Monthly Archives: April 2011

Italy: beatification of John Paul II. Hold the Halo!

John Paul II refused to initiate any investigation into Maciel’s conduct despite mounting evidence of abominable crimes.

You could fall in love with Pope John Paul II at the drop of a miter.

In 1978, when 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla slalomed onto the world stage as the first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, everything about him captivated Catholics who felt adrift and conflicted.

The merry eyes. The sunny wit. The moral toughness honed during battles against Nazis and Communists. The former actor and factory worker was a skiing cardinal, a mountain-climbing poet, a kayaking philosopher, a singing author.

Twenty-six years later, the crowds at his funeral yelled “Santo subito!” Sainthood now!

Next Sunday, two days after the Kate and William show, another European spectacle will unfold: Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the beatification for the man he revered, the first time in a millennium that a pope has elevated his immediate predecessor and the swiftest ascension toward sainthood on record.

Hoping to get a P.R. boost by resurrecting John Paul’s magic, Benedict fast-tracked the process, waiving the usual five-year wait before starting.

But it won’t take away the indelible stain left by a global sex scandal that continues to sulfurously bubble as we celebrate Easter. The latest grotesquerie, amid a cascade of victims coming forward in Belgium, was a TV interview with the former bishop of Bruges, who serenely admitted abusing two nephews.

Sex with the first nephew, he said, started as “a game” when the boy was 5 and lasted 13 years. “I had the strong impression that my nephew didn’t mind at all,” 74-year-old Roger Vangheluwe said, smiling. “On the contrary. It was not brutal sex. I never used bodily, physical violence.” He said he abused the second boy for “merely over a year.” He did not think any of this made him a pedophile.

Certainly, John Paul was admirable in many ways. After he became pope, he was a moral force in the fight against totalitarianism, touring his homeland and giving Poles the courage to resist the Soviet Union. When Lech Walesa signed an agreement with the Communists recognizing Solidarity, he used a pen etched with the face of John Paul.

After Communism collapsed, John Paul offered a stinging critique of capitalism, presciently warning big business to stop pursuing profits “at any price.”

“The excessive hoarding of riches by some denies them to the majority,” he said, “and thus the very wealth that is accumulated generates poverty.”

As progressive as he was on those issues, he was disturbingly regressive on social issues — contraception, women’s ordination, priests’ celibacy, divorce and remarriage. And certainly, John Paul forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood, and simply turned away for many years.

Santo non subito! How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?

For years after the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, was formally accused of pedophilia in a Vatican proceeding, he remained John Paul’s pet. The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.

There was another reason, according to Jason Berry, who has written two books on the abuse crisis and is the author of the forthcoming “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”

“For John Paul,” Berry told me just after returning from Good Friday services, “the priesthood had a romantic, chivalrous cast, and he could not bring himself to do a fearless investigation of the clerical culture itself.

“He was duped by Maciel, but he let himself be duped. When nine people accuse the guy of abusing them as kids, the least you can do is investigate.

“Cardinals and bishops had told him about the larger abuse crisis for years. And he was passive to an absolute fault. He failed in mountainous terms.”

Now the Vatican is like Wall Street, where companies give their most disgraced C.E.O.’s golden parachutes to make up for the stress of outside attack. Except the Vatican gives golden halos.

We are known by our heroes and those we choose to admire.

Pope Benedict has wanted to beatify John Paul, who shielded pedophiles, and Pope Pius XII, who remained silent about the Holocaust as it happened. Meanwhile, Dorothy Day hasn’t been beatified.

Not beatifying or canonizing John Paul would be hugely symbolic, a message far more powerful than the ad hoc apologies and payoffs to victims.

This pope has been better than the last on abuse, Berry said, but “he’s still surrounded by all these cardinals whose hands are dirty in this thing. There are still 16 bishops that were credibly accused who stepped down from public positions but still maintain their titles.

“The Vatican rushed into this beatification, but after they take down the stands, the problems will still be there.”

New York Times | Maureen Dowd | April 23, 2011

EU: An obscurantist and absurd judgment

Illustration of the Parkinson disease by Sir William Richard Gowers from A Manual of Diseases of the Nervous System in 1886 (WikiMedia Commons)

No one should doubt the gravity of the ruling by one of the eight advocates general to the European Union’s Court of Justice on the issue of stem cells. It looks set to kill off a fledgling bioscience discipline that could revolutionise medicine in the 21st century.

The ruling grew from an objection by Greenpeace in Germany to a patent application from a German scientist who has developed the first clinical applications of stem-cell technology for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The cells used were derived from human embryos, and the French advocate general, Yves Bot, has ruled that such cells could develop into a human being and therefore cannot be patented. His judgment would put an end to studies to use stem cells to repair diseased hearts and damaged spines, and to cure blindness.

