Something unexpected is happening during the papal visit to this country: the British public is listening with curiosity and genuine respect to Pope Benedict XVI. Catholics, non-Catholics and non-believers recognise that the world's most influential spiritual leader is here to deliver a message not just to Britain but also to an international audience. The Pope is using his presence in one of Europe's most secular countries to reach out to English speakers everywhere. His opinions – expressed in prose of great clarity – are uplifting, challenging or just plain wrong, depending on your point of view. But, contrary to the predictions of many commentators, they are not falling on deaf ears.
Speaking in Westminster Hall, the Pope declared that Britain's pluralist democracy had much in common with Catholic social teaching. Both were concerned with safeguarding "the unique dignity of every human being". Britain had demonstrated its love of freedom by abolishing the slave trade, he said. But, he implied, something had gone wrong: "There are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square." The Pope did not directly apply this criticism to modern Britain, but no one in the distinguished audience of community leaders will have been in any doubt that he was referring to us.
Some listeners may have taken offence at these words, given the Vatican's failure – now properly acknowledged by Benedict XVI – to address the grave crimes of a small minority of its clergy. But we suspect that many more people will have set aside their reservations about the Roman Catholic Church and said to themselves: "He has a point."
Members of the Church of England and smaller Protestant Churches share with Catholics a feeling that Christians are easy targets for liberal politicians and celebrities who lack the courage to criticise Islam. Under the last government, Christians were bullied for wearing crosses at work, distributing leaflets and holding unfashionable opinions on homosexuality and birth control. One may disagree with Catholics and conservative Protestants on the subject of gay adoption, but it was disturbing to witness the hounding of Catholic adoption agencies that wished to place children only with married couples. Their right to do so was abolished by New Labour. In addition, they were portrayed by opinion formers in the media, universities and showbusiness as hate-crazed homophobes.
Militant secularists have taken our tradition of tolerance and whittled it down to something quite different: toleration for a narrow spectrum of liberal-approved beliefs. Anyone who falls outside that spectrum runs the risk of being demonised.
No one knows this better than Benedict XVI, who has been defamed as a Nazi-sympathising protector of child rapists. Famous atheists and agnostics have exploited their media contacts in order to sneer at the Pope. Sometimes this sneering is dressed up as wit; but it is so monotonous that the public is increasingly tired of it. There has been a backlash against anti-Catholic celebrities, some of whom have reacted in a pompous, thin-skinned manner. Dishing out criticism is a central practice of the new atheists; taking it, on the other hand, is not.
Pope Benedict's critics have underestimated him. They worked themselves into a state of indignation at the visit of a man about whom they knew only a few things – and most of these turn out to be wrong, on closer inspection. Anyone who thinks that Joseph Ratzinger is a former Nazi, or that he actively conspired to protect child abusers, has not done his or her homework. The present Pope is a gentle, smiling intellectual who, in the course of many books, has evolved a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between faith and logic. That much was clear in his Westminster Hall address, in which he discussed religion's "corrective" role with regard to reason, and the "purifying" role of reason within faith. Benedict XVI believes that revelation and intellect complement each other, and that Christians – whether they be Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants or Orthodox – need not apologise for holding both scientific and supernatural beliefs.
In short, the Pope is a Christian statesman, not just a Roman Catholic one. He does not agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the doctrine of the priesthood, but he recognises Dr Williams as a fellow Christian leader and the Queen as a constitutional guardian of Christian freedom. Indeed, much more unites the Pontiff, the Archbishop and the Monarch than divides them: their faith in Christ, of course, but also (as they have each suggested in different ways) an anxiety that the Judaeo-Christian roots of Western civilisation are being pulled from our soil.
Yesterday marked the beginning of the Jewish feast of Yom Kippur; the Pope sent his best wishes to the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, who is on record as supporting the Pope in his opposition to the exclusion of religion from the public square. It is too early to say whether this visit has been a success. But one thing we can say is that in Westminster Hall religion was well and truly yanked back into that square. And it was a refreshing and challenging experience.
zondag 26 september 2010
De paus in Schotland en Engeland (20 en slot): "He has a point"
Lees tenslotte "Pope visit: The Pope puts religion back in the spotlight", commentaar van de Daily Telegraph (een van Engelands belangrijkste kranten) op het pausbezoek. We publiceren het in z'n geheel: