Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 13 June 2013

The Russians are Coming part ii

I am a big fan of the blog comment. I positively encourage people to comment on my own blog, particularly when I post about issues rather than about writing, which I do fairly regularly. I have opinions, and I tend to air them.

It’s interesting to me, though, that people tend to want to enter into a dialogue, and, as a result, the most interesting comments on blogs tend to come through my Twitter and FaceBook feeds, and comments on the actual blog are often simply ripostes at best, or rants at worst.

Yesterday is a case in point. In the afternoon I had a rather interesting conversation with a couple of people over on Twitter, who had read my daily post. I had cited the Roman Catholic church in my blog about the Russian parliament passing laws discriminating against promoters of homosexuality and defending religious believers against offense. 

One of the people who talked to me on Twitter broadly agreed with me, calling the fact that, according to polls, half of Russians believe that gay people should have fewer rights than straight people ‘despicable’, which is perfectly right, of course. 

The figures don’t surprise me much, Crawl down into the lowest common denominator spaces, and remember that you’re getting answers from those people willing to respond, and those are the sorts of numbers I’d be prepared to expect just about anywhere, including little Britain and middle America, but maybe that’s just me feeling as if I’m losing a losing battle.

I was in for a surprise from this perfectly nice and well-meaning person, though, because here’s what came next:

And as a Catholic, some of the things the Catholic Church says and does leave me truly saddened.


Way back in the early eighties, when I was at university, I remember one of those late night conversations when a bunch of us were all sitting around putting the World to rights... and it’s important that you remember this was the ‘80s, fifteen years before the Good Friday Agreement. 
An Irish catholic from Derry, whose brother was a seminarian named Pius, no less, was in conversation with a third generation Italian American catholic from New York. They were discussing their faith and how they practised their catholicism. The American, let’s call him Tony, saw himself as a rational man with a conscience growing up in the modern era. He wanted all the things that all young men wanted in the second half of the twentieth century and he believed that he could have them. He also believed he was a good catholic. The Irish man, let’s call him John, believed in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and of God’s representatives on Earth. Tony advocated for safe sex in the wake of HIV and AIDS, and contraception in the face of unwanted, unplanned and teenage pregnancies. He even advocated for abortion for the most extreme cases where a mother’s life was in danger, for example, or where a rape had been committed. 

John waited patiently for Tony to finish talking while most of the rest of the group nodded wisely along, and then he asked how Tony squared those things away with the church’s teachings. Tony said that his priest, his church and his family felt that those things should be left to a man’s conscience. John sighed, and said, ‘Yep... We call you people Protestants.’

We we young and we were shocked, and some of us were even embarrassed by that, but here’s my point... a point that I couldn’t make in a conversation on Twitter, yesterday. It’s a point that applies across the board, too, to all religious groups.

Faith is one thing. I respect it, hugely, whatever personal struggles I might have with it. Faith in a higher being has great value when it is brought to bear with love for the greater good, both of individuals and of communities, and, even of the World, if that’s possible. Faith and organised religion are not the same thing, though, are they?

Pope Francis
We align ourselves with religious groups for all sorts of reasons. My friend on Twitter yesterday called himself a catholic, and he has every right to do so, but he might be doing so for all sorts of reasons. He might be calling himself a catholic, because that’s how he was raised by his family, or his community, or because he comes from a traditionally catholic nation. He might consider himself to be catholic, culturally, as it were.

However, if he puts Roman Catholic on forms when asked to state his religion, he is endorsing something that, in his own words, leaves him truly saddened. Why, then, does he do it? The Roman Catholic church might begin to ask real questions about its direction if all disillusioned catholics, and people who call themselves catholics because it is some sort of legacy or birthright, stopped putting their religion down on forms as Roman Catholic. If they stopped going to mass, if they stopped putting their pennies in the collection plates, if they stopped buying votive candles, if they stopped propping up the church, whose teachings they, at the very least question, perhaps things would begin to change in the church itself. 

I’m not suggesting that anyone deny his faith. I’m saying, how can this man be a catholic and call himself a catholic when he fundamentally disagrees with the teachings of God’s representative or representatives on Earth. I say, if you need God to have a representative on Earth find one you agree with. If you want to belong to a church, to some sort of organised group of worshippers, at the very least find one whose politics you agree with. My presbyterian grandmother became an Anglican without too much heartache, and when my good friend saw hypocrisy in the Church of England, she found solace with the Methodists. I also know one woman so appalled by the ordination of women that she became a Roman Catholic, and she feels very at home with her choice.

Call yourself a Christian, by all means... or not. If you have faith, find a religion that suits how you feel about your God.

For that matter, as ignorant as so many of us are, we are too apt to toss all Muslims into one great, heaving pot of fundamentalist hatred. It isn’t like that, and we shouldn’t do it. It is wrong and ignorant and it demeans us. Islam is no better or worse than Christianity or Judaism, or Sikhism or Hinduism. 

Faith in a God or Gods isn’t the problem, interpretation of God’s laws is where we begin to go wrong, and that’s all about us, that’s all about men arguing over theological questions that they choose to answer to suit themselves and their times and their politics.

So, if we choose labels for ourselves, and many of us do, we should be aware of the reasons why we choose those labels, and then we should be aware that we will have to live with the consequences of carrying those labels.

My friend on Twitter calls himself a catholic and that means something to him, and it means something to me, and it will mean something to almost everyone who sees or hears that label, and I honestly think that he should be aware of that, and so should I and so should we all. 

My problem is that if the label doesn’t fit or it compromises how you feel about yourself, or if you’re excusing the label or yourself because of the label, maybe you should think about why you’re wearing the label at all. Maybe the label just doesn’t fit. Maybe you should try on a new label. Maybe, ‘I was raised catholic’ might be closer to the truth, now.


  1. Quite so. To be monumentally arrogant for a moment and quote myself (sorry):

    "It's worth remembering that the institution will always be prone to human flaw. It's the message that matters."

  2. I experienced the dark side of not taking a label a few weeks ago.

    I posted what I thought was a clear comment in which I said that I did not label myself a feminist because my experience was that it made some people assume a radical matriarchal agenda without actually making my arguments in favour of equality more valid. I was pilloried for espousing a male equality agenda.

    While it did demonstrate my point, it did not advance the debate.

    As well as examining our own labels, we could sometimes do better at not assuming something that is not labelled cannot be part of the set.