at both. The beatification is explicitly religious while the wedding (apart from being a religious ceremony) involves the future head of the Church of England. Both are organised by probably today’s two greatest masters of pomp and ceremony, the Vatican and the British Crown.

The two entities are also very expertly reconciling their traditional roots which go back a thousand years for one and 1,500 for the other (as a political power) with the 20th Century need for some popular legitimacy and the 21st Century obligation to exploit all the media available. They are using the web and social media to present the events to widest possible audiences to consolidate their status and prestige in the world. But there are major differences in the two ceremonies.

The wedding has done much to consolidate the institution of the British monarchy (and for all the other countries which have Queen Elizabeth as their head of state). The institution is solid and reliable at the same time as providing celebrity glamour and material for the gossip columns – but above all, it is a symbol of national identity, culture and life. Someone who leads the mourning in tragic times and the celebration in good times. For the most part, a constitutional monarch puts flesh on the abstraction because most of us need something real rather than imagined. Along with presidents in parliamentary republics, they have an advantage over executive presidents in that they do not take political decisions. If a prime minister messes up, then he or she leaves without damaging the symbol. The monarchs have the slight edge over presidents because if one of them is a mess, we can blame genes not ourselves for having elected him or her. They have another advantage over presidents in their continuity. We all have families so can identify with them in some distant sort of way. It is true, they are hardly democratic and reinforce privilege and are expensive (but the Italian presidency costs more than the British monarchy) but for those that still have them, a monarchy is an effective way of filling the symbolic function. Plato spoke of the need for founding myths 2,500 years ago and we can allow ourselves a myth or two when the worst that might come of it is a lot of young women getting married in imitation Kate dresses. The other ceremony is far from representing a myth. It honours the man who led the Roman Catholic Church for longer than all but one pope and who transformed the Church more than any other pope since the Reformation. Karol Wojtyla had been a parish priest and diocesan bishop for most of his ecclesiastical life before becoming pope and as such he worked with ordinary catholics and the Polish authorities rather than with diplomats and the Curia like most of his immediate predecessors. After his election, he used his charm not only to engage with Rome and the faithful but to project the Church across the world, both Catholic and non-catholic. He developed the timid outreach of John XXIII (another pontiff of enormous charm and carisma but without Wojtyla’s media skills) and the official visits that Paul VI had begun. And he did it in a big way. For the first time, the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic communion was not just the leader of millions, he was actually a presence in most of their countries.

John Paul II gave moral and reportedly financial support to his fellow Poles fighting against Soviet and Communist control and gave undoubtedly an important contribution to the final fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. He is being recognised for revitalising the Church and bringing spiritual enthusiasm to millions of young people and for his contribution to ending the Cold War. But he represents so much more. As leader of the Church he refused to act when told about the sexual abuse allegations in the US, Ireland and elsewhere. He defended Fr. Maciel, the founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, a brilliant organiser and fundraiser but also a priest with two families and abuser of children, and refused to allow investigastions to be completed. While modernising the medium, he kept his message rigorously mediæval. There was to be no contemplation of relaxing the celibacy rules for clergy; along with his successor, he rejected any other truth outside the one decreed by himself. He spoke with other religions and their leaders but on many occasions he reiterated the absolute truth of the Roman Catholic truth and the error of other Christians not to mention other religions or worse, no religion at all. To emphasise this point of view, he beatified Pius IX, the man who invented the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Like Pius IX, but 150 years, John Paul was an enemy of the enlightenment and 19th and 20th C. modernity. In politics, he was a severe critic of those catholics who wanted a less hierarchical church from Latin American clerics like Boff or Romero who was assassinated for his activities. In Europe he suspended theologians like Hans Küng from his job. At the same time, he welcomed and honoured General Pinochet and then interceded with the British government for him to be released during the extradition proceedings to Spain for murder. Finally, he was a man who spoke much about peace and indeed in 2003 used Vatican diplomacy to try and prevent the invasion of Iraq, but on the three occasions during his papacy when it was Catholics who were the murderers rather than the victims, he did nothing. In Rwanda, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, I am not aware of any condemnation and sanction of the killers. His predecessors were quick to excommunicate their enemies from Victor Emmanuel II to the Italian Communists in the ‘40s and Wojtyla could have threatened Rwandan génocidaire priests, Bosnian Croats and Irish catholic nationalists. In Northern Ireland, he did issue a joint statement with the primate of the Church of Ireland when he visited, not quite the same as a direct condemnation and excommunication of the Omagh bombers. By beatifying John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church sends out a disturbingly fundamentalist image of itself. And, a small point, by disregarding its own rules that beatification processes cannot start until five years after the death of the candidate, the Church tells us that rules do not apply to the popular and powerful – a dangerous precedent. So today’s ceremony in St. Peter’s Square is very different from Friday’s in Westminster Abbey and not just because of the different faces on the mugs. Humbug perhaps but with very different messages.