This view is at odds with the premiss on which British biosciences have proceeded since the Warnock report decided more than 30 years ago that the use of human embryos was permissible so long as the cells used had been fertilised for less than 14 days. If the 13 Grand Chamber judges of the European Court of Justice now endorse Mr Bot’s opinion, decades of British research in this field will be jettisoned. The advocate general has ruled that even the blastocyst stage of development, reached around five days after fertilisation, must also be classified as an embryo. His ruling even covers an unfertilised ova whose division has been stimulated by parthenogenesis. Such a ruling is obscurantist.

Mr Bot claims his view has taken account of the philosophical, moral, human and economic issues at stake. It is hard to see how. What he has done is elevate a philosophical precautionary principle to absurd limits which take no account of the harm that will be done to hundreds of thousands of people whose health could benefit from these technologies – nor of the fact that stem cell scientists will shift in their entirety to the United States, depriving Europe of a multimillion-pound industry.

An advocate general’s opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice, though judges endorse them in 80 per cent of cases. This is one case in which they must rethink.

The Independent | Leading article | Friday, 29 April 2011

UK: Leading teachers’ union criticises ‘faith’ schools

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has condemned ‘faith’ schools’ power to discriminate against teachers and lambasted some ‘faith’ schools for failing to promote tolerance and equality.

Motion 54 passed yesterday at the spring conference of the NUT, stated that the conference ‘notes the continued discrimination faced by our members in faith schools, on the grounds of sexuality, not to mention marital status, transgender status and even race or nationality. Some religious schools believe they are above the law and can do anything that they believe is in line with their religious beliefs.’

The resolution also noted the opposition by religious groups to initiatives designed to promote tolerance and equality in schools, including criticism by the Catholic Church of a code of conduct requiring teachers to challenge discrimination and promote equality. ‘This is something which should be at the centre of what every teacher does’ read the motion ‘but that the Catholic Education Service contradicts and many other faith schools do not accept.’

Following the debate, the general secretary of the NUT, Christine Blower, stated that: ‘While faith schools will clearly want to set an environment that reflects their religious ethos, we need to ensure that the religious and cultural differences of all pupils and staff are recognised and that the values of community cohesion are practised by all schools. Discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, marital status or religion should have no place in any of our schools.’

British Humanist Association (BHA) Chief Executive Andrew Copson who attended the NUT conference for the BHA, said:

‘These calls for reform demonstrate the widespread opposition to the discrimination allowed to state-funded religious schools by law.

‘In the last few days teachers, academics, and even the Chairman of the Church of England’s Board of Education have spoken against ongoing discrimination in religious schools. These calls should not be ignored and these discriminatory practices should be abolished.’

British Humanist Association | 26 April 2011

UK: Islamist extremism. So did we cure the problem?

This week’s disclosures from WikiLeaks confirm that Britain was a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism. But, 10 years after 9/11, we still pander to extremism, says Andrew Gilligan.

The East London Mosque, the largest in Britain, hosted a “live telephone Q&A” with the world’s most dangerous al-Qaeda preacher, advertised with a poster showing Manhattan in flames. At the North London Mosque, equally important and well-known, one of the trustees is a supporter, and former leader, of a terrorist organisation. According to the BBC, he “is said to have masterminded much of [its] political and military strategy” from his perch in London.

Over the last few days, the Guantanamo Bay files leaked to this newspaper have shown in compelling detail how Britain became a global hub of terror, with at least 35 inmates of the detention camp radicalised here in the years before 9/11. Yet the two examples I give do not come from the leaked files. They are much more recent. The people who run those two mosques have been in no way troubled by the authorities. In fact, they have been helped by them. At the North London Mosque, the radical activist was actually installed by the police – and remains a trustee. And in the financial year to 2010, the year after it hosted that session with the fundamentalist preacher, the East London Mosque received £660,000 of taxpayers’ money – some of it from a Home Office fund for “preventing violent extremism”.

There is a reason why Britain, in the words of one French official, is and remains the “Pakistan of the West”, an incubator, entrepot and exporter of Islamic radicalism. There is a reason why, according to MI6, we face a “unique” threat from home-grown extremists. There is a reason why Britain is the only country in the Western world to have been subjected to a successful suicide terror attack by its own citizens. These things have happened, in part, because the last government, and Britain’s security establishment, got its policy just about as wrong as it was possible to get. We were harsh where we should have been liberal – and liberal where we should have been harsh.

