Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Papal Visit

I accept that plenty of people have criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church, and they have every right to voice their concerns and the Church has to defend itself. But what we are witnessing today in the UK is an outpouring of bigotry, lies and half truths about the Church and, more especially, Pope Benedict XVI.

For the first time in my life today, after looking on the internet and listening to a BBC phone-in, I was ashamed to be British. There is a sick level of hatred directed at Catholics as the Pope's visit draws nearer that should shame all who regard themselves as tolerant and, dare I say, liberal? It was so refreshing then to find the following article in the Telegraph Online:

This week will witness the historic spectacle of the Pope delivering an address in Westminster Hall to the leaders of British society. Later on Friday, Benedict XVI will visit Westminster Abbey – but it is his speech in the Palace of Westminster that carries the greater symbolic weight. No building in Britain reveals more of the foundations of our constitution. Medieval kings were feasted and deposed in the 900-year-old hall. Guy Fawkes and King Charles I were tried there. So, too, was Sir Thomas More, for refusing to accept the right of the monarch to exercise papal powers.

The last fact underlines the sensitivity of the visit of Pope Benedict, which begins on Thursday; for, unlike John Paul II, he will be here as the guest of the Queen. Matters are made even more delicate by scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, for which Benedict XVI has been put on trial by the British media. As this newspaper has argued, that is the wrong spirit in which to approach this remarkable state visit. The attempts to implicate this Pope in paedophile abuse have fallen apart under scrutiny – and, in any case, he will be here as our guest, not as a defendant. In the past, Westminster Hall may have served as a courtroom; but it is also a setting for hospitality, and that will be its function this week.

The role of host is an opportunity for people to show off – in a good way – all that is best about themselves. At the Palace of Westminster, the former Joseph Ratzinger will breathe the air of an institution that, in contrast to Continental legislatures, has resisted tyranny. He is expected to recognise this by referring to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a gesture rendered all the more poignant by the fact that as a very young man he served, briefly and unwillingly, in Hitler's armed forces.

In 1940, the British people fought not only to resist conquest but also to preserve their tolerant values. Today, this country permits and even celebrates many things of which the Catholic Church disapproves. But it should be stressed that this Pope, perhaps more than any other, is an admirer of British democracy. As a devotee of Cardinal Newman who speaks our language fluently, he appreciates our tradition of civilised discourse with people whose views we do not share.

In recent months, that tradition has been threatened by the anti-religious rhetoric of "defenders of the Enlightenment", who display an intellectual intolerance almost worthy of the Inquisition. That is a shame. By all means, let critics challenge the Pope's teachings while he is here. But this four-day visit is not an invitation to drown out the voice of the leader of a billion Christians with sneering and mockery. Visitors to these shores as well as British citizens have the right of free speech. Our distinguished guest must be allowed to exercise it.

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