LONDON — Memories can be notoriously short in Great Britain.
Contemporary English consciousness remembers Pope John Paul II’s visit to these shores in 1982 as an all-encompassing success. Forgotten is the media vilification, the lunatic-fringe threats and the pessimistic predictions that nobody would turn up.
Inevitably, viewed against his charismatic predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has received the same kind of anti-Catholic hype since it was announced a year ago he would visit the land not only of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell, but also of Shakespeare, St. Thomas More and Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The tired “God’s Rottweiler” jibes appear tame compared to a leaked memo from a Foreign Office brainstorming session which recommended that the Pope should visit an abortion clinic and launch his own range of contraceptives during the visit. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, has demanded that the Pope should “keep his unpleasant political opinions to himself.” The militant atheist campaigners, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, authors of The God Delusion and God Is Not Great respectively, have called for the Pope to be arrested on his arrival for “crimes against humanity,” alleging that he personally covered up cases of child abuse. Johann Hari, who writes for London’s Independent newspaper, has said that the Pope should be tried for “covering up and thereby enabling the rape of children.”
These media distortions, unfortunately accepted by a significant proportion of largely secularized Catholics, cloud much of the forthcoming papal visit to England and Scotland. Yet to discover what really awaits Pope Benedict, one needs to peer behind the haze of battlefield polemic.
Nevertheless, on first glance, it does not look good. A major point of controversy is that, whereas his predecessor’s visit was purely a Church affair, this is a state visit. The Pope was invited to these shores by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Though there will be some specifically Church occasions which will be funded by Catholics — most notably the beatification of Cardinal Newman — there will also be other events paid for by the taxpayer.
This has become the focal point of a loud but numerically insignificant ragtag coalition of far-left activists, sexual libertarians and militantly atheistic secularist fringe groups. Under the “Protest the Pope” banner, they decry that the visit will cost taxpayers an estimated £12 million during a time of economic uncertainty. It seems to have been forgotten that Catholics also pay taxes. In England and Wales alone there are an estimated 4 million to 5 million Catholics.
Nevertheless, Protest the Pope receives undue prominence in the secular media, who greedily gobble up the overwhelmingly false allegations that Pope Benedict is personally responsible for the spread of AIDS, sheltering abusive priests from justice, urging hatred against homosexuals and rehabilitating the image of Pope Pius XII — “the appeaser of Hitler.”
Now is not the time to rebut such ill-informed myths, but the deliberate level of ignorance is noteworthy. Interestingly, many are getting tired of this new atheist hard-line secularist posturing. For example, Brendan O’Neill, the humanist editor of Spiked Online, described the campaign against the Pope in the wake of the abuse scandals as “a secular Inquisition,” informed more “by prejudice and illiberalism” than facts.
The most controversial moment of the visit will be when Pope Benedict addresses representatives of civil society at Westminster Hall. It is the pivotal point of the state visit; it will be here that the Holy Father has the opportunity to engage with secular society.
As mentioned, this dialogue does not initially appear promising. Britain has become the abortion capital of Europe. It has witnessed a steady assault on the institution of marriage as merely one equally valid lifestyle among many. The campaign for legalized euthanasia is growing rapidly. The last Catholic adoption agency has recently been forced to close because of its refusal to place children with homosexual couples, a “right” now enshrined in law.
Depressingly indicative of the West’s moral malaise that may be, but beneath the facts and figures, obscured by the media’s salacious reporting of the unquestionably abhorrent abuse scandals, shrouded by the squealing of the dogmatic secularists, the root cause of atheistic distress is apparent.
Cardinal Newman famously wrote of English Catholicism’s second spring following its emergence from centuries of periodically bloody persecution. Recently, it has been affected by an unseasonably late ground frost, but this appears to be thawing. Vocations to religious life are slowly but steadily increasing. The number of those joining the Church is also slowly on the rise.
Disaffected Anglicans are attracted by the Pope’s ordinariate plan (outlined in 2009’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus) as the Church of England continues to decline due to its aping of secular attitudes, riven as they are by the dictatorship of relativism. Slowly, many non-Catholics and even non-Christians are seeing the Catholic Church as the one body offering an alternative. They may not share the faith, but they are uneasy about Britain’s current trajectory.
What Pope Benedict is offering is a whole new, time-encompassing worldview away from the dogmatic secularist orthodoxy that currently prevails.
George Orwell may have been being facetious when he suggested that one is either a Marxist, a Catholic or dies young, but he was making an important point: Catholicism has to be taken seriously as a fully coherent way of seeing our surroundings and the context of life. One suspects that much of the secular diatribe against the Pope is because his ideas are a threat to current, fashionable political ideas. He is offering a move away from utilitarianism and pragmatism and offering something far more solid morally upon which to build society.
Ardent secularists may denounce the Pope for daring to speak to the world, but that is exactly the point: He is not just for Catholics. In Britain, a number of people are recognizing that something has gone drastically wrong socially, that the “you can have it all” society has created a narcissistic, frequently nihilistic, haven of individuals at the expense of any sense of community.
When Pope Benedict visits it is not so much a case of winning converts to Catholicism, but of helping society save itself. The Church saved Britain and the West once, pulling it out of the Dark Ages: Now it must do so again.
And away from the vocal self-proclaimed “progressives,” he might just find a more responsive reaction in England than the headlines suggest.
James Kelly, Ph.D., is a columnist for The Universe,
the biggest-selling Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland,
and a researcher at the University of London.