Control orders, the push for three months’ detention without charge, random and blanket stop-and-search, and Britain’s complicity in torture did little or nothing to restrain terrorism. But they undermined the rule of law for which we are fighting, angered middle-of-the-road Muslims and gave the extremists priceless fuel for their favourite narrative, “Islam under attack”.

At the same time, we were crazily indulgent of some of the world’s most dangerous Islamist radicals. Until 1998, Khalid al-Fawwaz, al-Qaeda’s official press spokesman, operated, quite openly, from Dollis Hill – you could pop up on the Jubilee line, chat about the latest suicide bomb with him and fix a trip to Osama bin Laden’s Afghan cave.

Bin Laden’s “ambassador to Europe”, Abu Qatada, also called London home. Al-Qaeda’s senior commander, Abu Zubaydah, described him as the group’s “most successful recruiter in Europe”. He was not arrested until the year after 9/11. Not until two years after was another al-Qaeda recruitment channel, that run by Abu Hamza, closed down.

For years, the security services explicitly advised ministers not to act against such people in the belief that they “would not bite the hand that fed” them, and “would keep terrorism off the streets of the UK” – if left in peace to plot terrorism on the streets of, say, New York. Those quotes are from MI5, in an official document from Qatada’s deportation hearing.

Condemnation of all this is, by now, common ground. What is less well known, though, is that the policy of indulgence continues, in modified form. Influential security officials believe that we can somehow anoint “good” radicals and use them as a bulwark against the “bad” ones.

Abu Hamza’s former stamping-ground, the North London Mosque, was taken away from him in 2003. But in a deal brokered by the Metropolitan Police, it was essentially then gifted to the Muslim Association of Britain. The new leadership are certainly more moderate than Hamza – not terribly difficult – but they have links with another banned terrorist group, Hamas. One of the mosque’s new trustees, Mohammed Sawalha, is described by the BBC’s Panorama as a former senior figure in Hamas who “is said to have masterminded much of Hamas’s political and military strategy” from London. In 2009, Mr Sawalha also signed the Istanbul Declaration calling for attacks against the allies of Israel, which include the UK.

There is nothing to link the leadership of either the North or East London Mosques directly with any terrorist attack on British soil. Indeed, they are always keen to stress that they condemn such attacks. There have been no successful terror attacks in Britain since 2005, and a number of plots have been foiled.

One of the things this week’s leaked papers – with their fanciful suggestion that the BBC is part of a “possible propaganda media network” for al-Qaeda – make clear is how relatively little the intelligence services seemed to know about al-Qaeda, or any of its affiliates, in the early years of this century. The authorities’ rising success at disrupting plots is a consequence of their cumulatively rising knowledge over 10 years of work.

But the macro politics, as opposed to the micro intelligence, have gone wrong. The Islamists empowered by the authorities may condemn terrorism, but their actions in hosting radicals and fundamentalists leave their fine words open to question. And even non-violent Islamists teach their followers to suspect, reject, sometimes despise the culture of this country. They explicitly believe in replacing secular, democratic government with theocratic and Islamic government.

The vast majority of our Muslim fellow-citizens are not Islamists. They want the same things as everybody else, and are making their way increasingly successfully in society. Britain’s problem, however, is that to an extent greater here than in any other Western country, the commanding heights of our Muslim communities are disproportionately influenced by the radical minority.

They control many of the most important mosques. They are highly influential in the Muslim Council of Britain. They control, or heavily influence, some British-based digital TV channels widely watched by British Muslims. They run a number of Britain’s biggest Muslim charities. They dominate many university Islamic societies. And they are setting up schools where a new generation is being raised to be much more radical than its parents.

This has been done with at best the acquiescence, at worst the active support, of the British state. Ofcom, the TV regulator, hands out only slaps on the wrist for blatant and repeated bias, lies and breaches of its code which might see other broadcasters shut down. Ofsted, the education regulator, described a London school as leaving its pupils “well-prepared for life in a multicultural society”, even though the school website states that it teaches them to “oppose the lifestyle of the West”.

Ed Balls, when education secretary in the last government, actively defended the payment of public money to schools run by supporters of Hizb ut Tahrir. Robert Lambert, the police commander who did the North London Mosque deal, has become an academic, heavily funded by the state and radical groups as co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter University. Charles Farr, head of the Government’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, supported the admission to the UK of a radical preacher, Zakir Naik, who has stated that “every Muslim should be a terrorist”. Many Left-liberals, including those in government, see any criticism of almost any Muslim as illegitimate, and a threat to liberal values. But it is the extremists who really threaten liberalism.

