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So what did we learn from the Pope’s visit?

2010 September 21
by Paul Vallely

AND another thing, fulminated the anti-papal protestor to the BBC, “I have just found out that the Queen has to wear black when she meets the Pope as a sign of deference.” It was unfortunate, therefore, that when the monarch had met the pontiff two days earlier the BBC television footage showed the Queen was wearing what my fashion advisers describe as a fetching shade of winter teal – very pale green to my untutored eyes.  Clearly this particular protestor was not one of the billion people round the world who tuned in to watch Pope Benedict’s visit.  Either that or it was a case of never let the facts get in the way of a good protest.

Will the first official visit of a Pope to the United Kingdom change anything? It’s too soon to say, said Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Professor of Church History at Oxford, echoing the famous judgement of the Chinese premier Chou en-Lai when he was asked what had been the consequences of the French Revolution.

Not much has changed for our noisy neighbours in the Protest the Pope movement. They have some legitimate complaints about the policy of the Catholic Church but much of their criticism has not only been characterised by spittle-flecked invective but also by a reluctance to check many of the so-called facts which they parrot from one another. Any stick will do to beat a dogma, even a bent one, the stick that is, though some of the dogma may be too.

Many of the insults have been directed at Benedict personally, ignoring the fact that much of the culture of cover-up in the Vatican emanated from cardinals protected by Pope John Paul II who repeatedly sought to frustrate the reforming broom of Joseph Ratzinger when he took over responsibility for disciplining paedophile priests, just four years before he became Pope.

All the facts suggest that Cardinal Ratzinger did more to crack down on abusers than anyone else in Rome, though he did it in secrecy out of a misguided assumption that he was protecting the church from further scandal. The common abuse directed against Benedict has revealed the essential illiberality of many of those who claim their opposition to religion comes from liberal rationalism. Their determination to ignore facts questions the strength of these Romophobes attachment to reason too.

So what of British Catholics? There does appear to be an initial Benedict bounce. In part that comes from a reaction to the vehemence of the protests which has revived fears of an old anti-Catholicism; even Catholics who are privately critical of Benedict edged towards the Church thanks to the polarisation of the debate. In part it comes from the shared experience of the open-air masses, with the cagoules and camping gear producing a Greenbelt moment of affirmation and bonding.  But key to it was the gentle diffidence of a shy smiling Pope who seemed nothing like the God’s Rotweiller of reputation.

But what will persist?  A Youth 2000 regeneration? Or a return to the reality that four out of 10 weekly mass-going Catholics think that, as the polls have now shown, that a woman generally speaking has the right to an abortion? (Some 74 per cent support the use of artificial contraception with the figures even higher if non-practising Catholics are included.)

And what of Rome? The word from there is that the Pope did far more listening – to leaders of other denominations and faiths, to young people and children, to careworkers and to the victims of abuser priests – than he has on papal visits to other lands. He was genuinely moved and left with a greater understanding of the distinctive nature of his Church in these islands than he had when he arrived. Will anything in Rome change? Perhaps we should ask Chou en-Lai.

from The Church Times

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