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One of Joseph Ratzinger's first acts on becoming Pope in 2005 was to meet the terminally ill Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the scourge of Mussolini's fascists and Osama bin Laden's Islamofascists. Neither ever revealed what was said, but if there is one conversation I would like to have heard, it is that one.

Although she described herself as a "Christian atheist", Fallaci was enthusiastic about the new Pope. In particular, she was uplifted by his call to non-believers to behave "as though God exists". It was, Fallaci said, a "brilliant" invitation.

I thought about Fallaci as Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Britain last month. Like Fallaci, I'm a Christian atheist: a cultural Christian who does not believe in God. I disagree with the Pope's views about a lot of things. In rows about specific Vatican doctrines, I would ordinarily find myself with the National Secular Society. But on this occasion, I couldn't be.

The lead-up proved the problem, dominated as it was by the noise that now makes up for news. There stood, consummately revealed, the horrible hollowness that the Pope aimed to address. Impeccably "liberal" leaders in our society kept referring to him as "Herr Ratzinger", as if being German as well as Pontiff constituted a particular offence. 

The infallible Stephen Fry gave a lecture on the BBC about the history of the Vatican, explaining that it "isn't a state" because "it just plain isn't". State or no state, it was a place to which Richard Dawkins asked the Pope to "go home" and not return. All the time Joseph Ratzinger's standing as any kind of moral thinker was derided. What was he but an obtuse, old, anti-gay, anti-women expert in a defunct theology?

Here in all its casual, thoughtless, infinitely superficial glory was Britain's strange new hybrid religion. It was hung, as it usually now is, on the term "human rights" — as amorphous a term as anyone could wish for. The fundamentals of these rights may be good. And there are many disagreements to be had with the Vatican. But what an intellectual muddle the secularist opposition to the Pope have got themselves tangled up in.

Peter Tatchell, for example, worked as a gay-rights campaigner in difficult and often dangerous circumstances. But I trust him very little as a moral arbiter. He is, by his own description, on "the left wing of the Green Party". (Is there a right wing, I wonder?) In the weeks before the papal visit, he was leading criticisms of the Pope's alleged role in covering up child sex abuse scandals in the Church. You would have thought then that Tatchell was absolutist on this issue. Yet in a 1997 letter to the Guardian this same Peter Tatchell wrote that "several of my friends — gay and straight, male and female — had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused...While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful."

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January 4th, 2011
7:01 PM
He probably referred to it as the Holy See for much the same reason that Reuters, the AP and the AFP amongst others continually describe the founder of Islam not as "the Islamic Prophet Muhammad" but simply "The Prophet Muhammad". Why don't you go and get worked up about that rather than the Vatican being referred to a the Holy See? Ah, I remember now, it's because if you offend Christians nothing will happen to you except forgiveness, but if you dare to insult islam then you'll likely find yourself on the receiving end of an IED.

November 6th, 2010
8:11 AM
I am an outsider too. Douglas, why as an atheist and non-catholic to you refer to the Vatican as the "Holy See". It is no more "holy" than any other place on the planet. Why? Because it is inhabited by sinners, who like all sinners play all of the usual (even back-stabbing) power games that sinners do everywhere else in the world. The only people who make places Holy are Saints. Who by their presence and actions, or their very real aura of Holiness, imbue the places in which they pray, live and work with a tangibly real Holy Presence. Everything else is more or less ritualized play acting. Plus look who granted the Vatican its now officially legal status. That charming example of humankind Mussolini. What was interesting about the Popes visit to the UK was the entirely predictable essentially group-think fawning stuff written in support of his visit. It was as though all of the responses were written by one person - a kind of church authorized press kit release.

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