Welcoming the Pope to the United Kingdom
All of these will be distractions.
For Pope Benedict XVI comes to the United Kingdom at a time when the Christian conscience is besieged, the national church cowed and our liberties undermined in ways they have not been for centuries. Nurses dare not pray or wear a crucifix; teachers dare not mention Jesus and the school receptionist dare not ask for prayer. If you work for BA, turbans, karas and hijabs are fine, but don’t even think about wearing a cross. Christians are no longer free to be foster parents, registrars, hotel owners or B&B proprietors. Bishops may no longer uphold orthodoxy, street preachers may not quote Scripture, and adoption agencies must act against their conscience or close.
And don’t even think about saying ‘God bless’ in the workplace.
New Labour was so intent on legislating for ‘equality’ and tolerance towards every intolerant minority that they were incapable of seeing that they simultaneously legislated for the intolerance of the tolerant Christian majority. The United Kingdom has become a nation in which Christianity is an ‘eccentricity’ practised by ‘oddities’.
When Christians dare to be convicted, they are portrayed as bigots. When they articulate a view with which others may disagree, they are dogmatic. When they fall short of perfection, they are pilloried and cast as hypocrites. When they defend the unborn, they are unenlightened. When they oppose animal-human embryos, they are anti-science. When they express concern over the fatherless, they are homophobic. When they speak up for the poor, they are wishy-washy liberals. When they defend faith-based education, they are intolerant. When they seek to uphold marriage, they are ‘right wing’ reactionaries.
But New Labour is not solely to blame for this parlous state of affairs (though its own Christian MPs have observed the ‘darkness’ at its heart). No, the genesis of this Godlessness is the spawn of the European Union which repudiates true religion and admits of no divinity but itself. God forbid that a Christian might today aspire to public office while battalions of secularists and sundry other anti-Christians await the bugle call to charge with deadly intent. While the Archbishop of Canterbury is perceived to be aloof and his words impenetrable in the postmodern haze, one might be forgiven for hoping that a plain-speaking pope might bring with him a clear message to swipe aside the more egregious equality directives and cut through the pervasive politically-correct dogma.
It may be that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm’ but he still has the status and respect to be able to address the gathered Lords and Commons in Westminster Hall.
The Archbishop of Canterbury could hardly attract them to a coffee morning.
Pope Benedict is undoubtedly greatly diminished by recent scandals: paedophile priests will forever be to him what Jews have been to Pius XII, Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton and the Iraq war to Tony Blair. It is axiomatic in an age of attention deficit disorder, where the x-factorised masses are satisfied with instant coffee and feed on a diet of email and Twitter, that world leaders are now remembered for just one thing.
And Pope Benedict’s church is damaged. Yes, the institution limps along Semper Eadem, but for many ordinary Roman Catholics the hierarchy is no longer fit for purpose: its authority lacks credibility, its moralising is devoid of sincerity, and its understanding of truth and justice ring hollow. The incommunication of a holocaust denier, insensitive comments about condoms and reigniting Byzantine views of Mohammed have not helped.
There appears to be little media awareness. The Roman Catholic Church has ceased to speak with one voice; indeed, its offices of communication rarely impart anything wholesome, and its communion is impaired. It has become disparate and divided, with ultramontane restorationists ranged against post-conciliar liberals, traditionalists tearing strips of progressives and Herald fundamentalists cursing Tablet heretics for betraying the faith that was handed down from St Peter.
Catholicism seems to have become, well, a little Anglican.
Yet these developments can hardly be laid at the door of Benedict. And it is petty and discourteous in the extreme for any to say that he should not come to the UK.
It is surely an expression of common courtesy – ordinarily extended unconditionally by Her Majesty to any visiting foreign head of state – to welcome Pope Benedict XVI to these islands. He is not simply a religious leader or self-proclaimed universal bishop, but a philosopher-king, a monarch on his throne, a head of state like any other (well, almost). This visit is not merely ‘pastoral’, as was that of Pope John Paul II in 1982, but acutely political, like that of any president, prime minister or potentate to whom Her Majesty might extend such a state invitation.
Pope Benedict will be the first pope in our islands’ long history to be so received.
Those who shame the British spirit of generosity and offend against Christian notions of hospitality with cries of ‘No Pope Here!’ are doubtless those who uttered not a syllable of protest against the state visits of Mugabe, Hirohito, Ceauşescu, Abdullah, Jintao…
Not, of course, that Pope Benedict may in any sense be considered a rogue, vagabond, tyrant, dictator or mass murderer.
Other than by Peter Tatchell or Stephen Fry.
But over the decades, Her Majesty has held her nose as she has shaken hands with sundry unpalatables whose association with her has certainly afforded them considerable political capital back home to continue their programmes of intolerance, oppression and murder.
And now it appears that a religious leader who happens to believe that homosexual practice is an ‘objective disorder’, that abortion is murder and that contraception is a mortal sin, is reviled severally by the secularists, atheists, liberals and Richard Dawkins.
It may have taken 500 years for the wheel to come full circle, but is it not ironic is that this Pope comes to defend those very liberties which his forebears sought to deny us? When he talks of the imperative of the liberty of the Christian conscience, he takes the Protestant theme, for which many suffered horrifically and even paid with their lives.
The Pope will choose his words carefully, but they will not mean precisely what Anglican and Protestant ears will hear: he will not advocate direct human relationship with God, governed by the Bible. And neither will he mean what millions of Roman Catholics will believe him to mean – the liberty to question authority or to reject unscriptural teachings which they find unpalatable. For Pope Benedict, the Christian conscience must be in submission to the Sacred Magisterium, which is non-negotiable: where there is no submission there is grave sin.
When Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury pause to pray in Westminster Hall over the very spot where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death, they will undoubtedly be united in their opposition to the ascendant secular intolerance which renders ‘equality’ an infallible dogma and ‘rights’ an immutable article of faith. But their prayers will be scripted for ecumenical niceties, not a religio-political discourse of More’s assertions of his Catholic faith against Henry VIII's claim to headship of the Church. The old theme of Church and State will not be indulged, because it doesn’t fit into a Tweet.
And yet there is a dichotomy.
For Pope Benedict XVI comes to the United Kingdom to beatify England’s second most famous convert to Rome. And Newman was as troubled by the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as England’s most famous convert is troubled today by papal teachings on sexuality.
Newman rejected the aggressive centralisation of the First Vatican Council; Blair rejects Humanae Vitae and the view that homosexuality is an ‘objective disorder’ or even a sin.
In this attitude, both show themselves to be inescapably Anglican. Article XXI says: Of the Authority of General Councils. General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.
Cardinal Newman argued for the liberty of the Christian conscience and for greater intellectual freedom within the Roman Catholic Church. “Truth”, he wrote, “is wrought out by many minds, working together freely.”
This is the synodical structure, discerning truth with heart and conscience as well as the head. And Newman always placed conscience above Pope, which makes him a rather fitting subject for beatification in a relativist, egotist and materialist culture.
Pope Benedict resisted Gordon Brown’s invitation to bless New Labour on its death-bed in the hope of reviving the disillusioned faithful. But he comes now to sanctify David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ which is bound with the pursuit of ‘the common good’.
So, His Holiness is welcome to take tea and cake with Her Majesty and address the British Parliament to remind us that Christianity brought liberty, justice and truth.
But it should not need a Pope come from Rome to tell us these things.