For all David Cameron’s recent promise to change things, only some things have altered. Repressive security laws are being toned down. Naik did not, in the end, get his visa. But in the last three months, at least £50,000 of public money has been paid to the East London Mosque and its sister organisations. Despite claims to the contrary, a number of Islamist-sympathising advisers are still employed in Whitehall. And an Islamist front, Engage, has achieved touchdown at Westminster, having been appointed secretariat to a new all-party parliamentary group on Islamophobia.

Of course, most radicals will never be terrorists – and most terrorists have no documented links to any radical group. But radicalism creates the atmosphere in which terrorism grows – and a disproportionate number of terrorists do have radical links. The policy of indulgence is also a threat not just to security, but to good community relations.

Revolutionaries cannot be tamed by meetings with ministers, posts on committees or taxpayers’ cash. They can only be strengthened. Britain’s Islamist groups are largely self-appointed and represent almost no one. Their principal importance is that which has been gifted to them by the Government.

The Telegraph | Andrew Gilligan | 26 April 2011

Ireland: I’m anti-Catholic says Byrne after sexual abuse by priest

Award-winning actor Gabriel Byrne says he is staunchly opposed to Catholicism because he was sexually abused while training as a priest.

Byrne (60) not only describes himself as “extremely anti-Catholic”, he also says he’s “very much of an atheist”.

“The Catholic Church is repressive of women and minorities and repressive of its followers. It victimised people through propaganda and kept them in line through primitive fear,” he said.

“The first step that has to be taken is the abolition of celibacy. The Church that is supposed to be about love denies its followers the most sacred expression of love. It says, you can’t do that because you’ll go to hell for it. You can do it if you’re married but even then you can only do it on certain days of the month.”

Speaking about the clerical sex abuse scandal, he goes on to say how it was “an epidemic that was covered up and the victims were made to feel responsible for the crimes perpetrated”.

The Usual Suspects star — who was once married to actress Ellen Barkin — has previously spoken out about how he was also a victim of clerical sex abuse at the hands of the Christian Brothers in Ireland when he was 11 years old and a second time in England.

“Unfortunately, I experienced some sexual abuse. It was a known and admitted fact of life amongst us that there was this particular man, and you didn’t want to be left in the dressing room with him,” he said.

“It took many years to come to terms with it and to forgive those incidents that I felt had deeply hurt me.

“Again, I didn’t think it severely impacted me at the time. But I suppose when I think about my later life, and how I had difficulties with certain issues, there is the real possibility they could have been attributable to that.”

Now the actor is enjoying a career high in the US, thanks to the success of HBO series In Treatment, which earned him a Golden Globe award. The acclaimed series sees him take on the part of psychotherapist Paul Weston with the third series set to air soon.

Herald | Melanie Finn | 27 April 2011

Malta: Humanist Association calls for ‘Yes’ vote

The Malta Humanist Association this morning affirmed its stand in favour of the introduction of divorce in Malta.

“Society is made up of individuals, so the common good of a society must flow from the protection of individual rights. The idea that the common good is worth the price of a few individuals is a dangerous one. Anything can be declared to be “for the common good”, and so this argument can be – and has been – used to justify all forms of oppression and discrimination in the past,” the association said.

“Democracy is not a case of the majority imposing its will upon the rest. If we provide social services for the needy, it is not because the majority of the population needs these services, but because we are a society made up of many individuals, including those who are in need. We are also a society in which most marriages are strong, but that does not mean we can ignore or overlook the marriages that fail.

“Divorce provides a way forward for those whose marriage has ended. Just as the minority who need social services rely on the rest of society to make them available, so too the minority who need a divorce is relying on a Yes vote on the 28th May.”

Times of Malta | 26th April 2011

Austria – Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger: Defying the Pope? It’s like not paying a parking fine

Bishop Mayr-Lumetzberger still hopes the papacy will relent over women.

She served in church as a child, has been excommunicated, is married to a divorced man, and has been consecrated a bishop. How much further can a Catholic woman challenge the Vatican? Peter Stanford meets Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger.

“And this is the funeral in one of our big Benedictine monasteries in Austria,” explains Bishop Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, “of a young woman whose mother wanted me to officiate.” Her finger moves along a row of photographs on the screen of her laptop as we talk.

“Here I am with the parish priest, making the procession to the altar together. I always try to be conciliatory. We agreed he would lead the service when we were in the abbey, and I would lead at the graveside.”

Women bishops are, of course, commonplace in most branches of Protestantism, and now General Synod has given them the green light in the Church of England. That decision has caused an exodus of Anglican priests and congregations into a newly created special section (or “ordinariate”) of the Catholic church. As many as 900 are expected to convert this Easter weekend, attracted by the Pope’s over-my-dead-body attitude to allowing women a place at the altar.

