The usual recipe of the zealous World Youth Day advocate rarely changes. Travel to distant locations for these pilgrims often results in headaches for local officials charged with the mission making things most comfortable for both Pontiff and standard devotees. Problems in the Catholic Church are given a cosmetic touch-up.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Sydney, which now draws to a close, was no exception. The Catholic Church proudly notes that World Youth Day in Sydney has brought more visitors to the city than the Olympic games of 2000. Numbers are rough, but some make it 125,000.
In countries where a notionally progressive protest movement can be organized, pro-contraception activists (amongst others) muster rallies and dispense condoms. Their aim is to convince starry-eyed pilgrims seduced by the stupefacient called Papal love to abandon their sunny optimism for darker appraisals of Church policy.
Papal goodwill on such visits suggest little more than global tourism by the Holy See to trumpet worn positions. The event looks innocent enough, and god bothering of its own accord need not make frothing protesters of us all, apart from Richard Dawkins. Indeed, the only really excited ones seem to be those airborne followers of the event on the World Youth Day website who seem to have confused the event with a Toyota advertisement. (‘Oh what a feeling.’)
City residents have the good sense to do at each of these pilgrim’s events as they have always done over the centuries: profit from mass gullibility. At times like this, ‘new’ countries in the game of international pilgrim worship like Australia can only wish they had the equivalent of the Turin shroud. God need not be bad for capitalism.
But World Youth Day always masks the deeper grievance. The pope’s journey to Australia was best characterised by the floundering antics of Sydney Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell. Prior to WYD, it surfaced that Pell had been mind numbingly insensitive over a case of child abuse. In time, it became obvious that Pell had been complicit in inflicting suffering on one victim in particular, dismissing his charge of abuse against a priest, Father Terence Goodall. The encounters had been ‘consensual’ in character.
The ugly narrative on the dangers of institutional abuse within the Catholic establishment, notably children, were carefully avoided at WYD. Benedict danced around the issue of apologizing to the victims of child abuse. But perhaps apologies tend to lack weight when coming from a figure who once kept the Inquisition’s records in the Vatican. Pilgrims could continue communing in joyful reflection on the wonders of the church father.
At times, the Catholic Church’s grasp of reality is as tenuous as a Fox News’ anchor. And the former had centuries to correct that problem. When it comes to such matters as disrupting the AIDS juggernaut as it rips through African societies with daily vengeance, we can still find views which not only puzzle but should enrage even the most keen members of the followers of WYD.
The standard position is a severely flawed one, the usual nonsense that contraception promotes promiscuity and should therefore be eschewed. Uganda’s own activists and church officials have opted for the much exaggerated virtue of ‘abstinence’. To avoid contracting AIDS, avoid the pleasures of the cot altogether. The Ugandan minister Martin Sempa has gone on record (September 2006) as claiming that AIDS will vanish when people are taught ‘to abstain and remain faithful to their husbands and wives.’ Sempa allows little room for the problems facing spouses facing partners who do have AIDS. Conjugal duties come first.
The state government of New South Wales had its own view of WYD. In what amounted to a crude, tyrannical excess of authority, the New South Wales government went out of its way to inflate police powers with the passage of various provisions affecting the World Youth Day Act. Police officers rarely shirk an effort to crack the odd skull in anger, but the police in Sydney were somewhat puzzled by being given power to arrest protesters on the simple charge of annoying Catholic pilgrims.
The wording of the Act was obtuse even by the standards of the most inept legal draftsman. The initial provisions penalized ‘conduct that causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Youth Day event.’ Wearing an anti-Pope T-shirt may well have cost a protester a penalty amounting to $5,500.
The Australian Federal Court did not disappoint civil libertarians, though their enthusiasm in victory was misplaced. The full bench decided in a lawsuit launched by activists Rachel Evans and Amber Pike that the Act ‘should not be interpreted as conferring powers that are repugnant to fundamental rights and freedoms at common law in the absence of clear authority from Parliament.’ The words ‘annoyance or’ were struck out. The ruling still left the word ‘inconvenience’ in place.
The New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma, currently one of the least competent elected officials in the country at any level of government, was pleased to inform media outlets that protesters would still have to avoid ‘disrupting the pilgrims or the events.’ Iemma, like Pell, fancy themselves as contortionist linguists.
Ecstatic civil liberties groups and protesters, amongst them the NoToPope coalition, promptly handed out condoms on the steps of the Federal Court. Free advice came along with it, though such generosity was rebuffed by one pilgrim who said that, ‘We don’t do that sort of thing.’ Judging from the continuing program of self-denial within Church doctrine, one would have to concur.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.