Catholic popes are a rarity in Britain. It is my impression that no pope ever came to the country before the Reformation, and certainly none after, until Pope John Paul II thirty years ago, and he was on a pastoral mission. Pope Benedict XVI is on a state visit, a very different thing. As head of state, the Queen received him, which is more than a symbolic gesture, as she is also Defender of the Faith. The Catholic and Protestant traditions acknowledge one another.
Shortly before the Pope arrived, an interview given by the German cardinal Walter Kasper in a German magazine was picked up. It is safe to say that nobody except leading churchmen have ever heard of the cardinal or the magazine. But he is quoted saying, “When you land at Heathrow you think at times you are in a Third World country.” Uproar. Consternation. The cardinal has had to drop out from the Pope’s tour and pretend to be ill. The media, in particular the BBC, wallow in excitement that the tour is going to prove a disaster. The director general of the BBC, one Mark Thompson, has just admitted that the BBC used to have a left-wing bias, and Sherlock Holmes himself couldn’t detect anything different now.
We don’t know if the Cardinal was referring to the scummy canteens, filthy lavatories, and tacky tourist shops of Heathrow. Perhaps he was commenting on the social composition of those flying in and out of the airport and by extension the country. One characteristic of Third World countries is the inability to accept criticism, and the reaction to the cardinal’s words proves that he is right.
The media managed to create the impression that the Pope’s tour would be strongly opposed. The Catholic Church was presented as reactionary, out of date, wrong about contraception, the home of paedophilia, etc. But when the Valiant-for-Truth mustered, they turned out to be a pretty small and ragged crew of actors, one very self-satisfied female journalist with answers for everything, a couple of homosexual activists, a professional atheist or two, a writer of children’s books, some young lad from the Humanist Association (whatever that may be), all in all carrying no weight. Alongside them is Ian Paisley, the self-appointed cleric who claims to speak on behalf of Northern Irish Protestants and likes to bellow “No Popery!” whenever he can. So a few leftist atheists and a few Protestants form an alliance of the narrow-minded, and prove yet again the fascinating political phenomenon that extremes invariably manage to meet.
As for the public — surprise, surprise — they have turned out in much larger numbers than anyone anticipated, to listen to an mild-mannered and thoughtful old man telling them that human beings need both faith and reason. The message seems to be: It is late in the day, but the decline to the Third World can be halted.