Top Ten turbulent priests

Written by Hywel Nelson on 7 June 2013 in Culture
Critical clerics are a cross politicians sometimes have to bear. Throughout history, some have been more prickly than others… and some still are

This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics

During apartheid, the effervescent Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town was threatened, imprisoned, and banned from foreign travel, but he never stopped criticising the South African government. Since the fall of apartheid, Tutu has angered the ANC government with strident attacks on corruption.

Abbé Pierre

Best remembered today as the founder of global homelessness charity Emmaus, the French Catholic monk became a hero of la résistance, a maverick MP, and a hugely respected critic of French politics and society. A straight-talker, he famously called property developers “assholes”.

Thomas á Becket

The original ‘turbulent priest’. When Henry II hinted he wanted this Archbishop of Canterbury – a former buddy – gone, four knights murdered the cleric inside his cathedral. Henry immediately regretted his words, while the stab-happy knights were sentenced to 14 years of community service, fighting infidels in the Holy Land.

Faith in the city

“Pure Marxist theology” by “a load of Communist clerics” – Thatcher’s government didn’t think much of a landmark Church of England report on urban decay which slammed its housing, benefits, tax and policing policies. But it was front-page news for weeks in 1985 and sparked a national debate.

Father Charles Coughlin

The first shock jock? In the 1930s, US Catholic priest Coughlin – “the Shepherd of the Air” – won huge audiences for his poisonous radio broadcasts, railing against Jews and FD Roosevelt. Eventually, the White House used war-time powers to force him off the air.

Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador

Champion of El Salvador’s poor, who adored him, in 1980 Romero called on soldiers to disobey the ruling military junta. The next day, as he stood at the altar during mass, government forces burst in and gunned him down. A quarter of a million people attended his tumultuous funeral.

Dr Rowan Williams

A year into his role as Archbishop, the mystical poet from Wales turned on his government over the Iraq War. Then, as guest editor of the New Statesman in 2011, Williams lambasted the coalition for “radical policies for which no-one voted” and attacked its plans for health and welfare. He also belittled David Cameron’s Big Society project.

Archbishop Justin Welby

The new AB of C has used his place in the Lords to criticise sharply the government’s economic policies. His pre-ordination career as a top oil executive means Welby can’t be dismissed as another ‘unworldly vicar’.

The Dalai Lama

Politicians in other countries know they will create a diplomatic storm simply by shaking hands with the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government’s least favourite spiritual leader. He won the 1989 Nobel Peace prize, and his status in the West as a symbol of peace continues to infuriate the Chinese authorities.

Reverend Ian Paisley

Labelled ‘Dr No’ for his sulphurous opposition to successive Northern Ireland peace initiatives, the man who founded his own church, newspaper and political party (because all the rest were wrong) finally said yes to power-sharing and became first minister in 2007.

Tags: Issue 59, Top Ten, Turbulent Priests

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