Political Promise

The Catholic church are the greatest PR men in history

In Alex Gabriel on September 17, 2010 at 8:41 am

Alex Gabriel is responding to Ann Widdecombe’s piece in The Guardian, which argued that PR in the Vatican was poor.

September 16 is finally here, and with it the onset of Pope Benedict’s state visit. Last week, Ann Widdecombe – rumoured as the next British ambassador to the Vatican – wrote last week on Guardian.co.uk that the Roman Catholic ought to be better at PR, citing Alistair Campbell’s ‘We don’t do God’ and declaring that church not to do publicity either. Apparently, a host of divine commandments prohibits Catholicism from showing off its positive acts or demonstrating its beneficial role to world events. (As a prominent supporter of the church which considerable influence, writing about its virtues on the website of an internationally-circulated newspaper, one had to acknowledge the irony of her argument.)

Apart from anything else, the Blair governments unequivocally did do God, and more so than any British government for decades. They were the first to actively make the founding of more religious schools a policy aim, and put a target on the number built; they passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, giving religious opinions the same protection from free speech as ethnic backgrounds; , and they were led by a man who used his religion to justify Iraq, having allied himself with one of the world’s leading conservative Christians in America before going on to create a foundation calling religion ‘a powerful force for good in the world’. The whole point of Campbell’s remark was that it stopped Blair saying what he wanted to, but Widdecombe is at least right about one thing – saying the Vatican doesn’t do PR is exactly as true as saying New Labour didn’t do religion. (Which is to say, not true at all.)

For one thing, the line from Matthew is a misquote: in my own King James, Jesus actually says ‘do not your alms [“acts of righteousness” in the New International Version] before men, to be seen of them’. For another, the point of the verse is to do good for the sake of it, rather than just for show – it gives absolutely no instruction to keep quiet about things. As a matter of fact, the New Testament is strongly pro-publicity. Only one chapter earlier, Jesus says ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works’. Saint Peter, considered the first Pope by Catholics, later instructs tells his readers ‘be ready always to give an answer’ in literal defense of their faith. The entire Book of Acts even details Christianity’s first marketing campaigns. Forgive the theology lesson, but Widdecombe’s ‘quite specific divine injuctions’ against public advocacy don’t exist.

That’s lucky of course, because the church has spent millennia self-selling. It’s only recently, in fact, that its methods have been reduced to testimonials. Often and with noted pride, its members boast to be the world’s most widespread religion; after centuries of global violence against other ones, this can of course happen. Don’t let’s forget the Crusades or the Inquisition, with any ideas deviant from Catholicism beheaded (often literally) from America to the Middle East. While Widdecombe points out the Jews rescued from Nazism by the church, let’s likewise not forget the institutional antisemitism practiced by the church across eastern Europe even until the 1960s: we have it on paper that in Lithuania and Czechoslavakia at the Second World War’s outset, German troops unwilling to carry out killings would designate executions to the locals with their history of pogroms. The Nazis were chilling in their rooting-out of other ideas, but their record pales next to the church’s.

Aside from violence, consider for a moment the literal indoctrination of its followers. The excommunication of people with the wrong opinions may not be as prevalent now as once it was – although I can’t claim certainty – but the ritual confession of misdeeds continues. The humiliating admission of sins to authority, considered imperative by Catholics the world over, not only creates feelings of dependency and constant supervision but also gives corrupt members of the clergy power over their congregation by means of blackmail. On then to the cognitive bias instilled in worshippers without education: especially in the third world, the church attributes all illnesses and misfortunes to the Devil and all sudden happy events to Christ, leaving followers with no sense of personal responsibility and stopping them making impartial judgements. To a great extent, this ensures each generation inherits Catholicism from the last one. Persuading the young literally to sell their souls is arguably not a bad PR achievement, nor their joy at the sight of a Rabbi nailed to a plank.

Only now in the age of the internet and the press, when information in the developed world is easily come by, does Catholicism turn to soft-sell. Its violent crusades are no longer permissible, its stranglehold on free thought more difficult here. For the first time in history, the last few decades have forced the church to defend itself with reasoned, peaceful argument and sound public comment – and given its advocates have had so little practice, it’s unsurprising Ann Widdecombe’s arguments fail.

Defending the Vatican against the charges of the sex abuse scandal, she points out that 98% of American priests did not face charges. This may be true, but the remaining 2% consisted of over 20,000 clergy – an enormously disproportionate number compared with any other U.S. organisation’s operatives. The majority of child molestation does occur within families, as she likewise says, but these for the most part are the child-rapists who are restricted to their own relatives. In any one congregation a priest will have access to the entire families of his audience, in some cases hundreds of infants, meaning those 20,000 likely committed a horrific number of attacks. The fact many of them were moved between diocese no doubt worsens this fact. Given their culture of secretive confession and power relationships, we can also be sure many silenced their victims with blackmail and went unchallenged.

As for its accountability, we are told the church ‘merely apologised and asked for forgiveness’. This is true, but when Widdecombe asks why the Holy See should be expected to know about the level of paedophilia in its ranks, not being incredulous is somewhat difficult. Considering Pope Benedict’s worldwide letter instructing every bishop to notify him of cases, as well as his reputation for micromanaging all other areas whilst heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the suggestion he was unaware of abuse is ludicrous. As for the idea no one took these cases seriously in the past – Ann Widdecombe mentions not reporting child abuse as a Samaritan, as if to suggest this was a good thing – then if Catholicism’s leaders didn’t see the harm of child molesters, how can it claim moral authority at all?

