The Vatican, the pontiff and a swing to the right

Controversy, that unwanted yet familiar bedfellow of the Catholic Church, is once again rapping on the door of St Peter’s, beckoned back in recent weeks by the odd political manoeuvrings of the Bishop of Rome.

Having provoked Muslim anger with his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, his Holiness has now incited the ire of both Jewish groups and much of his German homeland by offering reconciliation to four excommunicated bishops, one of whom is an outspoken denier of the of the holocaust.

There is no doubt that the Holy See has lurched rightwards under the stewardship of Herr Ratzinger, but this latest move – a mistake, according to the Vatican officials – does little for papal credibility, especially in a world increasingly wary of religion and its institutions.

Richard Williamson, the British-born figure at the centre of the controversy and a member of the ultra traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, was excommunicated in 1988 along with three other members of the sect.

The St Pius X society was founded in 1970 as an opposition to the Second Vatican Council; with the subsequent excommunications – all four were deemed to have been illicitly consecrated – entrenching the rift. In an effort to narrow the schism, those banished (including Williamson) were last week offered a return to the fold.

Unbeknown to the pope (if red-faced Vatican officials are to be believed), Williamson had recently appeared on Swedish TV claiming that only two to three hundred thousand Jews were murdered (rather than six million) during then holocaust. He also rejected the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

The backlash was swift and predictable, leading the Vatican to issue a statement insisting that any readmission was subject to Williamson publically recanting his remarks. A week hence and the headlines have moved; the Catholic edifice, despite having a few bricks chipped off, remains intact.

Yet several questions persist. Did the pope or his aides not think Williamson’s rehabilitation would be a controversial step and, more significantly, does the move to reconcile prelates on the hard right amount to a political realignment of the papacy under Ratzinger’s auspices?

Firstly, the interview in Sweden is not the first time Williamson has aired such contentious views; you only have to type his name into a search engine to see he’s got form. As such, offering him a return to episcopal function smacks of either a cavalier attitude or an incredible oversight. Either way, it’s a mess.

Secondly, though ecumenism has never been a Vatican watchword, particularly when it comes to Judaism, inter-faith progress has been made following the doctrinal shifts of 1960s. Indeed, one of the central tenants of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was to remove ancient dogma that held Jews responsibility for the death of Christ.

Following Williamson’s outbursts, the Society of St Pius X quickly distanced itself from “all forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” while the Bishop offered an apology for his remarks.

But what exactly is the Society rallying against? According to its website, St Pius X is dedicated to “upholding traditional papal teaching, in opposition to the neo-modernist errors.”

The website also states that “it cannot be described as anti-Semitic to pray for their (Jews) conversion to the true Faith… or to question some of their political objectives.”

An important historical tenet for the traditionalists is their steadfast belief that the Catholic Church is the one and only “true” Christian church, with notions of religious liberty, Christian or otherwise, an affront to long-established convention. They also hold dear a literalist, inerrant view of the Bible, much the same as fundamentalist Muslims hold sacrosanct the literal translation of the Koran.

Yet it is this type of dogma that has led Islam, as well extremist groups from other religions, into direct conflict with modernity. Indeed, religious liberty (including freedom from religion) is viewed by many as a universal human right. Sentiments to the contrary remain discordant not only with liberal Catholics, but mainstream progressive thinking around the globe.

Although it would be wrong to equate Williamson’s views directly with that of the Society of St Pius X, there is no doubting that they both hold opinions far outside the mainstream. The Society’s raison d’être is the repeal of the Second Vatican Council, a retrograde step for the Catholic Church that, at present, looks wholly unlikely.

What should be a concern to both members and non-members of the faith is Pope Benedict’s courting of the catholic far-right, especially at a time when religious extremism is on the march.

It is worth mentioning that, in his youth (before promotion to the role of God’s representative on earth), Ratzinger worked on the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant. Yet he remains a conservative, more aligned with traditional Catholic teaching than many of his predecessors.

Just how deep Ratzinger’s traditionalist sympathies run is unknown, though by offering an olive branch to those on the margins of his flock he may have offered a worrying glimpse.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

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Will Tehran listen?

Last week’s vitriolic address by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the Iranian president called for the US to apologise for “crimes” against the Iranian people, offered Barak Obama’s fledgling administration a glimpse of the uphill task it faces in search of a better understanding with Iran.

The closing of Guantanamo Bay drew a sharp and necessary line between the new and the old in Washington, though thousands of detainees remain held without trial in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those still flush from Obama’s victory would no doubt argue that the demise of Gitmo was clear indication of a shift in US policy, the opening bar of a more modern and thoughtful American symphony. Russia’s abandonment (for the time being) of its cruise missiles programme directed at Europe suggests that the goodwill offered by the new US administration is, in some quarters, welcome. Other countries, however, may not be so willing to listen.

