Joan Smith: In defence of modern Britain

I've always thought it a bit rich for Christians to accuse other people of belonging to a 'culture of death', when they go in for all those crucifixions, pietas and bleeding hearts

Thursday 02 September 2010 00:00

I woke up as usual yesterday in the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death" – and very pleasant it was. I fed the cats, read the papers and carried an espresso into the back garden, congratulating myself on being a citizen of a country that doesn't stone women to death, hang gay men from cranes or murder people who change their religion. I mean, how great is that? I love living in the "selfish, hedonistic wasteland" that is London – both quotes come from one Edmund Adamus, who is apparently a senior British Catholic and an adviser to the Archbishop of Westminster – and I just wish more nations would follow our example.

Frankly, I'm tired of hearing religious bigots running down this country. For all its faults – crap public transport, Nick Clegg popping up everywhere and a national obsession with Simon Cowell – Britain is still one of the most civilised places in the world to live. It's not Iran, where prisoners are subjected to rape and mock executions; it isn't Saudi Arabia either, despite Mr Adamus's downright peculiar belief that we're more anti-Catholic than the Chinese or the Saudis. (Might I suggest he tries walking along a street in Riyadh carrying a crucifix and a Bible?) The Catholic Church has picked up this habit of dissing secular culture from hardline Muslims, who dislike pretty much the same things: gay relationships, equal rights for women and the freedom to mock religion.

Those of us who aren't religious conservatives have had to fight every step of the way to create this modern, tolerant, secular Britain, and it's easy to forget that many of the improvements are very recent. I can just remember the last hangings in British prisons, as well as a time when having an "illegitimate" baby brought shame on a woman and homosexuality was still illegal; even as recently as 10 years ago, when the current Foreign Secretary William Hague was Conservative leader, the party opposed the repeal of an iconic piece of anti-gay legislation known as Section 28.

So it's good to have this wake-up from Mr Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster, about the need to defend secular values. Mr Adamus launched into his denunciation of modern Britain during an interview with a Catholic news agency, Zenit, that's said to have close links with the Vatican, and his use of the phrase "culture of death" – an echo of the late Pope John Paul II – identifies him as being on the Church's conservative wing; it's code for abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, three practices traditionalist Catholics lump together even though secular philosophers see distinctions between them. The UK allows abortion (although regrettably not in Northern Ireland where the churches lobbied for an exclusion), but is uneasy about euthanasia and gave up using the death penalty several decades ago.

This latest row has brought into the open what many people suspected in the run-up to a controversial papal visit to Britain; some Vatican officials, it seems, are alarmed by the threat of demonstrations and increasingly regard the UK as a hostile country. A damage limitation exercise is under way – Mr Adamus's boss, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, has distanced himself from the remarks – but the row comes only two weeks before Benedict XVI is due to arrive in Britain. There's already anger and unease about the soaring cost to taxpayers of protecting the Pope – many of the functions he will undertake are religious, not political – and now a senior Catholic has exposed a sneering contempt for secular culture.

"Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage, in essence one of the most anti-Catholic landscapes, culturally speaking – more than even those places where Catholics suffer open persecution," Mr Adamus claimed. In the midst of this contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah, he singled out for special condemnation "permissive laws advancing the 'gay' agenda" – equal rights legislation, in other words – and what he calls the "objectification of women for sexual gratification". I'm not sure what he has in mind – I love Wonderbras, hate lap-dancing clubs – but I suspect I might see pleasure and sexual freedom where Mr Adamus sees objectification.

If that makes me a hedonist, so be it; as long as I'm not harming humans or animals, I can't see anything wrong in enjoying myself. I've always thought it's a bit rich for Christians to accuse other people of belonging to a "culture of death" when they go in for all those crucifixions, pietas and bleeding hearts – and that's without getting on to the subject of the early Christian martyrs. It's a gruesome feature of religious art that Renaissance altarpieces often have a predella showing saints being boiled in cauldrons or having body parts removed; St Agatha, patron saint of bell-founders, got her job as a result of an unfortunate confusion about what she was carrying on a plate in front of her. Now there's a death cult if ever I saw one.

The confusion that's been exposed by this latest attack on life-loving secular culture is actually a very old one, namely the pernicious myth that morality resides in sexual behaviour. Sexuality has always been an obsession for Christian churches and the Vatican's teachings on the subject are so severe that millions of Catholics – including Cherie Blair, wife of the former Prime Minister, who wrote in her autobiography about her contraceptive methods – simply ignore them. At the same time, many non-Catholics have been shocked by the Vatican's refusal to allow the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

Sex does raise questions of morality, if not in the way the Vatican understands them, but there are more important issues on which the moral standing of a nation should be judged. Here's one of them: when an earthquake devastated Haiti earlier this year, British donations to disaster relief eventually reached £101m. Now that floods have devastated Pakistan, leaving millions of people homeless, the British public has contributed another £42m to the Disasters Emergency Committee. Does that really sound like the response of a nation which is supposedly the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death"?

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