Yet the Roman church they are joining may not be quite the haven it seems, for 55-year-old Bishop Mayr-Lumetzberger is a Catholic, as are the congregations that she serves, across Austria, one of the most Catholic countries in the world.

Here is Mayr-Lumetzberger, in file after file of pictures, with her bishop’s cross and vestments, officiating at weddings and baptisms and Sunday services, in Catholic parish churches and abbeys, usually alongside a bevy of male Catholic priests.

“They are very respectful,” she explains. “So if we are walking as a group up the aisle, they automatically get in the right formation with the bishop at the back as the church’s rules teach.”

Ah, yes, the church’s rules. Pope John Paul II, in 1994, told Catholics that not only were women excluded from the priesthood (because, he said, Jesus was a man and the priest stands in the place of Jesus) but also that they weren’t even to discuss the question. So how can Mayr-Lumetzberger call herself a bishop? And what about the 100-plus Catholic women in Europe and America who have followed her and been ordained?

It is a question she’s clearly heard many times before. She smiles patiently. Today she is dressed in simple pink blouse and white trousers, but often, she says, sports a black clerical suit. There is a look of Margaret Beckett, the Labour politician, about her. “These priests,” she replies, gesturing at the pictures on the computer screen, “they accept me as a priest and let me officiate in their churches. And these people” – she points to the packed pews – “they accept me as a priest and ask for me to officiate.” One leads to the other.

And it isn’t only in Austria’s Linz region where she lives. Our meeting coincides with a trip to London where, as well as giving a lecture, she has been preparing a young couple she will be marrying later this year. She is clearly in demand among Catholics, rule-breaker or not.

Practice and rules have a curious relationship in Catholicism. Survey after survey, for instance, finds only a tiny percentage of mass-going Catholics take any notice of the loudly trumpeted papal teaching on issues such as contraception, homosexuality and the use of condoms to stop the transmission of Aids. The difference for Mayr-Lumetzberger, though, is that she was formally excommunicated in 2002 for going against what the Pope decrees.

“But,” she protests, “what I am doing is the reality. It is not important if they [the church authorities] like it or not.”

Mayr-Lumetzberger grew up in a Catholic family. “I always felt at home in church,” she recalls. As a girl, she wanted to be an altar server. An uncle, high up in the local church, allowed her to do all the things the boys did, but she couldn’t wear an altar server’s vestment because she was female.

As a teenager, she became a nun, but her order wouldn’t let her study theology, sending her off instead to train as a nursery teacher. Was she always a rebel? “I don’t think of myself as a rebel at all,” she says. “I am very conservative really. I am doing what parish priests have been doing for centuries, acting as a midwife who helps people to find their way to God.”

She entered the nunnery when a reforming spirit was abroad in the church as a result of the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, especially in the Catholic countries of central Europe. “When I joined, I believed that it was the first step on the road to becoming a priest. That was the expectation back then. It was in the air. But it all changed with Wojtyla. An iron curtain came down.”

She refers to John Paul II – the Pope who would eventually excommunicate her, and others like her – only by his Polish surname. Elected in 1978, he was deeply conservative on the question of women at the altar.

In the new hostile climate Mayr-Lumetzberger left her order in 1981, but carried on teaching in a Catholic school and being involved in her local parish. Indeed, to this day, she is still a regular communicant there, excommunication order or not.

It was at this stage that she met her husband, Michael, a historian. The pectoral (bishop’s) cross that she wears today, simple and golden, was one he brought back for her from a research trip to Ethiopia. He had been married before and had four children. Their wedding was not in church. “No one would do it,” she explains, “because of Michael’s divorce, but we had our party in the parish house afterwards.”

A pattern is starting to emerge. When confronted with seemingly insurmountable church rules, Mayr-Lumetzberger finds a way to work round it. She continued teaching and working in parishes but increasingly was answering requests to lead liturgies herself. She even ran courses for women, like her, who believed that God was calling them to priesthood.

It was during what she insists was a friendly discussion with a bishop, that he remarked “some only talk about doing things, and some do them”. Whether he intended it as a challenge of not, she took it as one. “I wanted to be a priest before I died. If I waited for the male priesthood to allow that change, it would be impossible.”

And so, in 2002, she joined a group of six other like-minded Catholic women on a boat in the Danube – to keep them away from the cameras, she adds, and to avoid being in any bishop’s jurisdiction – where they were ordained by Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi of Argentina before 300 witnesses. In theory, according to Catholic teaching, if you are ordained by a bishop in good standing, you are a priest, but the Vatican insists (a) that Braschi had put himself outside the fold by his dissent from other church policies and (b) that its ban on women’s ordination is bigger than any bishop’s authority.

