1980s >> 1982 >> no-933-may-1982

A visit from times past

Having nothing but hostility to pomp, superstition and market-place morality, the Socialist Party of Great Britain views the welcoming celebrations for the visit of Pope John Paul II as nothing more or less than a reflection of the ignorance of the religiously stupefied. Everything that the Pope represents, socialists oppose; everything that socialists seek to change, the advocates of religion need to preserve. We stand for human action within the material world—they stand for the passivity of faith within a world controlled by a mythically omnipotent, super-human deity. Respect for the leaders of religion—be they popes, ayatollahs, gurus or rabbis—reflects a pathetic lack of appreciation of the potentialities of humanity.

Christianity developed in an age of mass ignorance of human and environmental evolution. In the second century the Church of Rome emerged, originally as a movement of ideological dissent against the imperial ruling class of its day. (See Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity, parts II and IV.) The new religion was adopted by the aspirant rulers of the fourth century, and it was they who ensured the power of the bishops and the unchallengable nature of the Christian dogma. In the year AD 378 Theodosius became Roman Emperor and enacted a Christian monopoly on state propaganda (previously there had been a religious battle going on between the Roman Church and the advocates of Mithraism—sun worship); later the Emperor Gratian appointed the Bishop of Rome and his successors as the official religious leaders of the Western Empire, that is, Western Europe and North Africa. The role of the Bishop of Rome (or Pope) was to direct the religious development of the Empire in line with the political interests of the new Roman ruling class, to appoint a network of agents to spread the message, and to punish members of the oppressed class who stepped out of line. In short, the role of the Popes in classical antiquity was not unlike that of the Director General of the BBC today.

Popes have done much to protect the interests of the ruling class. The cohesion of feudal Europe owed much to the power of the papacy, which gave the seal of sanctity to the dictatorship of the land-owning barons. It was only when some states began to consider the possibility of taking over the job of organising their own ideological propaganda that the political struggle known as the Reformation occurred. The Reformation did not kill off the Roman Church, although it was clearly weakened and had to adapt itself to the moral needs of the new capitalist property relationships. In the late nineteenth century it was Pope Leo XIII who issued the Encyclical Letters which aimed to provide theological justification for the policy of reforming capitalism. For example, in 1891 Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (on the condition of the working class) stated that the Roman Church was opposed both to “godless communism” and to “the excesses of capitalism”. Instead, the letter urged a humanised form of profit system under which men are no longer viciously competitive because they have decided to become good.

The Vatican has played a crucial part in providing support for religiously-based, pro-capitalist reform parties in several European countries; far from being examples of capitalism with a godly expression on its face, they have been no different from any other squalid defender of capitalist exploitation. The Papacy has never been too bothered about the democratic credentials of those capitalist leaders whom it has supported. For example, the Catholic Church supported the Christian Corporate States presided over by Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Dolfuss and Schunigg in pre-war Austria, Peron in Argentina and Petain in France. The papal relationship with the fascist dictator, Mussolini, was strained, but this did not prevent Pope Pius XI from stating that “Mussolini was the man sent by Providence” (December 20, 1926). In modern times the Pope’s role has been to urge workers and peasants to be contented with their lot, to preserve the restrictive economic customs of past ages, to seek crumbs for the poor from the rich man’s loaf (charity) and to urge the workers to save our aspirations for another world beyond the clouds.

It is understandable that ignorant Roman slaves believed in the superstitions of religion as a way of explaining the world they lived in. Indeed, even many members of the ruling class of classical antiquity believed their own religious propaganda (just as many modern capitalists now believe theirs). It is even understandable that a few backward peasants in the twentieth century, who have yet to be influenced by scientific knowledge, might listen to the Pope and accept his explanations about the origins and evolution of the world. But here in Britain—an advanced industrial capitalist country with an experienced, relatively educated working class—the mediaeval re-enactment of a papal visit can be seen as a device to push workers backwards into the ideology of ages past. Workers who applaud and worship this affluent travelling trickster are divorcing themselves from the rationalism of modern history. In a bid to set back the ideas of workers, the Church is spending millions of pounds on an exercise designed to divert the majority class in society from looking after its own material here-and-now interests.

The believers may be blind, but the Pope and his mates have got at least one eye open: they know that when all of the religious nonsense has been uttered for public consumption, it is the material world which really matters to them. For example, when the present Pope was shot recently a Vatican medical bulletin reported that “his intestines were gradually resuming their functions and that his heart and blood circulation were good”. It is noticeable that the Pope’s expert doctors were concerning themselves with such mundane material organs as blood and heart and guts. What would the Pope have said if his doctors had told him that they were going to leave his intestines for another day and in the meantime would be carrying out emergency surgery on his invisible soul? It is also interesting that the Pope is so anxious to be close to his “creator” that on his visit to Britain he will be accompanied by Scotland Yard’s D11 unit—a team of top marksmen who will be standing by to ensure that nobody sends god’s representative on earth to visit “that wonderful land in the sky” until he has to go. The Pope leaves the nonsense of Christian practice to his deluded followers; he knows now to look after himself.

Workers of the world have no need of Popes or other parasites to speak for us or act for us or tell us how to behave. The gods which we invented in the infancy of our social existence are of no more use to modern society than totem poles or witch-doctors. It was Thomas Hobbes who wrote that “The Papacy is the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting on the grave thereof” (Leviathan). That was written in 1651; if papal authority was an anachronism then, it is a thousand times more so now that society has reached a point where humans are the gods, where the universe is ours for the taking, and where history is ours for the making.

Steve Coleman