Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury – thinking about Catholic identity (the residuum of my own, and the state of Catholicism in Scotland), as Pope Benedict hits Scotland. Much amateur and self-therapeutic theologising, for which only a few apologies.
FOR A Coatbridge boy, and now a sub-cosmopolitan man, Pope Benedict's visit has raised a small storm of memory, politics and ethics in my heaving breast.
It begins with that slightly too lurid television footage from 1982 - even the video equipment was Thatcherite then - and my undergraduate indifference to the busy preparations my family and community were making for Karol's visit. This was doubtless driven by denial. Only a few years before I'd been an altar-boy, scripture reader and even thespian in the Christmas passion play, slap bang between the priests and in front of the Sacrament.
But even then, I'd have to say that it was the bling, spectacle and mystic poetry of Catholicism that was attracting me (preparation for a future career in media and song? I wouldn't deny it). Locked in my bedroom with Asimov and copies of 2000AD, I'd already managed to resist various quiet parental entreaties as to whether I had "a calling" or not.
But the thread of actual faith had snapped in the midst of a gruelling set of exams. Was it the assistance of a greater power, or an Tippex-splattered all-nighter, that was really going to get me through my Higher Physics? And as I later pronounced in the student bar, the last thing I was going to be participating in was some "ethno-religious collective fervour".
Of course I understood, from sternly delivered parents' tales and old newspaper job clippings of "Protestants need only apply", that Pope John Paul II's visit symbolised the full mainstreaming of the Irish immigrant community, and its faith, in Scotland. But I was reading Jurgen Habermas and Terry Eagleton now: I was way beyond all that hail-hail, embroidered-robe stuff.
A heavy moment of intellectual irony: as the years went by, both of those leftist radical thinkers turned out to be completely obsessed with religion. In 2005, Habermas conducted a series of dialogues with the then Cardinal Ratzinger, about the necessity of religious thinking - the equality of all in the eyes of God - to our notion of universal human rights.
And Eagleton, a Marxist who has always had a tortured relationship to Catholicism, took the image of the broken Christ on the cross away from the sexual-masochistic weirdness I'd so glibly attributed to it. Here, said Terry - in a to-do with Richard Dawkins - was a symbol of state torture and repression, at the very heart of a religion:
The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection... this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history.
Whether that's quite what the infinitely forgiving Mel Gibson had in mind when he made his gore-fest version of The Passion a few years ago is debatable. But I've heard this revolutionary case, and for Catholicism in particular, put to me before.
The composer James Macmillan, in the late 90's, once earnestly said to me, in a Fransciscan sacristy in Glasgow, that "now socialism is fallen and discredited, there are some of us who believe that Catholicism is the only force left that can stand up to capitalism". Time passes, Macmillan now votes Tory, but some things never change.
I picked up the Scottish Catholic Observer this week, to find Macmillan defending the right of "Faithful Catholics" (his capital F) to believe in the "infallibility of the Church". Having read Geoffrey Robinson QC's pitiless demolition of the Catholic hierarchy's behaviour over the cover-up of priestly child abuse - and its roots in the sovereign power of the Vatican - Macmillan's frank veneration of the power of Rome is difficult to cope with.
One visit to St. Peter's (whose interiors are surely the template for the corporate display of power throughout the ages), is enough to drive you back to that wishful Anthony Quinn movie, The Shoes of the Fisherman - the one where he plays a Ukranian Pope who gives the riches of the church to a famine-stricken world. Yet as Robinson says, if Catholic aid comes tied with anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraceptive advice, doesn't it unravel its own emancipatory purpose?
On behalf of BBC2's Review Show this Friday night, I'm hoping to report on Pope Benedict's visit to Bellahouston Park. As I survey the tens of thousands of believers, I'm going to keep in mind the respectfulness towards faith and sacred ritual that advancing Islam has demanded of many secularist and atheists (well, at least this one).
One back-woods pastor threatening to burn a Koran causes Presidents to respond and Arab streets to rise. With the "turn to tradition" visible in the Bellahouston celebration - stretches in Latin, Gregorian chant, et al - one can see a Catholic leadership yearning for that kind of militant piety.
I get religion. I understand the desire to put a limit to change and hyper-modernity, to give the eternal human realities of birth, death, love and suffering their symbolic due. (Didn't Graham Linehan's Father Ted turn this embraced cultural conservatism into the most sublime comedy?) And I know this particular religion pretty well, from the depths of my infant hymn-singing brain to the tips of my theology-website-dabbling fingers.
The best hope for fallen, scientific-materialist types like me is a serious and diverse dialogue with the giant, troubled planet of Catholicism. Secularists have their own centre of gravity: and of course, a mutual orbit is better than a war of the worlds. The Pope's visit deserves its huge attention. But this altered boy observes the show from a clear and critical distance.