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Benedict in Britain

by John O'Sullivan

The pope called a nation back to greatness

Papal visits now follow a well-established course. Before the pope arrives, the host country’s media are full of reports asserting with prophetic sadness that, though the pontiff is personally popular and may on that account be well received, the Catholic faithful nonetheless reject his opinions on a range of issues from abortion to women priests. Then the pope arrives and is greeted by much larger crowds than expected. He delivers some powerful sermons to which only a few dissident theologians object. Finally, he returns to Rome amid ecumenical applause, leaving behind a sense that some souls have been uplifted and challenged toward goodness.

This pattern was established in the papacy of John Paul II. Because he was a rare prelate with an instinctive ability to exploit modern media to preach the Gospel, John Paul’s successful pilgrimages could be subtly marginalized as an expression of celebrity as much as of religion. But their deeper impact suddenly became clear when the pope lay dying: Vast numbers of pilgrims, not all of them Catholics, camped out in St. Peter’s Square to pray and sing hymns. Some had specific reasons for being there: One Jewish Chicagoan told the cameras that he wanted to thank John Paul for healing the breach between Jews and the Catholic Church. But most people in the square seemed to have been drawn there by an admiring respect for the pope’s evident holiness. They loved him for it. Maybe that love was the first step toward holiness on their part. If so, subsequent steps would have to include the cooler and more bracing virtues.

Pope Benedict XVI has a very different personality from that of his predecessor. He is shy, scholarly, more the theologian than the showman. His most notable encyclical to date was on the subject of love, but he does not evoke love with the easy, confident charm of John Paul II. Any impact he makes will depend on what he says rather than how he says it.

Heretofore he has sought to plant his message of Christian love in the soil of sound doctrine. In particular he has made truth, reason, and faith — and the relationship between them — hallmarks of his theology. For that reason, he has firmly rejected the relativism that denies objective truth. And since relativism is increasingly the intellectual orthodoxy underpinning Western Europe’s new post-Christian societies, including Britain, Pope Benedict’s visit to the country in September was likely to be a challenge.

There were also less theoretical obstacles to the visit’s success:

One. In Britain, a certain kind of Protestantism is deeply woven into the ethos and institutions of national life. The unwritten constitution upholds the Protestant succession; the Queen is head of the Church of England; the monarch cannot marry a Catholic. These provisions no longer offend Catholic subjects. Still, no one could be sure that a few last-ditch Paisleyites might not disturb the visit with noisy demonstrations.

Two. Over-zealous Protestantism has been replaced not by a relaxed tolerance, but by a post-Christian secularism that seeks to drive religion from the public square. This secularism rests on relativist foundations; it has become the conventional wisdom of the political and media elites; and among its practical effects is a disposition to treat religious concerns as either bigoted or trivial. And because the Catholic Church is still the strongest Christian denomination, this mindset has produced a new and more “modern” kind of anti-Catholicism and anti-Christianity. Thus, a foreign-office team established to prepare for the pope’s visit produced a paper (promptly leaked) suggesting that the pope during his visit should launch a range of “Benedict” condoms, apologize for the Spanish Armada, bless a gay marriage, and sing a duet with the Queen. This was a “joke,” of course, but the fact that it was circulated to other government departments suggests that its civil-servant authors had a frivolous and dismissive view of the papal visit and of religion itself. A more serious effect of the same mindset is a law that compels religious adoption agencies to accept applications from gay couples and that has in fact forced Catholic adoption agencies to close down. (The measure is both needless, since other agencies already arrange adoptions for gay couples, and illiberal.)

Three. At its extreme, this anti-Christian disposition has given birth to an aggressive protest movement of “new atheists,” gay and feminist activists, and left-wing lawyers intent on using international law to reduce the influence of the Vatican. The Catholic Church had made itself conveniently vulnerable through the sex-abuse scandal and through the attempts of local bishops to deal with it without informing the police. Benedict was accused of participating in this “cover-up.” In fact, as pope, he has dealt harshly with perpetrators and, before that, he had urged prompt and severe punishment in cases where the Vatican had jurisdiction. Nonetheless, the protesters mounted an argument that the pope should be arrested during his state visit for complicity in these crimes. Though there was never any prospect of this happening — quite apart from the absurdity of the charges, the pope enjoys diplomatic immunity as a head of state — the argument was taken seriously in the elite media.

Four. As a miasma of illegitimacy began to hover over the visit, polls showed that most respondents opposed spending public money on it. This was interesting but irrelevant. Most voters would oppose spending public money on most state visits. Usually, however, the polls don’t ask their views on them. It was the controversy that caused the polls rather than the polls that caused the controversy.

