Conscience before Creed: Bishops speak their minds

It is a rare thing to find myself in agreement with a religious leader, rarer still for that to happen twice in one day. Yet, I could not but applaud the sentiments of two retired archbishops, one Catholic, one Anglican, as I read the Sunday papers. Speaking not from doctrine, but the convictions of personal morality, Desmond Tutu and the late Carlo Maria Martini each individually stood against the religious or political establishment to say boldly what needed to be said, and tackle issues those establishments fear to. It is hard not to respect that courage and authenticity.

Martini: “The Catholic Church must admit its mistakes and reform.”

In the last week, both Catholicism and Anglicanism have been accused in the media of being centuries behind the times. On Monday, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney was derided in the letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald for the outdated sexism of new marriage vows that call on brides to “submit” to their husbands, “as the church submits to Christ”. In the Catholic case, the accusation of anachronism was somewhat more general. Deriding the bureaucracy of the church and the pomposity of its rituals, the critique demanded reform of an institution it said was 200 years out of date.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini

What made this criticism extraordinary was not simply that it came from inside the church itself, but that it came from the highest levels, from a man who could have been pope. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, died on Friday and had been tipped as a successor to John Paul II, had he not shared that pope’s affliction with Parkinson’s disease. In his last interview, published hours after his death by the Italian paper, Corriere della Sera, Martini stated plainly: “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty… The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the Pope and the bishops.”

Even before his death, Cardinal Martini seems to have been a man unafraid to question the dogmatism around him. Despite the loftiness of his position, he still managed to maintain a reasoned understanding of the facts of life faced by ordinary Catholics.

He understood that 21st century issues can hardly be addressed by mediaeval moralising. He criticised the church’s sanctimonious distain for the divorced. He admitted the child sex abuse scandals demand radical reform from a thusfar recalcitrant Vatican. And unlike John Paul and Benedict, he recognised the far greater evil in allowing people to contract a killer virus than in allowing them to use a condom. He saw that the raw realities of life demand a flexible, rational and compassionate approach, not the blinkered adherence to an irrational and irrelevant dogma.

As the panicked Vatican continues to chastise priests who don’t toe the official line, it is heartening to hear such a senior member of the clergy challenge that authoritarianism himself. Is it any wonder, Martini seems to be asking in his final interview, that the pews are empty when people fail to find the answers they seek from a church to afraid even to consider the questions?

How much better off might the Catholic Church have been if John Paul been succeeded not by God’s Rottweiller, but by God’s Watchdog? Martini may be gone, but if the Church is to regain the respect of its followers, it needs to heed the echo of his words.

Tutu: Moral consistency demands Blair should face trial

At least Archbishop Desmond Tutu is still with us. Twice in the last week, he has sought taken former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to task for his role in perpetrating the disastrous invasion of Iraq based on the untruth of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons stockpiles. The bishop pulled out of the Discovery Invest Summit in Johannesburg last Wednesday in protest at Blair’s presence, and on Sunday wrote in the Observer of his reasons, calling for the former PM to be tried for war crimes.

Desmond Tutu 2007 in Cologne

Arguing that it is morally inconsistent to put African despots on trial at the ICC for their crimes while allowing Blair to join the international speakers’ circuit, Tutu said the invasion has implications far beyond Iraq’s borders, and has destabilised the entire region.

He wrote: “The then-leaders of the US and UK fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and… have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand – with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us.”

Bristling at the slight, Mr Blair respondedto the Archbishop’s claims, but with his familiar selective rationale – that it was right to remove Saddam, and Iraq is better off for it. In his response, he makes a threadbare case for saying it was worth invading a sovereign nation without legitimate reason by citing only the improvement in Iraq’s economy and child mortality rates. He ignores, even as Tutu spells it out for him, the unnecessary ruination of human life wrought by the invasion he engineered – at least 110,000 Iraqi people have been killed, suicide bombers kill 6 or 7 more every day; millions more have been displaced, 4,500 US soldiers have been killed, and 35,000 more injured.

Tony Blair in Basra, Iraq. 2007

When Tutu says that the issue is not how bad Saddam was, but why Bush and Blair stooped to his level, Blair’s peevish retort garbles that issue and fails to address the pertinent issue. He simply writes: “To say the fact that Saddam massacred hundreds of thousands of his citizens is irrelevant to the morality of removing him is bizarre.” What seems more bizarre is that Blair sees no irony in deposing a dictator who caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis by launching an invasion that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.

Yet that is just what Tutu is calling Blair to account for, in the name of consistent morality and administration of justice. Tutu’s point is that those responsible for a multitude of innocent deaths should face justice, whether it is Saddam Hussein, Charles Taylor – or Bush and Blair. It is a fair and pertinent point, and – even disregarding Blair’s position as Middle East peace envoy – it demands to be answered.

With the troops out and the media moving on to Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Syria, it is easy to think of Iraq as old news. No doubt Blair wants to think that himself, as he says that Tutu is saying “nothing new”, just making the same old case again.  That may be, but it is precisely because the case still remains to be made. That Archbishop Tutu has the courage of his convictions to stand his ground and keep the case for justice is a noble and admirable thing.

And, as George Monbiot writes today, that courage may yet bear fruit.


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