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Laurie Penny: Proud to say nope to the Pope

Those planning to protest the Pope's visit are not instinctively anti-Catholic. But justice demands that we challenge religious oppression.

What is the Protest the Pope movement really about? Ask ten different activists why they object to Mr Joseph Ratzinger's state visit to Britain and they'll give you ten different answers. My own mother, a lapsed Catholic who is not normally the sort of lady to spoil her shoes on noisy demonstrations, looked me in the eye when I inquired about her reasons for attending the protest and said, very quietly, "it's personal".

For many of the millions who are dismayed at the prospect of the papal visit, it is indeed personal, and it is also political. Deep-rooted resentment drawn from first or second-hand experience of the institutional brutalities of Britain's largest "minority" faith - there are nine million Catholics in this country- forms the basis of legitimate liberal indignation.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what offends most about Ratzinger's visit: it his attempts to rehabilitate child-rape within the church, or his intolerant stance on safe sex and abortion? Is it his relentless persecution of homosexuals, or the fact that public funds are being spent on driving this horrible old man around the country in his shiny white popemobile? It is all of these things, and none.

It is about religion. It is about what organised religion does to human societies. It is about the British and our unique distaste for being told what to do by celibates in silly cassocks. It is about modernity, and the limits of what modernity will tolerate.

Anarchist journalist Angelo Quattrocchi wrote in his recently-released polemic "The Pope is Not Gay!" that Ratzinger's backward-looking moral crusade is "spitting into the wind" - expectorating intolerant bile that can only cause unnecessary suffering as a tremendous tsunami of modern tolerance surges forward to swamp the rotten structures of family, patriarchy, superstition and sexual prudery. The Protest the Pope movement is, in fact, so terribly modern that it can sometimes come across as a little smug.

This week's Southbank launch of Quattrochi's book, replete with heartfelt performance poetry and expensive box-wine, was a restrained orgy of liberal self-congratulation. But why on earth shouldn't we congratulate ourselves? We are one of the most tolerant cultures on the planet, taking a stand, in the midst of domestic turmoil, against global religious oppression. Can't we feel just a little bit proud?

Most of those planning to 'Protest the Pope' this weekend are not instinctively anti-Catholic; we have no issue with belief itself. The notion of taking special exception to one religion over and above any other dodgy cult cobbled together by deranged desert patriarchs should be abhorrent to any secularist who believes in freedom of thought. When Elizabeth I granted private amnesty to English Catholics, she declared that she had no desire to "make windows into men's souls", and nor do today's Pope Protestors. We simply wish to register our displeasure when the same believers dash around smashing in the animistic vitrines of their fellow citizens with big bricks made of bigotry and intolerance.

A few short weeks ago, senior priest Edmund Adamus condemned Britain in general and London in particular as a "hedonistic wasteland" - the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death' - because of our dirty little fetish for protecting homosexuals from discrimination, supporting single parents and preserving limited access to abortion services.

If believing in a woman's right to choose is anti-Catholic, then I am an anti-Catholic. If believing that homosexuals deserve absolute legal and social equality with heterosexuals is anti-Catholic, then Britain is full of anti-Catholics.

If it is anti-Catholic to believe that child-rape ought to be eliminated, that stopping the spread of AIDs in Africa trumps religious squeamishness about condom use, and that human happiness is more important than dogmatic adherence to cobweb-crusted notions of purity and morality, then I for one am proud to be part of the geopolitical culture of death.

On Saturday, I'll be marching through my home city beside thousands of others to tell bigots and dogmatists everywhere that if they try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, they're going to get cut. If that conviction makes me anti-Catholic, then just give me a pen and show me where to sign.

Read Laurie Penny's column every week in the New Statesman.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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Can’t afford to die: the rise of funeral poverty

The cost to councils of public health funerals has risen by 30 per cent in the past four years. 

Dying, as you'll know if you've ever planned a funeral, is an expensive business. If your relatives plan a service with a funeral director, they should expect to pay around £3,500*. Burial alone will cost you around £1,750 (making cremation, at £660, seem like a positive steal). And that's before they've even bought a box to put you in. So it is unsurprising that, according to insurance company Sun Life Research, one in seven families struggles to pay funeral costs. 

Families who can't pay are left with two options. First, there's the Social Fund, a centrally-managed pot of money which can offer a one-off payment to help with funeral costs (it also covers things like maternity grants and the winter fuel allowance). Councils themselves also offer "public health funerals" for either people who die with no next of kin, or whose next of kin can't afford to bury them.

Public health funerals are, it seems, on the rise - partly because of the rising costs of burial and the limited nature of the Social Fund, but also thanks to austerity measures which mean that luxuries (like burying your loved ones) are no longer within reach for the poorest families in Britain. 

Coffin up

A Freedom of Information request by BBC Local Radio found that, according to responses from 300 councils of the 409 who offer public health burials, the costs to councils of these public health services was up an average of 30 per cent from four years ago. Part of this rise is due to the skyrocketing costs of funerals, but part was down to the fact that the number of public health funerals had increased by 11 per cent.  

The assistant director of bereavement at Cardiff City Council told the BBC that when he started his job 20 years ago, the service was mostly used by "vagrants or alcoholics". However, the pool of those accessing council funds for burial has widened dramatically: 

"Over the years it has increased, and sometimes there are families but they are estranged or divorced, or there are families where they claim there's an inability to pay."

Another factor is that applying to the Social Fund, as opposed to your council, is complex and confusing, so many who are eligible for it don't get the money they're entitled to. Even if they do, they're only given £700; an amount that hasn't increased over the past decade despite the rising cost of funeral services. 

Grave policies 

Social policy academics from the University of Bath, led by Katherine Woodthorpe, recently investigated the role of bereavement in public policy. In their paper, they note that "little attention has been paid towards benefits associated with bereavement". The researchers conclude that the system needs to be simplified so families don't have to pay the costs up front, then apply to complicated systems of funding afterwards:

The most constructive change to the current system would be to re-organise the claim process so that individuals could be informed of their eligibility and (potentially) what they might receive from the state before committing to funeral costs. The current practice of submitting a claim after committing to funeral costs is counterproductive, leads to confusion and is the creator of unnecessary stress and financial difficulty for newly bereaved individuals.

When Woodthorpe's paper came out last year, the Telegraph reported its findings under the headline "Paupers’ funerals making comeback as families exploit loophole to save funeral costs", based on the fact that some families who couldn't afford services were going to councils for funeral funding rather than applying to the Social Fund. It included reports of council workers' "anger" at seeing people "who claimed they could not pay then turning up to the laden with expensive bouquets and other embellishments". 

It’s more than possible that these funds are occasionally misallocated and exploited, but we also need to remember that respectful disposal of the dead, while something we take for granted, is deeply ingrained in our culture – which is why there is a dedicated public health budget to ensure that this process isn't restricted to those with thousands of pounds in the bank.It's also worth noting that even the price of the most "expensive" bouquet wouldn't make much of a dent in modern funeral costs. 

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that a respectful burial, which is a deeply symbolic and emotionally significant ritual in all cultures, is now seen as a luxury, increasingly beyond the reach of the poorest families - and one which we bedgrudge those who are too poor to access it without help. 

*Costs are estimates from Money Saving Expert. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.