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The Pope in Portugal

Students mobilise against a secular republic's partiality to the Catholic church
Sofia Diogo Mateus
16 May 2010

The Catholic Church hasn’t been under this much scrutiny for quite a long time, perhaps ever. But, if you happened to be in Portugal during this week, namely from the 12th to the 14th May, you probably wouldn’t realise it.

The Portuguese government, which has been under severe pressure to prove both that it isn’t Greece and that it can reform public finances, decided, sometime in April, to make May 13th – the 83rd anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fátima and the occasion of the Pope's visit – a holiday for all public employees. In addition, the government also gave the 12th to Lisbon area and 14th to the Porto area (where the Pope will be). Ordinary life comes to a standstill when the Pontiff arrives.

What strikes me as the most amazing of all of this, was that the government gave no valid reason for its generosity. One can then assume, that it justifies itself. Like the Guardian pointed out yesterday, Portugal is one of the most catholic countries in Europe.

But constitutionally, Portugal has been a secular state since the 1974 revolution. It is true that some 95 percent of the population is catholic, but, it is not clear what that means. Being a catholic: baptized, married in a church and in turn baptizing your children is about as Portuguese as going to the pub is British, odd as it may sound.

The religious justification is also shot down by the fact that other religious leaders have visited the country and despite some attention from the media – the Dalai Lama being the best example of this – there were no holiday. As for the argument, which was widely aired, that it was the visit of a head of state, well, that doesn’t help a bit in justifying the holidays.

This isn’t, however, new. Portugal has long history of government-church that have never been broken – if nothing else because, in addition to Christmas and Easter, Portugal has some extra four national holidays that are purely catholic holidays.

What is new is that this behaviour is now starting to be challenged. And never more so than during this visit of Benedict XVI to Portugal. Facebook status updates of my friends say it all: from the visit’s costs (which could help with the deficit) to the media’s 24 hours coverage, including details such as the weight of the helicopter, its seats and interior details, the criticism is widespread.

Even more incredible - and surprising – was the Facebook condom protest that emerged. After the Pope’s visit to Africa last year, during which Benedict XVI said that condoms “aggravated” the problem of AIDS, a group of law students decided that the visit, this year, was the perfect time to protest the church’s policy. It started as a Facebook group, which grew to some 15,000 people and culminated in about 150 people taking to the streets in Lisbon yesterday, with white shirts and red ribbons to hand out some 18,000 condoms in less than two hours. It was a peaceful movement and the organisers always emphasized that their aim was not to clash with anyone but raise awareness to the problem.

These people show that the blurring of lines between the state and the Catholic Church does face opposition. Rita Jorge, one of the organisers, said that, if she could, she might still make it to the mass. In so many ways, she is the prime example of a new paradigm: faith has its limits and should not claim authority outside its proper sphere. It is even OK that as a religious institution it should preach abstention until marriage, faithfulness and should ask its faithful not to use condoms for birth control. But it is an insult to truth to deny the role of unprotected sex in the spreading of AIDS. This is a matter of science – not dogma.

The protest is a first for Portugal: it is the first time ever that a group of young people, students have created a movement like – a truly civil young movement, for a non-violent cause, from an informed perspective “against” the political stance of a religious organisation. And while it is true that the church has slowly been losing ground everywhere in Europe – and Portugal is no exception – such direct public manifestation of disagreement is rare. The increasingly sceptical and depoliticised youth usually doesn’t express opposition in public or as a group.

The Portuguese state, in declaring a public holiday, has shown up its non-neutrality. Not only between religions, but also over questions of personal choice. It could declare all visits of religious figures to be holidays, or do nothing at all. It should not single out the Pope. As the rulers of a legally secular state, the Portuguese government – and a socialist government at that – should take a cue from this protest and stay away from religion, as should the church stay away from the matters of science. More, they shouldn’t be so heretical as to use religion as way of gaining political advantage. This way, they decrease the credibility both of politics and religion, two institutions that anyway need an image makeover amongst all too cynical Portuguese youth.

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