The official agenda of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil last week was to meet with President Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula da Silva, canonise the country’s first Saint and open a conference of bishops. He did all that and still found time to confirm his reputation as an apologist for violence, hatred and trickery in the name of God.
After starting his trip by threatening pro-choice politicians with excommunication, he went on to raise an issue close to the hearts of many Latin Americans: the continued effects of European colonisation. Speaking to the gathering of bishops, the Pope came out as a big fan of forced conversion, saying that Indigenous Americans had been purified and civilised by their conquerors.
Now, historians may tell us that Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors violently forced the native population to denounce their traditional beliefs and profess a Christian faith, but according to the Pope ‘the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.’ Ignoring the evidence that the locals who survived the smallpox epidemics and massacres were in no position to negotiate or debate theology, Benedict said that ‘the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples fortunately led them to form a synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith which the missionaries were offering them.’
Benedict can’t claim to have been unaware that the descendents of those ‘purified’ by force don’t agree with his take on events. In anticipation of the Pope’s visit, several Indigenous groups sent him a letter asking for support in their battle to reclaim the lands and culture they lost through ‘a process of genocide.’
But never mind what they say the Pope knows better. They were all, he said in his address, ‘silently longing’ for Christianity.
Historians and Indigenous groups are not the only ones outraged by this revisionism. Local Catholics many of whom are involved in advocacy for the dispossessed peoples are also appalled, with one priest telling Reuters that ‘the Pope doesn’t understand the reality of the Indians here, his statement was wrong and indefensible.’
But no one who’s followed the career of the man once known as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ will be surprised by his comments. He has long made it clear that heavenly rewards are more important than earthly suffering, that social justice is less important than belief in the true faith, and that there is no means too despicable to achieve evangelical ends.
Back when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger he headed a campaign to destroy ‘liberation theology’ the belief that Catholics are called to fight social injustice calling it ‘a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.’ On discovering last week that in Brazil the ‘threat to the Church’ pretty much is the Church, he chastised his followers, telling them that ‘social and economic and political problems’ were not the only ‘reality’ and that the most important thing was to ensure a ‘a moral consensus on fundamental values.’ In other words, good Catholics should stop whining about conditions here on earth and concentrate instead on making sure their souls are squeaky clean.
Benedict’s going-to-heaven-eventually-is-all-that-matters philosophy is also evident in his approach to the AIDS crisis. He calls the situation in Africa, where more than 3 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since his election in April 2005, a ‘cruel epidemic’ that can only be solved through the ‘traditional teaching of the Church.’ Not sex education, condoms or anti-retroviral drugs: preaching and praying.
The usual defence here is that, well, the Pope is a Catholic. It’s his job to teach that abstinence is the way to go and it’s not his fault if people ignore the message. But this argument overlooks the fact that the Church uses flat-out misinformation to convince people to reject condoms for health rather than spiritual reasons.
Throughout the developing world, representatives of the Church preach not just that condoms are morally wrong but that they actually cause AIDS. This message is given to people who cannot jump online or pop into the local library and get the facts people whose only source of health information may be a Catholic-run clinic. (In Africa, for example, faith-based organisations are responsible for between 40 and 50 per cent of HIV/AIDS care and prevention.)
As the head of a religion representing over a billion people, the Pope has the power to make a real difference. When news broke that he was considering approving condom use by married couples where one partner is HIV positive, the World Health Organisation’s head of HIV/AIDS urged the Vatican to ‘have this debate in a hurry. Lives are at risk and time is short.’ AIDS Human Rights Watch was even blunter, saying that a change in Church policy even in these very limited circumstances would ‘help protect the lives and health of millions of people’ in countries with a strong Catholic influence.
Back in Brazil, the AIDS crisis has been mitigated by the Government’s aggressive anti-AIDS program, which includes comprehensive safe-sex education and free condom distribution. The progr
am has also reduced teenage pregnancy, but the rate is still alarmingly high: almost one in three Brazilian girls is pregnant by her 18th birthday. Abortion is illegal but discussions at the highest level suggest this might soon change. The ‘personally’ anti-abortion President acknowledges that the more than a million illegal abortions taking place each year lead to ‘the death of many young women in this country.’
Given the number of deaths caused by illegal abortion and AIDS it is hard to believe the Pope when he says he believes in ‘protecting human life from conception to natural death.’ Unless you don’t count the lives of women who die from unsafe abortions and the men, women and children who die of AIDS as ‘human.’
Benedict XVI is nothing if not consistent. Genocide as a means of salvation; lethal misinformation to prevent people ‘sinning’; dead bodies as collateral damage in the battle for immortal souls; following the rule book as more important that alleviating suffering on earth.
This philosophy is, for those without his faith in the afterlife, obscene. I do wonder how the many Catholics who dedicate their lives to making the world fairer and kinder reconcile their lived experience with their leader’s harmful, hateful words. Is Pope Benedict XVI bastardising the faith or are all those compassionate Catholics the ultimate heretics?
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