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Columnists

Seeing the See

Paul Vallely

VallelyThere is an interesting dissonance between the ways that the secular and religious worlds have viewed the visit of Benedict XVI to Britain this year.
The dominant public agenda has been essentially negative, focusing on the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, and questioning whether public money should be spent on such a controversial visit. It has grown out of a set of largely unquestioned suppositions which were perhaps best illustrated by the ridiculous memo from the Foreign Office's papal visit team which put at the top of the list of its desired outcomes, that the Pope should launch his own brand of Benedict condoms. Public questioning of those organising the visit - Lord Patten for the state and Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, for the Church - has been mildly hostile. News organisations have sought controversy, searching out interviews with Ian Paisley (who was Against, surprise, surprise) or unsuccessfully inciting Jewish leaders to complain that they had been invited to meet the Pope on the eve of Yom Kippur. Aggressive atheists and organizations like the National Secular Society have been intemperate in their language.

There is a touch of anti-Popery about this but the intolerance is wider than just a revival of old-style anti-Catholicism. That was clear from the mocking inclusion in the Foreign Office list of a request that the Pope should, in pursuit of the climate change agenda, persuade God to make trees fall on illegal loggers. There is a new antagonism abroad to religion in general in the UK. Yet there is in the religious community none of the wild enthusiasm which characterised the previous papal visit to the UK, by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

The unease about Benedict XVI's visit is multi-faceted. In part it comes from his not being Pope John Paul II; a man who spoke from the heart has been replaced with one who speaks from the head. Even where Benedict is treated with respect there is far less warmth. This is not just because of his past role as a hardline Vatican doctrinal watchdog. His cerebral rationalism, and lack of intuitive understanding of gesture and symbol, has damaged Catholic relations with Muslims and Jews. And some Catholics bridle at being asked to pay as much as £25 a head for 'pilgrim passes' to gain admission to papal masses and events. Though the church has raised £4m from big donors to pay for the visit it has secured just £1m from collection plates passed along the pews.

But it is the ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandal  - and the institutional church's cover-up of the scandal - which has induced the greatest ambivalence among believers and non-believers alike. It has raised the question: is the present pope part of the problem or the solution?

Despite various attempts to smear him it now seems pretty clear that as Cardinal Ratzinger he was one of the church leaders most anxious to extirpate child abuse from the church. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he fought an internal battle with Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy, over the issue. His rival, whose priority was pastoral care for abusers, privately defended bishops who had shielded paedophile clergy. Ratzinger saw such men as a disgrace to the priesthood and prioritised justice.  Ratzinger persuaded Pope John Paul II and was given the job of rooting out offenders.

Yet if the man who became Benedict XVI shared the repugnance which the rest of the world felt about paedophile priests he differed in one crucial respect. He did not share the modern passion for openness and public accountability. He was determined that paedophile priests had to be dispensed with unilaterally (some bishops even said he did not give the accused a fair hearing) and in complete secrecy to preserve the good reputation of the Church.

It is this refusal to be transparent about abusers which has placed Benedict out of step with contemporary wisdom. It is his insistence that his Church can be centralised, hierarchical, authoritarian and secret so long as it does the will of God that so much sets him out of line with a democratic world which sees openness as inseparable from good governance. Benedict insists that accountability to God is not the same as accountability to the general public. There is clearly room for ecclesiological debate on that.

The problem is that Benedict's ecclesiology plays into the agenda of the secularists who oppose his visit and make it more difficult for many English Catholics to embrace his arrival let alone spring to his defence. That is a misfortune for all who share important parts of his outlook on a world where consumerist materialism and militarism have relativised morals.

That outlook goes well beyond his own flock. Consensus between Catholics and Anglicans goes far deeper than their differences, the Anglican theologian John Milbank said the other day in welcoming the Pope's visit as of crucial importance at a time when Christianity in general is under increasing attack.

Anglicans and Catholics share approaches to the political and economic sphere, both stressing the importance of civil society as against either the state or the market. They even, he suggested, felt joint ownership of the about-to-be beatified Cardinal Newman, who is a sign of unity between the two churches.
Yet such paradigms are beyond the conception of the secular opinion-makers who have set the public agenda for the papal visit. Millbank hoped that the trip would become an opportunity for Benedict XVI to change the wrong impression that the Anglo-Saxon world has of him. It seems unlikely, for the two are increasingly unable to speak one another's language. The visit, sadly, looks set to be not so much a dialogue of the deaf as one of the dumb.