All the same, I managed to suggest that Rome could sometimes behave decently, and pointed out (as above) that Pope Benedict had opposed the war in Iraq. Wasn’t that good? Well, said the young man, the Iraq war was a contested issue. He’d been against it himself, but appreciated that a lot of people had been for it.
Very well, I said, but not everybody agreed, for example, that Pius XII had been in collusion with the Nazis, and surely the Vatican’s objection to the Iraq war was an indication that the Pope was perhaps not as cruel and reactionary as some people thought?
“Even Hitler said some good things,” said the young man.
“And he was good with dogs,” I said.
There you go: context.
I think the young man’s issue was religion, really. He probably had a fairly low opinion of Islam and Orthodox Judaism, though I am not sure he would hang around outside the Finsbury Park mosque dressed as the one-eyed, hook-handed Sheikh Abu Hamza and damning Islam for not recognising the rights of homosexuals.
“All religions preach bigotry and lies,” he said. “There is no place for them in the modern world.” What is the problem with these people? There was a time when homosexuals were cruelly and unjustly treated – and we remember those days with shame – but they are now a rich and privileged minority, and often more equal than others. At any rate, as they gain rights (in the matter of adoption, for example) Christians lose them.
Civilised and educated people – some of them Catholics – take it for granted that the Catholic Church is as wrong in its approach to homosexuality as it is in its approach to embryonic stem-cell research and the use of artificial means of contraception.
Today Peter Tatchell – a brave and agreeable man, by the way – is more respectable than Benedict XVI.
So why all the anger?
Forgive me if I return to the subject of war like a dog returning to his own vomit, but once a single-issue fanatic always a single-issue fanatic.
In its coverage of Operation Moshtarak last weekend the Sunday Times carried a very odd caption with a picture of some American soldiers: “The battle to push the Taliban out of their last stronghold in Afghanistan also involves US troops.” (My emphasis).
The truth is, of course, that the battle also involves British troops. The War against Terror is an American show. In Afghanistan there are approximately 100,000 US troops and 10,000 British. In Iraq at one point the Americans had 250,000 men. We never had more than 46,000.
We elected to join the United States in Afghanistan in 2001, and to begin with may have served our own interests. In Iraq it was different. George Bush told Tony Blair that the Americans could handle Iraq on their own and that, if it was going to be politically embarrassing for Blair to send troops, he should not feel obliged to.
But Tony wanted a piece of the action. Alongside Tonga and Eritrea and 47 other states, we were part of the “Coalition of the Willing”.
By Monday Operation Moshtarak had resulted in the death of 17 civilians, one American soldier and one British. Accidents happen when you use high explosives, and even smart weapons do stupid things. It is because modern war kills more civilians than it does combatants that Rome is now borderline pacifist.