An unholy marriage

Catholic reactionaries and secular miserabilists have joined forces to spoil our fun.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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I remember a time when the Catholic Church tried to spoil our fun by conjuring up the spectre of God’s displeasure. There was that Catholic priest who told us that masturbation is a sin and reminded us that ‘God is always watching’ (cue gags about God being a peeping Tom); the nuns who ran our school never failed to put the dampers on the Christmas holiday by incessantly telling us it was about the baby Jesus not Star Wars toys, selection boxes and ‘stuffing your faces with meat’ (that’s a direct quote). Whatever we did, whatever we said, God, it seemed, was always displeased.

Today the Catholic Church is still in the killjoy business, still banging on about the corruptibility of humans and how we must confess our sins if we want to be saved. Only now the priests rain on our parade less by evoking a pissed-off God than by borrowing and stealing from secular miserabilists. They have become parasitical on the fear and angst of contemporary society as a way of putting the wind up humanity and keeping us in our place. It doesn’t say much for modern-day secularism when even Christian reactionaries can rip off its script.

Take Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas message: it was not so much the word of God as the word of scared and meek Man. It could have been written by any doom-mongering headline writer in the secular world or green-leaning author who thinks humanity has gone too far. ‘The men and women in our technological age risk becoming victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements, ending up in spiritual barrenness and emptiness of heart’, said Benedict (1).

Sound familiar? He got that line straight from the mainstream, where many feel increasingly uncomfortable with humanity’s ‘intellectual and technical achievements’ and reckon we have become the ‘victims’ of our own success (or ‘arrogance’, as they like to call it) – whether it’s by giving rise to global warming through excessive factory-building and consumption, or becoming techie addicts by developing the Internet.

Benedict went on to warn about the ‘menace of terrorism’ and the ‘pandemics and environmental destruction which threaten the future of our planet’ (2). It reads like a rundown of the Top 10 fears that have rattled our increasingly frail and risk-averse societies this past year. Popes used to talk about good and evil and the threat posed by sin to the soul of Mankind; now the Pope talks about flu and al-Qaeda and the threat posed by pollution to the health of the planet. He doesn’t evoke the fear of God but fear of the future, trying to find common ground through the contemporary pieties of environmentalism where old-world Christian piety no longer cuts it. He raps our knuckles by conjuring up Nature’s displeasure with our behaviour, rather than God’s.

For Benedict, many of our problems stem from the ‘immense progress made in the areas of technology and science’ (3). Of course the Catholics have long been suspicious of progress and Enlightenment, ever since the French revolutionaries denounced the ‘superstition and hypocrisy’ of Christianity, burned ecclesiastical vestments and destroyed crosses, and (my favourite) posted signs outside Christian cemeteries that said ‘Death is an eternal sleep’ (4). Yet today it isn’t only backward priests who are wary of change and development; so is society more broadly. Which means that, over 200 years since the French revolution, Benedict probably had an appreciative audience (and not only among nuns and novices) when he bemoaned the risks and dangers of our sci/tech lives.

The unholy marriage between Christian reactionaries and secular saddos is most clearly consummated over the issue of consumerism. In a pre-Christmas sermon, Benedict warned that Christmas has become ‘polluted by consumerism’. ‘Some forms of modern culture and consumerism tend to do away with Christian symbols of Christmas’, he said. ‘Joy is the true gift of Christmas, not expensive gifts that cost time and money.’ (5)

That will sound familiar to anyone who ever attended a Catholic school and remembers being scolded for boasting about what Santa brought (not that we ever got very much). But again, Benedict’s anti-consumerism has a very contemporary ring to it: it, too, has its origins in secular society, where many seem to think that having too much stuff makes you hollow and having too many choices makes you ill.

Indeed, this year killjoy Catholics and killjoy anti-consumerists pretty much joined forces. In Soho in London an art gallery called Santa’s Ghetto, which describes itself as ‘kind of anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist’, displayed an image of a crucified Father Christmas, following on from last year when it hanged Santa from a noose (6). The Christmas Resistance Movement is an anti-consumerist website that describes Christmas shoppers as ‘automatons’ (7). A Catholic priest in Frankfurt, Germany, borrowed such tactics to launch an anti-Santa initiative, for which he stuck up stickers saying ‘Santa-Free Zone’ in shopping centres to protest against the ‘commercialisation of Christmas’ (8).

The Buy Nothing Christmas website is a mishmash of anti-consumerist jabber and pseudo-religious references. It features posters of Christ looking down in the dumps next to the words ‘Where did I say that you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?’, and gives us ‘Three Easy Steps Off the Treadmill’, number one of which says: ‘Take a risk, don’t conform to those in the spending spree. Mary, the unwed mother of Jesus, went against the grain. Think about it.’ (9) Er, okay. That might sound a million miles from anything Pope Benedict would say, but the Catholics and the anti-consumerists have a lot in common: both think it is vulgar to have a lot of stuff (kind of ironic in the Pope’s case, I know) and see shoppers as sheep who must be saved from their stupid selves. And both have a fanciful, romantic idea of the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ which apparently should be about the baby Jesus or his rebellious mum or something.

The Catholic Church even gets its sins from secular society these days. At a time when most Catholics see sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, contraception and increasingly even abortion as facts of life rather than sins, the priests are plundering today’s ‘politics of behaviour’ for things that can be chastised as sinful. So it was revealed just before Christmas that a Vatican-approved paper suggested that drink-driving – and ‘using mobiles while driving or driving while fatigued’ – should be made into sins that must be confessed (10). This follows the news that the Vatican might soon decree that smoking is a sin, an act that is ‘not neutral in social or indeed moral terms’ (11). What next? Will eating a turkey twizzler become sinful? If the Catholic Church becomes any more reliant for its moral authority on things that are seen as sinful in contemporary society it will soon have to make it a sin to have sex without a condom rather than with.

It is coming to something when our secular leaders, radicals and the Pope of Rome himself all sing from the same hymn sheet. Down with the Church – and the secular killjoys who today provide it with its moral script.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

2005: No ‘Annus Horribilis’ for humanity, by Mick Hume

(1) Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI, 25 December 2005

(2) Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI, 25 December 2005

(3) Christmas message, Pope Benedict XVI, 25 December 2005

(4) The French Revolution, Christopher Hibbert, Penguin, 1982, p230

(5) Don’t be dazzled by Christmas consumerism: Pope, Expatica, 21 December 2005

(6) The Christmas resistance, Emma Griffiths, BBC News, 23 December 2005

(7) The Christmas resistance, Emma Griffiths, BBC News, 23 December 2005

(8) Targeting Santa, Kyle James, Deutsche Welle, 20 December 2004

(9) Buy Nothing Christmas website

(10) Jesuit says bad driving is a sin, Catholic News, 16 December 2005

(11) Attack on smoking gets Papal blessing, John Hooper, Guardian, 31 December 2004

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Topics Politics


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