Because the “Danube Seven” refused to accept Rome’s ruling, they were excommunicated. That must have hurt, I suggest. “I laughed at it,” she replies with a bravado that doesn’t ring true. “It was like a traffic fine you don’t pay. I go on celebrating mass. People go on wanting me to celebrate mass. They accept what I do.

“Women bring something different, something complementary to the male priesthood. When I bless a mother during a baptism, for example, I can touch her, as a woman, in a way that a male priest simply cannot.”

She further antagonised the Vatican by being consecrated a bishop in 2003. The ceremony this time took place in secret. She has always refused to give the date, place or names of the male Catholic bishops who consecrated her, for fear of Vatican reprisals against them. Today, as always, she is adamant that they remain serving bishops in the official Catholic church.

“They were the ones who asked me to become a bishop,” she says, “not the other way round. How could I say no? They persuaded me that it was the only way I could ensure that other women priests would come after me.”

So what is her relationship now with the official church? Mayr-Lumetzberger says she is in contact with the bishops in Austria (unofficially, of course), and that she is treated neither as outcast nor embarrassment. It is tempting to think of an underground church, but Mayr-Lumetzberger and her fellow women priests are operating in the open.

“As far as I am aware,” says Mgr Kieran Conry, the Catholic bishop of Arundel and Brighton, “there are not any of these ‘Catholic women priests’ in Britain, and the position of the Vatican is very clear – that Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger has been excommunicated. But from my experience, especially when I visit parishes in my diocese that no longer have a resident parish priest because of the shortage of vocations, I do not detect any great level of opposition among Catholics in the pews to the idea of ordaining women. Usually they are the ones suggesting it.

“So the view of the Vatican does not seem to permeate down to the parishes on this question.”

I ask Mayr-Lumetzberger if I can publish some of her pictures. She hesitates. “I don’t want to get individual priests into trouble with the Vatican and I want, above all, to minimise scandal.” We reach a typical Mayr-Lumetzberger compromise – a shot of her in a high-profile Austrian abbey, but no other faces there and no mention of where it is.

Minimise is a key word in this quiet revolution. Mayr-Lumetzberger and the others were so frustrated by their second-class status as women in Catholicism that they felt they had to break out and be ordained, whatever Rome said, but nowadays they are anxious only to get on with their priestly work. Does she believe that by showing women can do it, and do it well, she will one day persuade the papacy to change its mind?

“Why not?” she says. “I have to believe it is possible. Who else is going to believe it if I don’t?”

Curriculum vitae: A life on the wrong side of the Vatican

26 January 1956 Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger born in Linz, Upper Austria, into a religious family.

1962-1976 Attends a school run by the Holy Cross Sisters in Linz.

1970 Aged 14, she is allowed to serve unofficially in her parish as an altar server.

1976 Enters the convent of the Benedictines of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and given the religious name “Marie Christin”.

1999 Helps organise a three-year programme of seminary training for women in Germany and Austria.

29 June 2002 Is one of the ‘Danube Seven’ ordained by Argentinian Bishop, Romulo Antonio Braschi.

10 July Vatican orders the seven women to repent by 22 July (the feast of St Mary Magdalen).

21 December All seven are excommunicated by Pope John Paul II.

2003 Consecrated as a bishop in a secret ceremony.

2005 Ordains women from the US and Canada on the St. Lawrence River, Canada.

28 June 2009 Is refused communion by Bishop Ludwig Schwarz in Linz, but chooses to take the host from the ciborium herself.

The Independent | Sunday 24th April 2011

UK: Happy Easter, aggressive secularists everywhere

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

It is astounding – as various churches and religious groups are feted as lynchpins of the ‘Big Society’ and handed our public services, as state-funded schools find themselves converted to religious status in increasing numbers, as Bishops look set to stay in the Lords while another opportunity for reform hurtles by, and as religious leaders of all stripes are invited to Downing Street (this Wednesday) for one of the most outrageously pious government “outreach” events in recent times – that despite all this, one Cardinal Keith O’Brien felt it necessary to use his Easter sermon to tell Christians to unite “in the face of aggressive secularism to maintain our Christian heritage and culture in our great country”. Once again, to ask for nothing more than a neutral civic space is to be branded “aggressive”; to contest religious privilege is to be branded “enemies”. Well, happy Easter to you too, Keith.

Our Chief Executive Andrew Copson was quoted in response, reasonably pointing out that, ‘What these attacks ignore is that campaigners for secularism in our public life are overwhelmingly motivated, not by anti-religious prejudice, but by a positive desire for equality and an equitable public sphere.

