NSS Speech At Abbeville
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I am the Executive Director of the National Secular Society. Together with the President, standing beside me, we bring fraternal greetings from the Council and members of the NSS.
We hold Libre Pensee in high regard and admiration, and share its vision of a fair and just Europe, whose politics and social life are free from religious domination.
We are all here to pay our respects to Jean-François Lefevre de la Barre, to register once more our revulsion at the barbarity of the fate that befell him, and to remember who was responsible.
If the Chevalier de la Barre had known that nearly 250 years later we would still be honouring his sacrifice and reflecting on its relevance to us today, I hope it would have given him at least a crumb of comfort that his defiant stand had not been in vain.
I am not sure what he would have thought about his Facebook page, though !
It is easy to dismiss the sinister events of 1 July 1766 as something from a bygone age that will never return. Maybe so. But the power behind them lives on, albeit more subtly. Church attendance may have plummeted in France, and Britain too ; mass attendance in England has halved in less than a generation.
With such a scenario we would expect the Church’s power to be in similarly sharp decline. And in some places it is, but in other countries in Europe, very much not.
I have been as worried as you by M. Sarkozy’s insidious undermining of France’s precious laïcité. But I have also been inspired by the events in Spain and Portugal, where progressive legislation on abortion and gay rights has been brought forward in the face of powerful resistance from the Vatican, even in the face of direct pleas by the Pope himself. So these victories bring with them an additional significance – the deliberate rejection of the authority the Pope was seeking to impose, not just on Catholics but all citizens.
All around Europe, the grip of the Catholic Church is being weakened. Until about ten years ago, Ireland was a Catholic theocracy. Yet now even prominent Irish Catholics regard the country as “post-Catholic” and the Church as “broken”. The power conceded to the Church by the State allowed hideous abuses to be carried out in its name. These have finally made the Irish people realise they have been in thrall to an evil empire that ruled them with a rod of iron. The people have largely abandoned the Church.
But its influence in the Government, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact it is exercised behind the scenes, remains very powerful, even now. A couple of nuns managed to persuade the Government to bear 90 per cent, yes 90, of the cost of child abuse compensation in Church establishments – obviously with the complicity of Catholic sympathisers in the Government. And the Pope’s own representative in Ireland, the nuncio, refused summonses to give evidence to child abuse enquiries and a Government commission. No chance in Ireland that he will be asked to pack his bags and return to the Vatican.
We have a similar problem in the UK with the Pope’s forthcoming visit. In reality it is a pastoral visit, but religious sympathisers have made it a state one, which will cost the taxpayer tens of millions of Euros. The Government will not admit to the total cost, presumably because it is so high.
I should make clear that I acknowledge that many Catholics do good work, especially with their relief agencies. And I am convinced they do this despite, not because of the Vatican ; such groups are often pragmatic and ignore Church dogmas.
I have discovered from my work at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva another, less holy, trinity. The Catholic Church has two other aliases, the Holy See and Vatican City State. And it cynically manipulates these stage names to obtain the minimum accountability and the maximum power – and what power. The Church’s seat at the UN gives it a microphone to chide the world and to seek to enforce its dogma in the face of reason. It enables the Church to burden the world with overpopulation, poverty and needless AIDS deaths through its dishonest and malevolent policy on contraception.
And yet by virtue of its observer status at the UN, the Church — oops, I should say the Holy See — alone escapes the peer review of other states called Universal Periodic Review. Even worse, it has managed to exclude Vatican City State from the jurisdiction of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Quite an achievement, when that is the very place to which all accusations of clerical Child Abuse are supposed to be sent in a sealed envelope. And the Vatican is not a member of the EU or the Council of Europe because, I suspect, of the obligations and accountability that this would bring.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the more power the church has, the more it abuses it. But there is no need to say that to a French audience ! Yet 200 years after you had your own revolution, in Ireland there remained an abuse euphemistically called the “Magdalene Laundries”– institutions run by the Church to punish women who stepped out of line. They were, in effect, hard labour prisons, but for women who had committed no crime worse than prostitution, and sometimes no crime at all. And apart from the physical, mental and sexual abuse, inmates were not permitted even the use of their own names. Their deaths were not even recorded. That is one more depravity that the “merciful” Church inflicted on the largely innocent inmates of the Magdalene Asylums.
We can see now that whenever religion is given unquestioned power in the secular world, it will, more often than not, misuse it for its own benefit.
I hope too that the judgment over the case in Italy about crucifixes in classrooms will survive the appeal.
Yet we still see the Catholic Church hard at work to entrench its power base in Europe. In the Czech Republic it has had to wait for a change of Government in order to try once more to establish the concordat that it so desperately wants. This concordat was regarded as unconstitutional by a group of legal experts and put on hold by the previous Prime Minister.
But the new regime is more favourable to the Vatican and once more negotiations are on the table.
They say the Vatican thinks nothing of waiting a decade or two until the wind blows once more in its favour. In the end, it usually gets what it wants. I fear that the Czech Republic will eventually succumb to the pressure and sign the concordat that will allow the Church all kinds of privileges that all work to its own advantage and to no-one else’s.
In Europe, the decline in mass attendance is dramatic and most Catholics have virtually abandoned their Church’s hard line, indeed inhumane, doctrine on such matters as contraception, homosexuality and even abortion.
Who would compel a mother to continue a pregnancy arising from a rape by an enemy soldier against her will ? You guessed it. The Pope even tries to undermine democracy itself by threatening Catholic politicians with excommunication if they do not seek to enforce dogma on everyone, Catholic or not.
The more I see from my work in Strasbourg and Brussels and the more I observe the outpourings from Rome, the more I realise that, despite all, the Church’s influence is — if anything — growing.
It was in an atmosphere of overwhelming religious power that Chevalier de la Barre met his grisly end. He was tortured with a cruelty that those driven by religious zeal seem to be able to muster. His death for being a dissenter was proof to many that the Church, when in power, is the source of corruption and injustice.
The story of Chevalier de la Barre is a warning to us in the modern world that the instincts of religion to control every aspect of our lives are still very strong. If we let it move closer to the state once more, we will all eventually suffer.
It is up to organisations like Libre Pensee and the NSS to stand firmly against religious power-seeking. It is our duty to stop them in their tracks and say firmly : the place for your prayers is in church, the place for your popes is in the Vatican and the place for your imams is in the mosque.
We must tell the faithful : by all means cling to your comforting beliefs if you must, but don’t ever try to make them the basis of law or social policy.
We must remain alert to rising threats from other religions too, for the demands for sharia to be recognised as a parallel legal system, for the funding by the public purse of mosque building, for the lauding of regressive social policies. We must protect the new-found rights of women, of children, of gay people, of non-believers. We must not let ancient beliefs drag us back to an age of cruelty and repression.
The Church has had its opportunity to live up to the great ideals that it preaches. It has had 2,000 years at the seat of power and it has failed dismally to practise what it preaches. Only now that we have loosened its grip can we stand back and see why the great reforms of the Enlightenment were so necessary.
I think the story of human progress since the Enlightenment is something to celebrate. There is still a long way to go – so many battles to fight, so many injustices to right. But with the aid of hard-won knowledge and scientific advances, human life has improved as religious influence has faded.
Let us keep that momentum going so that, one day, religious interference in public life is a thing of the past.
French version / version française : http://www.fnlp.Fr