It is twenty eight years since a pope visited Britain and it is the first time that the head of the Roman Catholic Church, who is also a head of state, has made a state visit to this country. But from the outset the visit has aroused controversy and now that he is here that controversy is likely to continue. Crowds cheered him when he arrived in Edinburgh on Thursday but many are intending to take to the streets in protest against his being here. So how welcome should he be?

Comparisons to Pope John Paul II

Comparisons with the visit of Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1982 were always going to be unfavourable. Back then the arrival of the Pontiff generated excitement even beyond the faithful flock of British Catholics. There were several reasons for this. John Paul II was, at least by papal standards, young. He was charismatic. He was the first pope for centuries not to be Italian and, as a Polish Catholic, he came from a church that was in the vanguard of the social and political struggles of the time. It was in the early 1980s that the Soviet communist grip on eastern Europe was in the process of being loosened. In Poland, the Catholic church, almost as much as the new independent trade union movement, Solidarity, was at the forefront of the struggle which would see the iron curtain come down and soviet communism wither away.

So John Paul II had an appeal that went far beyond his role as spiritual leader of the Catholic faithful. Many others looked to him for moral and spiritual leadership and he seemed to provide it in his critiques not only of communism but of capitalist materialism too.

Conservative outlook

Benedict XVI seems a very different figure. In the first place he is in his eighties, an age at which leaders are not expected to provide new directions or inspire hopes of change. In any case, his whole outlook is intensely conservative and orthodox. He is widely acknowledged to be a distinguished and highly intellectual theologian but it is his role over the last twenty five years as the enforcer of rigid Catholic doctrine for which he is best known and for which he has become a figure of controversy.

It was John Paul II who gave him this role. It has involved resisting all attempts to change the church’s doctrines opposing contraception, abortion, gay rights, the ordination of women and the ending of celibacy for priests, among other issues. Even many Catholics do not agree with these positions and disregard them in their own lives. Others accuse the church of actually being a force for evil in the world by, for example, opposing the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS.

Benedict’s hard line on women priests, gay clergy and celibacy has also been held responsible for holding up attempts to achieve Christian unity, especially with the Anglican church. And his unilateral offer to find a place in the Catholic Church for Anglican clergy unhappy with the direction of their own church was regarded by many as provocative.

Abuse scandals

But the main reason why this papal visit seems so different from the earlier one is that in the interim the church has been hit by a scandal of immense proportions. The revelations about the abuse of children by Catholic priests around the world has appalled even those who knew that such things were going on. What has shocked them and everyone else is the sheer scale of the abuse and the lengths the church hierarchy went to in order to cover it up.

As the figure who, in his earlier role, was in charge of the canon legal system operating within the church, Benedict XVI is held by many to be responsible for the Church’s complicity in these crimes. The British human rights barrister, Geoffrey Robertson, has published a book arguing that the way the church and Benedict himself dealt with it ran counter to international law. In any event, the Pope has been accused of doing far too little to root out the evil of child abuse or to provide restitution to its victims and far too much to protect both the abusers and the reputation of the church.

His defenders say that whatever may have gone wrong in the past, the Pope has now acted not only to make the church more open but also to fight the evil of child abuse. His critics, however, remain unsatisfied. They argue that he is still not insisting (as they believe he should) that priests suspected of engaging in child abuse should be reported to civil police forces outside the church. And they object to the fact that he has raised the age at which past victims of abuse may make claims against the church from 28 only to 38 when there are still plenty of older people who want justice for the abuse they endured when young.

Such critics argue that the Pope and the church have still not really appreciated the gravity of the scandal and cite as evidence the fact that in a recent pronouncement the Vatican seemed to lump together the abuse of children and the attempt to ordain women priests as sins of equal magnitude. In their eyes Benedict XVI is the head of an institution that remains secretive, corrupt and dangerous and it is for this reason that they oppose his visit to Britain.

Absolute truth

British Catholics obviously take a different view and many will turn out to welcome their spiritual leader in Scotland, London and in Birmingham where he will beatify the nineteenth century Anglican convert to Catholicism, John Henry Newman. To them, whatever the scandals that may have hit the church, and however much they may share the sense of horror at what has emerged, the Catholic Church remains the institution which proclaims absolute truth and the Pope is the human being beyond all others who speaks God’s word.

As for the rest of Britain it remains to be seen what their attitude will be. Before the visit one of the Pope’s advisors, Cardinal Kasper, told a German news magazine that there was an “aggressive new atheism” in Britain. The Pope himself said, as he arrived, that his mission was to warn against growing secularism. It is true that there are some very prominent and vocal militant atheists living in Britain but in fact most people say that they believe in God. What Pope Benedict’s visit may show is how many of them are prepared to see him as God’s representative and welcome him accordingly, or how many will take a very different view and wish he had not come.

  • What do you think? Are you glad the Pope is visiting Britain or would you prefer that he had not come?
  • Do you support the visit being a state visit, paid for largely by the taxpayer, or not?
  • If you are Catholic, will you be attempting to see the Pope while he is here?
  • What do you think about the Pope’s strong defence of orthodox Catholic teaching on such matters as contraception, abortion, gay rights, celibacy among the priesthood and the ordination of women?
  • Do you think he has been high-handed in his dealings with the Anglican church, or not?
  • How responsible to do you hold him personally for the way the church has handled the child abuse scandal over the last twenty five years?
  • Do you think he has now acted adequately to fight the evil of child abuse?
  • And, whatever your own religious views, how much do you look to the Pope as a moral leader?
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