As Pope Benedict XVI was celebrating mass in Glasgow on Thursday, urging Scottish Catholics to “put aside what is worthless and learn of your own dignity as children of God”, various intellectuals and media personalities were massing in England to resist him on his progress south. The broader British public, only 53 per cent of whom call themselves Christian, was by and large indifferent to this quarrel. Only 2,000 people were expected for an anti-papal rally in London on Saturday. But the Pope’s celebrity opponents were visible and energetic. In recent months, Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and science writer, Geoffrey Robertson, the international lawyer, and Peter Tatchell, the gay-rights activist, have all called for his arrest.
Britain’s reception of Benedict is the most hostile he has received in his half decade of papal travel. Perhaps the British have a special genius for diagnosing this Pope’s shortcomings. More likely the ancient English reflex of anti-Catholicism – a trait with healthy and unhealthy sides – is reasserting itself in a new guise.
Unlike the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain in 1982, this is a state visit. The case against according Benedict that honour was laid out most bluntly in a letter to the Guardian this week, signed by several dozen professors, writers, bloggers and politicians. It listed five misdeeds: 1) the choice of Catholic health services not to provide birth control in poor countries; 2) “segregated” (ie doctrinal) religious education; 3) opposing abortion; 4) opposing equal rights for gays; 5) failing to address child abuse among Catholic priests.
The first four complaints are arbitrary. They involve casting Catholic opinions and doctrines – many of them widely shared by non-Catholics – as crimes, and the class interests of intellectuals as norms.
The final complaint is more serious. Someone needs to be held accountable for a wave of sexual abuse by priests in the 1970s and 1980s. The church sought to protect its good name by investigating the crimes internally, and did a miserable job of it. Its hopes to “cure” priests of their sexual leanings were misplaced. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1990s, the Pope – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he then was – surely bears some responsibility.
Sex abuse is a terrible blot on the Vatican record, but two things are worth noting.
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