Throughout the presidential campaign Obama repeatedly offered to talk to unfriendly Governments “without preconditions”, sentiments echoed in the inauguration address. “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” one of the speech’s more poetic lines, suggested hope of a better understanding with the world’s rogue states. Yet despite these overtures, reconciliation between Washington and Tehran remains problematic.

The Carter Doctrine, the lasting legacy of the Georgia farmer’s unspectacular administration, has been a trenchant position for US policy makers for the last thirty years. As such, the Bush administration, seen as particularly reactionary towards Iran, simply trod a path scoured by every US government since the late Seventies.

It is no coincidence that the critical discourse emanating from Washington started with the overthrow of the US-backed Shah in 1979, with much of the subsequent disapproval seen as recompense for Iran’s unwillingness to “play ball” with US interests in the region. This mindset of punishment can and must be transformed; a review Obama and his candidate for secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, seem willing to make. However, changing the approach of Iranian regime will be more testing.

The censure of Iran by successive US administrations has played straight into the hands of the hard-line religious leaders who preside over the malign theocratic dictatorship. Tyrannies rely on the exploitation of threat to remain in power, and US sanctions have made it easy for the mullahs to paint themselves as the defenders of the revolution against the machinations of the “Great Satan”.

Ahmadinejad, a leader whose popularity resides in his strong anti-American stance, is simply a product of the system, a front-man for a corrupt regime. According to US and Israeli intelligence Iran’s nuclear programme ended in 2003, yet the country remains intransigent on UN inspections, desperate to appear ready for a fight.

This is suggestive, not that Iran’s immediate goal is the acquisition of a nuclear weapon (though giving the regime the benefit of the doubt on this would not be wise), but that it needs to maintain its anti-western posture for its own people, as well as the neighbouring powers that look to it for leadership. Ahmadinejad’s domestic agenda must also be considered, with Wednesday’s strong rhetorical outburst clearly designed to bolster support for his re-election when the country goes to the polls in June.

Friendly relations with the US is not a winning campaign message; the hard-line former mayor requires this tension not only remain in office but to ensure the mullahs, the country’s real power brokers, retain a firm grip on the population. But why is it important to get Iran onside? Clearly the country is not a direct military threat to the US or the west; Iran’s annual military expenditure is less than Thailand – around $5billion according to the CIA. It is also well established that Iran currently has no nuclear arsenal, despite Ahmadinejad’s bravado. However, the suspected uranium enrichment programme needs to be dealt with.

The consequence of an apocalyptic weapon in the hands of religious fanatics poses a future threat to Israel (and Eastern Europe), and would make bargaining with Iran a far more difficult prospect further down the line. Indeed, should the issue remain unresolved, Israel, the country directly in the line of fire, may choose to strike on its own, sending the region into a tail spin.

Moreover, Iran’s leadership could disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, which provides passage to nearly 50 per cent of the world’s oil. Any interruption of the supply would see the world economy convulse on an unimaginable scale. Was this to happen, it remains inconceivable that the US would refrain from using military force, with, once again, dire consequences for the region.

Perhaps the best hope of stabilising relations between the two countries rests with the election of a more progressive Iranian leader. Unfortunately this seems unlikely. A group of hard-line clerics known as the Guardian Council scrutinise all candidates, turning down those who don’t mesh with their fundamentalist theocratic beliefs.

One possibility rests with former president Mohammad Khatami, a reformer who has plenty of support in the Universities. Should he run, his high profile would make his candidacy difficult to reject. However, Khatami supporters have come under increasing pressure in recent weeks with reformist newspapers and websites falling foul of the authorities. More likely is the re-election of Ahmadinejad or an equally hard-line substitute. So with no prospect of political change in Iran, are air strikes the only option left? Had the Bush regime attacked, as it threatened to do repeatedly during the latter years of W’s tenure, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

It is likely that Iran would have carried out reprisals on US targets in neighbouring states – the prospect of Iranian troops crossing the border into Iraq doesn’t bare thinking about – but also on Israel. The likely Israeli retaliation, possibly nuclear, could have pushed the entire region into war.

How to affect change in a country that so far has flouted diplomacy, including a series of Security Council resolutions, without recourse to war? This is the challenge facing Obama and the western leaders. Re-establishing full diplomatic ties with Iran should be America’s first step. Whether Iran is willing to accept let along reciprocate gestures of conciliation is another matter entirely.

This first appeared in The Daily Express. The original article can be found here.