‘These alarmist speeches, designed to stir up the faithful and foster a false narrative of persecution, are divisive and sectarian.’

Claims of “aggressive secularism” only obscured the reality, he said. ‘The churches are seeking to defend a level of influence and privilege totally out of proportion to their significance,’ he concluded.

Across the Catholic-Protestant divide, however, there was a rather different message last week from Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford. It was so different, in fact, that BHA President Polly Toynbee was able to welcome it as “a great step forward”.  The Bishop, only recently in place as the new chair of the church’s education board, appears to recognise the reality of social segregation and social selection in ‘faith’ schools, something which the BHA has pointed out for many years is both clearly in evidence and fully explains the performance differential of such schools.

Acceptance of this reality is a new tightrope for the Church of England to walk, and it is in early, unsteady days. The Bishop’s plan (to limit C of E places in its schools to 10%) neither aims directly at the problem of social selection nor has the faintest ring of workability about it (there’s no power to enforce it, and it wouldn’t work anyway in huge numbers of places where nominally at least a great more than 10% of the families are C of E). But at least, at last, it seems the Church of England has allowed its guilt over ‘faith’ schools to spill to the surface and make a high level concession. It’s one to watch, and it certainly gives the lie to the notion that only “aggressive secularists” have any concerns about the way that children from various backgrounds and in various ways are tugged, pooled and separated by the ‘faith’ schools system.

British Humanist Association | 25 April 2011

UK: Faith schools. Now even the church admits they’re unfair

Polly Toynbee, President of the British Humanist Association.

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a pleasingly radical Thought for the Day, as the Queen handed out Maundy money, reminding us that monarchs used to wash the feet of the poor. Sternly, he suggested the cabinet, top financiers and newspaper editors should once a year do similarly humble service not as volunteers, but compulsorily – “so they are not able to make any sort of capital out of it”, because “power constantly needs to be reminded what it is for … to look after those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, performs the Washing of the Feet ceremony during the Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent this week. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Strong stuff. As current policies send poverty soaring, the church can shake a fist at power, pelf and privilege. Polls show the CofE is no longer the Tory party at prayer – the Catholic church never was. The one attack that stung Margaret Thatcher as she more than doubled the number of poor children was the CofE’s searing 1985 Faith in the City report. Today the church lit a fuse under the government’s education policy when the Bishop of Oxford blew the whistle on faith schools’ unfair social selectivity.

The British Humanist Association, of which I am president, has campaigned hard with the Accord Coalition to free up the third of state schools that are religious – with their covert selection, isolating Muslim, Jewish and Hindu children, and dividing Catholics from Protestants.

Tony Blair encouraged their growth: sincerely religious, he also thought secret selection would bind in the middle classes. As Westminster always does, he saw education through London eyes, with its acute social fractures, ignoring most families outside inner cities who were more satisfied with schools. The alternative to paying is praying, so parents get on their knees at the birth of a child – rational behaviour in this system. In fact, there was little sign of middle-class flight: the proportion of children in private schools barely rose in the last decades though many more families could afford it.

This government is increasing faith education, with seven out of 10 applications for free schools coming from religious organisations. The education secretary, Michael Gove, urges faith schools to become academies. Writing in the Catholic Herald, he recommends avoiding secular critics’ accusations of “selection on the sly”, as “by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling”. Academies and half of all faith schools set their own admissions, key to their league table success.

Humanists and secularists have been hammering away at this, but the churches denied unequivocal evidence that faith schools take fewer free school-meal pupils. The Commons education committee reported faith schools discriminating against poor and migrant children. The chief schools adjudicator is leaving before his contract ends after criticising government plans to weaken the admissions code. He told parliament a third of his cases related to faith school admissions. Institute of Education research shows selection by faith schools leads to greater social segregation – with no improvement in an area’s results.

So it is a great step forward that the Bishop of Oxford, new chair of the church’s education board, accepts the facts and proposes only 10% of places be reserved for the faithful: “We may not get the startling results that some church schools do because of getting some very able children, but we will make a difference to people’s lives.”

He echoes a strong strand among liberal vicars uncomfortable at running schools excluding the most needy. But will it happen? Remember the almighty row from Catholics and the Daily Mail at a failed Labour plan to reserve just a quarter of places for non-churchgoers. It may be far too late. The bishop admits he has no power, since governors run and often own faith schools, while parents in pews expect a place in reward for their prayers. Will the other 90% of children need to prove no CofE connections? That 10% selection will still be enough to make these desirable schools, so parents will still move into their catchments.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are good at crocodile tears over social mobility while their policies increase social segregation. Mobility only comes with more financial equality: they pursue the opposite. Everything about the mobility debate has been upside down. Oxbridge admissions are the inevitable end result of the nation’s growing social rigidity, not the cause.

