Monday, 25 February 2008

Simplification no substitute for analysis when criticising religion

As regular readers of this blog will know, despite my youthful flirtation with Catholicism and continuing love-hate relationship with religion, I hold no particular brief for the institutional Catholic Church. But reading Gareth McLean’s remarks in his Guardian TV preview on Friday, I began to wonder if James MacMillan had a point when he wrote (in an article I mentioned here) of ‘the gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an understanding of religion, particularly Catholic Christianity, in so much that passes for criticism and analysis’.

Previewing a programme about Latin America, McLean wrote that in that part of the world the Church ‘did what it does: sided with the powerful - inevitably right-wing, often murderous - and oppressed the oppressed’. Thus the complex history of Catholicism in the Americas is reduced to a soundbite, and the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, Sister Dorothy Stang and many others who stood up for human rights and as a result were murdered by the ‘powerful’, is suppressed. McLean then blames the 'institutionalised misogyny' of the Church for the continuing ban on abortion in Nicaragua. Now, while few will claim that the Church has a shining record on women’s rights - and wherever you stand on the abortion issue - can the Church’s position really be attributed to misogyny rather than a stubborn, if misguided, belief in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception?

OK, so it was only a TV preview and I have no particular wish to defend the Catholic Church, whether in Latin America or elsewhere. But McLean's casual, one-sided outburst was remarkable in a newspaper that has adopted a notably softly-softly stance towards religion in recent times. Of course, that indulgence has been extended mainly to Islam. Can you imagine a Guardian columnist getting away with similar sideswipes, without the usual caveats and cultural-relativist explanations, at Islam: ‘Islam does what it always does, oppresses the oppressed’ or 'the institutionalised misogyny of Islam’?

McLean’s comments are a reminder of the old adage that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the Left. Of course, that was in the days before anti-Semitism became the anti-Semitism of the Left.

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