The Pope used his visit to England and Scotland to teach some important lessons.
Defying dreary weather and drearier
protests, the state visit of Benedict XVI to England and Scotland was, by all
accounts, a smashing success. Although only about 5 million of 60 Britons are
Catholic, the enthusiasm of the crowds bowled over a sceptical media.
London’s saucy tabloids ran interviews with
star-struck teenagers under punning headlines like “Bene’s from Heaven”. One young woman gushed to the News of the World, "English Catholicism needs a bit of oomph and
this is our chance to give it some welly. I have got a feeling that I've not
had for a long time. He should come more often."
No doubt the Pope appreciated the devoted
crowds, but he had come with a message, not an applause meter. British Prime Minister David Cameron picked
that up. In his farewell remarks, he thanked the Pope for raising searching
questions. “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think,
and that can only be a good thing.”
Think about what?
Five themes impressed me about Benedict’s
subtle and subdued addresses.
1066 and all that. Even in Britain it’s easy to
forget how yoked we are to our past. Voldemort Dawkins and his disciples seemed
unaware of how much they owed to generations of anti-popery campaigners. Different
costumes, same script.
Benedict, on the other hand, has a knack
for placing messages in an historical framework. In Westminster Hall, he said,
“The angels looking down on us from the magnificent ceiling of this ancient
Hall remind us of the long tradition from which British Parliamentary democracy
has evolved. They remind us that God is constantly watching over us to guide
and protect us. And they summon us to acknowledge the vital contribution that
religious belief has made and can continue to make to the life of the nation.”
Britain, he reminded his hosts time and
time again, is incomprehensible without its faith. Even its first history was penned
by a Saxon monk, Bede the Venerable. “The Christian message has been an
integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these
islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and
justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty
force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and
In short, democratic values of freedom,
equality and solidarity have Christian roots. The greatest triumph of British
democracy in the 19th century, the abolition of the slave trade, was due to the
work of reformers like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone, both staunch
And, taking a leaf from the tormented history of his
own homeland, Benedict reminded listeners that atheist regimes, like the
slavers, denied a common humanity to Jews and other subject peoples. “As we
reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth
century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from
public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and
thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’.”
What lies ahead if secularism erases
religion from civic life?
and faith are compatible. Benedict could easily have
side-stepped the enormous tensions of this trip. Nowadays beatifications are
normally proclaimed by local bishops. But the life and work of Cardinal Newman
offered him an opportunity to take the battle against aggressive secularism into
enemy territory. Without ever mentioning He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, he pounded
contention that “There is no logical pathway from atheism to wickedness.”
A schoolboy knowledge of the 20th century shows
how dumboundingly daft that is but Benedict put it more eloquently:
corrective supplied by religion, though, reason … can fall prey to distortions,
as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails
to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason,
after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many
other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth
century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of
faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief –
need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing
dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”
people need challenging ideals. The last 40 years
have thrown a soggy blanket of booze and sex over youthful idealism and
generosity. One of the leaders in the Pope’s Unwelcome Committee, the Commissar
of the British secularist commentariat, Polly Toynbee, exemplified this in a
recent column when she wrote that repression of “sex lies at the poisoned heart
of all that is wrong with just about every major faith”. What Jack and Jill need is more safe sex, in other words.
Benedict, on the other hand, offered young
Britons the demanding challenge of creating a civilisation of love, rather than
a civilisation of indulgence. “There are many temptations placed before
you every day - drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol - which the world tells
you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive.
There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for
each one of you.”
The Pope has a vision of life as demanding commitment
to dignity, friendship, wisdom and truth – like John Henry Newman – instead of
the frantic pursuit of “the glittering but superficial existence frequently
proposed by today’s society”. The eruption
of petulant nastiness in the media before the visit made a shabby contrast with the
Pope’s invitation to reach for the stars.
has a place in the public square. Nowhere in the Western
world is religion more on the back foot than in Britain. But as Prime Minister
Cameron pointed out, Christianity is challenging: “For you have offered a message
not just to the Catholic Church but to each and every one of us of every faith
and none. A challenge to us all to follow our conscience to ask not what are my
entitlements, but what are my responsibilities? To ask not what we can do for
ourselves, but what we can do for others?”
Faith has a role in political life, Benedict
insisted. Politics is not just a matter of administrative effectiveness or balancing
interests, but of ethics. “Substantially politics came into being in order to
guarantee justice, and with justice, freedom. Now justice is a moral value, a
religious value, and hence faith, the proclamation of the Gospel, is linked to
politics at the point of ‘justice’, and from here are born common interests.”
The 20th century has shown that that
governments are constantly tempted to tyranny. It is faith that protects citizens
from being swallowed up by Leviathan:
generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the
requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far
do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?
These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse.
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 - herein lies the real challenge for
foundation for tolerance is respect, not relativism.
The Pope’s critics accuse him of being deaf to dialogue but they were in no
mood for dialogue themselves last weekend. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named told a rally of supporters
that he was “a leering old fixer” and “an enemy of humanity, of children, of
gay people, of women, of the poorest people on the planet, of truth, of
science, of education”. Isn’t Britain’s Pope of atheism capable of civility or
By contrast, Benedict pulled no punches but
gave no offence. In Westminster Hall he reminded the great and good of British
society that Thomas More had been martyred for his loyalty to Rome. In Lambeth
Palace, the residence of the Anglican Primate, he made a veiled reference to
the ordination of homosexuals and women and Newman’s conversion from the Anglican
Church. In Westminster Abbey, he described himself as the successor of Peter. He
met Muslim leaders and alluded to the lack of religious freedom in
Muslim-majority countries. Everywhere he spoke with courtesy and respect and
without insolence or irony. But everywhere he sought out common ground for
promoting human dignity and religious freedom.
More with deeds than with words he gave a memorable
lesson in tolerance. On the one hand, it is not forbearance, or ignoring points
of difference. On the other it is not minimising differences as if they did not
matter. Benedict showed that tolerance is possible without being a relativist.
Is it because he is sure that reason will ultimately triumph that he has the
courage to dialogue?
the speeches yourself. It is not for nothing that MercatorNet
nominated Joseph Ratzinger as one of the great champions of human dignity.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.