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Why this papal visit is not going to be easy

2010 July 9
by Paul Vallely

It is difficult for most Catholics I know to decide where to place themselves over the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI. But, as preparations – and opposition to them – moved up a gear this week it became clear that this is not going to be as straightforward a visit as that of his predecessor Pope John Paul II was in 1982.

The church feels under attack, and for understandable reasons since paedophile priests – and the institutional church’s cover-up of the scandal – have shocked and outraged believers and non-believers alike. The church in the UK may plead that the majority of cases are elsewhere, in Ireland or the United States. It may point out that the Nolan report, with its recommendations for preventative action, commissioned and implemented by bishops in England and Wales, is a model of  transparency and rigour for other churches in this matter. But its bishops, as their routinely re-iterated statements of apology and repentance reveal, are media savvy enough to know that this will not get them off the hook in a society which mixes the scandal together with all kinds of other issues, from celibacy and sexuality to clericalism.

Having said that most members of the church are irritated by the media’s myopic inability to focus on anything other than the negative aspects of the church. It is not just the media. Monomaniac pressures groups like the Taxpayers’ Alliance or the National Secular Society, which see the world only through their single-issue truth, have pledged to intensify campaigning against the visit. Two prominent atheists have called for the pope to be arrested for “crimes against humanity”.

But it is the media which has been feeding all this, and little else. Questioning of the Archbishop of Westminster and Lord Patten, who is overseeing the visit for David Cameron, has overwhelming focused on paedophile priests and decontextualised attacks on the cost of a state visit to which the Pope has, after all, been invited by the British government.

Few have reported that the four-day stay will cost only a tenth of what was spent on a single day of the last G20 conference in London. Instead there have been attempts to manufacture controversy by seeking out interviews with Ian Paisley or unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Jewish leaders to indignation that they have been invited to meet the Pope on the eve of Yom Kippur.

It all appears fed by the sense which is normative in the secular liberal elite which runs Britain that contempt or outrage are not just permissible about the Pope but almost de rigueur – in wilful disdain of the 11 per cent of the population who are Roman Catholic. The preposterous Foreign Office memo on the visit showed that. But the BBC drama department has been considering a film that imagines the Pope on trial for clerical sex abuse. Peter Tatchell, who is organising a “Protest the Pope” campaign, has been commissioned by Channel 4 to make a programme on the papacy.

But church leaders know that the media is not the only problem. In the pews there is barely a shadow of the excitement which rippled through congregations in the run-up to the visit of the Pope’s charismatic predecessor. Of the £5m raised for church costs almost £4m has been from big donors, with just £1m from the collection plate and a £2-3m shortfall barely two months before Benedict arrives. It took the church years to pay off the £6m debts accrued during the 1982 papal visit.

The church needs to brace itself for some rough water. Members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales appear to understand this. But all the signs from Rome suggest that those in authority there do not. It could be a difficult visit.

from The Church Times

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