Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming four-day visit to Great Britain is worth watching very closely, not only because it will be one his most challenging trips to date, but also because he’s expected to flesh out some of the core themes of his pontificate.
But you’ll have to listen carefully, through the expected uproar of protesters and media animosity in the once proudly Christian but now notoriously secularized country.
In some ways, though, that’s precisely the environment the pope hopes to impact most with his pontificate.
Some of the potential land mines include ecumenical awkwardness over the trip’s centerpiece beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, especially after the pope’s decision this year to make it easier for groups of Anglicans to become Catholic. He’ll also be meeting with the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, and conducting a joint vespers service.
But the focus of his trip — which includes a historic address to Parliament and official visits with the queen and top government officials — will be the role of faith in a secular, democratic society, according to the country’s leading Catholic churchman, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster.
That will be an especially tough sell in the United Kingdom, where secularists and atheists have launched a vigorous “Protest the Pope” campaign, accusing him of “crimes,” according to their skewed interpretation of his handling of the clerical sex abuse crisis, and for the Church’s teaching on a wide range of issues of sexual ethics, including contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. Some, in an effective ploy for attention, are even calling for his arrest on international human rights charges.
Against this backdrop, Pope Benedict will try to defend the role of vibrant, outspoken Christianity in post-Christian societies. Evidence that a key theme of his pontificate has been creating a space for religion in the public square was his creation this summer of a Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, saying it would help find ways “to re-propose the perennial truth of the Gospel” in parts of the world that are traditionally Christian but where secularism is gaining.
In speeches to the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland earlier this year, on the occasion of regular regional visits of prelates to Rome, he identified their homeland — which had a very early Christian presence — as just such a place.
The pope exhorted them — and will likely do so again on their own soil — to preach the Church’s moral teaching convincingly and in its entirety. “Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others — on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth. Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them: When so many of the population claim to be Christian, how could anyone dispute the Gospel’s right to be heard?”
And he returned to his theme that the Christian message needs to be proposed as a religion of love, not rules. “All too often the Church’s doctrine is perceived as a series of prohibitions and retrograde positions, whereas the reality, as we know, is that it is creative and life-giving,” the pope said.
That’s a message worth paying attention to on this side of the pond, too.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.