Pope charms, challenges secular Great Britain

It was the gentlest of conquests, but no less thorough for that. 

Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day state visit — the first ever — to the United Kingdom left the nation charmed and challenged. “You have made us sit up and think,” Prime Minister David Cameron told him at the departure ceremony at Birmingham Airport hours after the pope had beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman before 60,000 rain-soaked pilgrims. 

It was the final public event in a triumphant four-day tour dominated by an overarching theme — the need to include faith in public life. 

Exceeding expectations 

The triumph was all the more surprising after a drumroll of media predictions that the pope would be met by a wall of apathy and hostility. The seemingly relentless criticisms of the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse and anger at the Church’s stance on homosexuality, abortion and contraception were given a broad platform in the weeks before the visit, mostly through an ad hoc coalition of prominent atheists, secularists and gay-rights campaigners who attacked the state nature of the visit and its $15.6 million cost to the taxpayer. 

But within hours of the pope touching down at Edinburgh, the image of a harsh, unbending conservative began to collapse. A crowd of more than 125,000 people lined the streets of the Scottish capital to cheer him, and 60,000 attended his first Mass in Glasgow. The next two days, Sept. 17-18, in London, and the last, Sept. 19, in Birmingham, saw turnouts far exceeding expectations, building to a climax in the lead up to a Sept. 18 prayer vigil in Hyde Park, when 200,000 people lined the streets of Whitehall.  

By that point, the media were declaring the visit a success, saluting the pope’s gentleness, humility and joy, and the coherence and humanity of his messages. Many commentators drew contrasts with the “Nope Pope” coalition, which had managed on Sept. 18 to organize one of the largest ever anti-papal demonstrations — estimated at 10,000 — but whose harsh, angry, sardonic shrillness deprived them of wider sympathy. The protest’s cheerleader, human-rights activist Peter Tatchell, was left to complain that the “massive Catholic media machine” — whose existence was news to the British faithful — had left them at a disadvantage. 

Religion’s public role 

Pope Benedict’s addresses had three constant themes. The first was his argument against what he called “aggressive secularism,” and the need to remain open to faith in public life and education in order to build a pluralistic society based on more than majority consensus. In his addresses, he consistently praised Britain’s democracy and tolerance, its respect and fair-mindedness, its courage in standing against the slave trade and Nazism, and its commitment to the global common good, while arguing that what made Britain great was nourished by its Christian heritage.  

He warned against attitudes that he saw taking hold of sectors of public opinion and the state in recent years that regard the inclusion of faith in the public square as antithetical to liberty and pluralism, reframing that false opposition with a vision of inclusivity, in which reason and faith helped to purify each other. When he reprised, for the first time since the eve of his election in 2005, the expression “dictatorship of relativism,” it was clear that he saw Britain as the heartland of his struggle against it. 

He wasn’t afraid to offend — atheists resented his lumping together godlessness and Nazism — to make his point; but the endlessly repeated appeals to liberty, respect and what he called the “bigger picture” opened up by faith, made clear that he had come not to oppose pluralism, but to offer an alternative, more capacious notion of it than that offered by secular humanism. 

The central platform for that message was Parliament’s Westminster Hall, when he warned more than 1,000 political and civil leaders that “if the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident.” He went on to appeal for greater freedom for religious organizations to manifest their beliefs in the public square.  

Both the event and the pope’s carefully argued address added up to a demonstration of exactly what he was calling for — a dialogue between faith and reason, Church and politics, religion and democracy. 

‘Immense suffering’ 

Another much more unexpected theme of the visit was Pope Benedict’s forthright response to criticism of the Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse. It began on the papal plane to Edinburgh, when he told journalists of his shock and sadness at the crisis, and shame at the Church’s failures in dealing with it. In his homily at Westminster Cathedral he spoke of the “immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers,” his “deep sorrow” at these “unspeakable crimes” as well as “the shame and the humiliation which all of us have suffered” as a result of the crisis. Later that day, he met with five abuse victims at the nunciature in southwest London, and went on to meet Church officials responsible for the safeguarding of young people at a home for the elderly in south London. 

The next day, at Cofton Park in Birmingham, the chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, Bill Kilgallon, told journalists that the pope was deeply impressed that all allegations are automatically referred to the statutory authorities and that independent oversight was built into each stage of the process. The pope told him that these were “very important,” Kilgallon told Our Sunday Visitor. Shortly before his Sept. 19 departure, the pontiff told the bishops to share the lessons they had learned in tackling abuse with the wider community: “What better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards chil-dren who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere?” 

A call to Catholics 

The third theme was a call to Catholics to take a greater role in national life. Long caught between Protestantism and secularism, the confidence of the faithful has been battered in recent years by clerical sex abuse and relentless accusations that they are “out of step” with modernity. At the Mass to beatify Cardinal Newman, Pope Benedict quoted the blessed’s call for an intelligent, well-instructed laity — “not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand” — to summon Catholics to argue, as he earlier said at the Glasgow Mass, “for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum.” 

Is Britain changed by the visit? Some fruits are already apparent: Catholics have been energized, unified, filled with pride; the most vigorous yet humble assault ever made on secularism has put its advocates on the back foot; the government has moved deftly to identify Pope Benedict’s call for a faith-friendly public discourse with their “Big Society” vision; and Anglican opponents of the Church of England’s direction may have realized now that crossing the Tiber does not cut them off from British society, but plunges them into its heart.  

Other fruits will depend on how Catholics act on the visit. They have much to ponder. Pope Benedict has left behind many extraordinary texts, the warm afterglow of a triumphant visit, and many memories of epoch-changing moments that will live long in the British imagination. 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.