Five. Finally, the organization of the visit began to look as if it might be chaotic. In addition to the prospect of large-scale protests, church leaders feared that the faithful would be discouraged by the controversy from turning out to greet the pope. And a damp squib might be the worst result of all.

In short, Pope Benedict’s state visit began with very low expectations. And yet there were large turnouts of enthusiastic faithful and sympathetic non-faithful and, when the pope departed, he left behind a feeling that hearts and minds had been transformed in some significant, albeit complicated ways. Here are a number of related impressions:

One. Benedict’s first event in Britain was his meeting in Scotland with the Queen. There was considerable poignancy in this friendly, respectful exchange between two octogenarians who had both played minor military roles as adolescents in World War II and who both defend traditional Christianity without embarrassment (though with different degrees of sophistication). But its main significance was the pope’s generous praise for the Protestant tradition in British history. He linked British leadership in ending the international slave trade, for instance, to the evangelical efforts of William Wilberforce and David Livingstone. He cited Florence Nightingale as someone who, “inspired by faith, . . . set new standards in health care, that were subsequently copied everywhere.” These names are the nearest thing to sainthood in Britain’s Protestant calendar. Benedict mentioned them, moreover, as following in a line of succession from such pre-Reformation Catholic saints as Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. In other words, he was asserting a fundamental Christian continuity in British life that overshadows the Reformation and that (as he argued it) accounts for the humane and democratic achievements of British history. It would be going too far to argue, as did Andrew Brown of the Guardian, that Benedict abolished Protestantism in Britain; but he did seek to remove the last traces of internecine ideological warfare between Catholicism and British Protestantism. And he did so, apparently, with success: Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond of the not-very-Catholic Scottish National party, said that “there would not be a Scotland if it had not been for the Roman Catholic Church.”

Two. Benedict chose as the central religious event of his visit a Mass in Birmingham celebrating the beatification of Cardinal Newman. This was important because Newman is the most brilliant English Catholic since the Reformation (and perhaps before it). He did a great deal to make Catholicism nationally respectable, and he began a tradition of intellectual and artistic conversions that continued up to the 1960s. Newman’s beatification was only one gesture of regard (though the most religiously significant) of many that Benedict directed towards England during his visit. Especially powerful (and personal) was his praise on Battle of Britain Sunday for the young men of the Royal Air Force who courageously laid down their lives in 1940 resisting, as he said, the “evil ideology” that had oppressed him among millions of others. The British have not been used lately to being praised by outsiders; indeed, they have largely forgotten all but the shameful episodes in their own history. So these words had an impact.

Three. The single most important event of the visit was Benedict’s address in Westminster Hall. If he had said nothing of import, the event would still have been powerfully memorable: the successor to Saint Peter addressing a selection of Britain’s elite, including three former prime ministers, on the spot where Thomas More had been convicted of treason for being “the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” But his address was wonderfully rich in content. Having reconciled with Protestantism, asserted the Catholic role in British history, and praised the British for their historical achievements, he now addressed their current lapse into relativism. Reason and religion needed each other, he argued, if they were not to become ideology and fundamentalism respectively. Religion was thus “a vital contributor to the national conversation.” He was disturbed by its “increasing marginalization.” There were “those who argue — paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination — that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.” There was a failure to appreciate “the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

One might have expected that his elite audience would receive his argument with cool disapproval. In fact, they greeted it with sustained applause; it had struck a serious chord. Outside Westminster Hall, moreover, half a million people in all attended his Masses, sermons, and speeches. The protesters managed to assemble a mere 10,000 people in Hyde Park to indicate their disapproval.

Suddenly, the protesters themselves looked marginalized. Though possessing vital strongholds in the media and the academy, they seemed narrowly metropolitan compared with the large, diverse crowds that attended the pope’s Masses — and superficial compared with the audience in Westminster Hall. When Prime Minister David Cameron (who had helped to make the visit a success by getting the government enthusiastically behind it) saw Benedict off at the airport, he said that the pope had made Brits “sit up and think.”

Might large social trends turn around? Will relativism fall out of favor? Will the rights of conscience be successfully asserted against an implacable egalitarianism? No one will know these things for a long time. But the visit reminded me of an earlier reversal. Not long after Princess Diana’s showbiz funeral had given the impression that Britain was sinking into a bath of sentimentality, the Queen Mother’s funeral, with its traditional solemnity and religious language, rallied the British to an appreciation of their older and more substantial identity. Pope Benedict sought the same result in religious terms. Whether or not he ultimately succeeds, he has established that there is a large audience for truth and reason — perhaps a larger one than for their cheaply appealing opposites.

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