But doesn’t the Vatican run more AIDS clinics than any country? So Widdecombe says, although the fact she quotes it anonymously isn’t inspiring. If nothing else, the idea of the Catholic church treating HIV is somewhat irrelevant given the amount it causes, both by denying aid to countries which refuse to ban contraception and having its priests teach their churchgoers condoms don’t work. (Don’t blame their lack of education – Ratzinger himself claimed so.) Having a lot of hospitals, moreover, doesn’t mean that any of them are especially effective or successful, and having more clinics than anyone else worldwide doesn’t necessarily point to good provision at nationally. In South Africa for example, the country with more AIDS-related deaths than any other, only a minority of medical care is Catholic; in India, tied at second-worst with Nigeria, only 3226 of tens of thousands of hospitals and clinics are church-run. Having more than any country globally doesn’t mean the Vatican does much for any particular one.

Given all this, who could doubt the church’s nous for publicity? With their centuries of oppression and malign conventions going unchallenged for so long, it can only be that the Catholic church are the spin doctors of history, the greatest PR men in the world (and ‘men’, here, is the representative term). As for Ann Widdecombe, I can only conclude her either to be stupid or morally deranged. Don’t let this woman’s rhetoric fool you, don’t give her organisation any more second chances, and please, please don’t keep her on Strictly Come Dancing.

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  1. I remember an interview with Campbell where he recalled that ‘We don’t do God’ was just trying to wrap up the interview (which he had been intending before the question), so I don’t think it was about stopping Blair from saying ‘what he wanted to say’, more just stopping Blair from saying anything.

    //For one thing, the line from Matthew is a misquote: in my own King James, Jesus actually says ‘do not your alms [“acts of righteousness” in the New International Version] before men, to be seen of them’. For another, the point of the verse is to do good for the sake of it, rather than just for show – it gives absolutely no instruction to keep quiet about things.//

    That verse doesn’t, no, but what about verses 3, 4, 6, 17 and 18?

    //As a matter of fact, the New Testament is strongly pro-publicity. Only one chapter earlier, Jesus says ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works’. Saint Peter, considered the first Pope by Catholics, later instructs tells his readers ‘be ready always to give an answer’ in literal defense of their faith. The entire Book of Acts even details Christianity’s first marketing campaigns. Forgive the theology lesson, but Widdecombe’s ‘quite specific divine injuctions’ against public advocacy don’t exist.//

    Peter’s was more about apologetics and reasoning than showing off good works – I think Widdecombe’s statements concern the latter. Similarly, with Acts, the publicity is related to spreading their message as opposed to letting everyone else know what good stuff they’ve been up to.

    //The humiliating admission of sins to authority, considered imperative by Catholics the world over, not only creates feelings of dependency and constant supervision but also gives corrupt members of the clergy power over their congregation by means of blackmail. On then to the cognitive bias instilled in worshippers without education: especially in the third world, the church attributes all illnesses and misfortunes to the Devil and all sudden happy events to Christ, leaving followers with no sense of personal responsibility and stopping them making impartial judgements.//

    I imagine any institution that demanded confessions of guilt in such an Orwellian fashion would very much leave followers with a sense of personal responsibility…

    //Defending the Vatican against the charges of the sex abuse scandal, she points out that 98% of American priests did not face charges. This may be true, but the remaining 2% consisted of over 20,000 clergy – an enormously disproportionate number compared with any other U.S. organisation’s operatives. The majority of child molestation does occur within families, as she likewise says, but these for the most part are the child-rapists who are restricted to their own relatives. In any one congregation a priest will have access to the entire families of his audience, in some cases hundreds of infants, meaning those 20,000 likely committed a horrific number of attacks. The fact many of them were moved between diocese no doubt worsens this fact. Given their culture of secretive confession and power relationships, we can also be sure many silenced their victims with blackmail and went unchallenged.//

    The 2% were those who have had allegations against them, not the amount who were actually guilty. *Cue, “But it’s still a huge amount! How can you be OK with that?! It’s disgusting!”* Yes, I know, it’s wrong.

    //As for its accountability, we are told the church ‘merely apologised and asked for forgiveness’. This is true, but when Widdecombe asks why the Holy See should be expected to know about the level of paedophilia in its ranks, not being incredulous is somewhat difficult. Considering Pope Benedict’s worldwide letter instructing every bishop to notify him of cases, as well as his reputation for micromanaging all other areas whilst heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the suggestion he was unaware of abuse is ludicrous. As for the idea no one took these cases seriously in the past – Ann Widdecombe mentions not reporting child abuse as a Samaritan, as if to suggest this was a good thing – then if Catholicism’s leaders didn’t see the harm of child molesters, how can it claim moral authority at all?//

    I don’t think she did claim that the Pope had no idea. I’m not sure about the specifics of the child abuse scandal and I’m not going to be as uncritical as many are about the Pope’s involvement (i.e. the ‘knowledge’ most people have is really just a selection of polemical articles from newspapers) – c.f. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/15/pope-mob-benedict-misreading-abuse which covers some of the cases Dawkins cited against the Pope.

    //But doesn’t the Vatican run more AIDS clinics than any country? So Widdecombe says, although the fact she quotes it anonymously isn’t inspiring. If nothing else, the idea of the Catholic church treating HIV is somewhat irrelevant given the amount it causes, both by denying aid to countries which refuse to ban contraception and having its priests teach their churchgoers condoms don’t work. (Don’t blame their lack of education – Ratzinger himself claimed so.)//

    Ratzinger is the most misquoted/proof-texted man alive, imo. Would you be able to clarify in what sense he claimed condoms don’t work (i.e. what do they not work as?)?

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