All research shows that the best education investment is in under-fives, but Sure Start is being stripped of the intensive treatments that works. Socially mixed school intakes are best done by lottery – as pioneered by Brighton’s Tory council. It works, with fewer disappointed parents. No one fears being allocated a sink school as every bright child finds enough others in each school. But that requires councils or a government with the nerve to impose it. However, if the CofE enters the fray to press for fair admissions, that brings muscle to the empty social mobility debate.

Unspoken is the fear that more Christian schools means more Muslim schools too, with no other children in the mix. Typical Cameron to increase faith school autonomy while calling for better cultural integration. But if the CofE now gives up its special rights, a future Labour government could stop funding any unintegrated school: an Ipsos Mori polls shows that 80% think all schools should be open to all, regardless of faith. This week the door opened a crack: it will take a lot more vociferous campaigning to make it happen.

Meanwhile, other campaigns against the forces of faith gather momentum. For the right to die peacefully at a time of our choosing. For an automatic opt-in for organ donation. Against the government handing more services to religious groups: latest is the Poppy Project’s vulnerable trafficked women given to the evangelical Salvation Army. Expect yet another attempt soon to limit abortions.

Freedom of speech needs vigilant defence against faiths demanding protection from “offence”. The humanist census campaign was censored, alerting people that the religion question on the form was not a cultural question. In a YouGov test survey when asked “What is your religion?” 61% ticked a box for one religion or another, but when asked “Are you religious?” only 29% said yes. But our poster – “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so!” – was prohibited from buses and stations for potential “serious offence”.

How people answered the census will determine the influence of religion, especially in House of Lords reform as each faith demands reserved seats. The battle has never been against the right to belief – we’re with Voltaire – but against state privilege and law-making influence for religions. So if you’re not religious, for God’s sake join us!

The Guardian | Polly Toynbee | Friday 22 April 2011


Scottish cardinal “trying to outdo his boss in the Vatican” say gay Humanists

The UK gay Humanist charity the Pink Triangle Trust (PTT) has accused the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland of trying to outdo the Pope in his attacks on secularism and LGBT rights.

Cardinal Keith O’Brian has used his Easter sermon to rail against what he describes as “aggressive secularism” which was something Pope Benedict warned about on his state visit to Britain last year. The Cardinal referred to the enemies of the Christian faith in Britain and the power they currently exert.

In a reference to equality legislation preventing discrimination against LGBT people, Cardinal O’Brien denounced what he claimed was the way Christians had been prevented from acting in accordance with their beliefs because they refuse to endorse such lifestyles.

In 2006 O’Brian declared that Government proposals designed to outlaw sexual-orientation discrimination constitute grave threats to “freedom of conscience” and to “religious freedom”. In the same year he compared same sex partnerships to paedophilia.

In 2009 he urged Scottish National Party ministers to abandon plans to give gay couples the right to become foster parents. He described the measures as “misguided and inappropriate” and claimed  they would put vulnerable children at risk.“The proposals are as misguided as the change to allow same-sex adoption”, he said.

Reacting to the latest attack, the PTT’s Secretary George Broadhead said: “It seems as if O’Brian is trying to outdo his boss in the Vatican with his anti-secularist and anti-gay rhetoric. When referring to the enemies of the Christian faith in Britain, he no doubt has in mind organisations like the National Secular Society (NSS) which campaigns for a society where everyone is free to practise their religion, change it or not have one, but asserts that religion must not have privileged influence in the public and political arenas where it can so easily become an excuse for conflict, inequality and injustice. The NSS provides some of the most vociferous support for LGBT people and their rights.”

Mr Broadhead added: “With the present government bent on promoting religion, notably by greatly increasing the number of so-called faith schools at taxpayers’ expense, the cardinal’s claim that Christianity has powerful enemies is ludicrous.”

The Pink Triangle Trust | 24 April 2011

The Pink Triangle Trust (PTT) is named after the pink triangle that gay men had to wear in the Nazi concentration camps. The registered charity (number 1015629) was set up in 1992 to advance the education of the public and particularly of lesbians and gay men, in the principles and practice of Humanism and to advance the education of the public, and particularly of Humanists, about all aspects of homosexuality. It may also assist individuals to obtain remedies under the law where they have suffered unlawful discrimination on account of their homosexuality or their Humanism.

The PTT is member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Cutting Edge Consortium and the Alliance for a Secular Europe.

It is a supporter of the Secular Europe Campaign.

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