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William Oddie FAITH Magazine November – December 2010

A Reason For Hope

I begin with a little quiz: at what stage in the papal visit to the UK was the following written?

"It takes quite a lot to make an old Presbyterian no-church misery like me feel sorry for a Pope, a mannequin god who a billion people think can do no wrong. He's infallible. If a Pope says it's a Scrabble word, it's a Scrabble word. He gets the one size, comfy fit kaftans and nobody ever says he's put on weight.... Now he's come to Britain and I feel sorry for him, more embarrassed, really. His welcome has been hellish. The press coverage is consistently haughty, vicious and stoked with a great self-righteous pleasure, an indulgent, joyous malevolence"

Thus and much more of the same, A.A. Gill, attacking not only his principal target but also the target's supposed attackers, anyone available to attack, really - that's what A.A. Gill does, nothing unusual there. But when did he write this article, whose clear assumption is that the Pope's press coverage at the time it was to appear in print will have been "consistently" hellish, vicious and malevolent? The trouble is, of course, that by the time the article did appear, it was just very clearly and staggeringly wrong. Gill's piece appeared in The Sunday Times's Culture supplement on the final day of the visit; here, for purposes of comparison was The News of the World's assessment (which by this stage was more or less everyone's) which appeared on thesame day under the headline "Bene's from heaven" and the strapline "People's Pope leaves Britain with a smile on its face". "The Pope", the article began "was given a rock star reception last night as more than 100,000 ecstatic worshippers cheered him through the streets of London [actually it was more like 200,000, with another 80,000 in the park].

"Benedict XVI sparked the carnival celebrations as his famous Popemobile made its way through packed streets to an open air prayer vigil in Hyde Park.... The Pontiff also [had earlier] met five victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"The extraordinary scenes which greeted him later turned his state visit to Britain - which had been clouded by the abuse issue - into a rousing success. A sea of followers waving flags and clutching rosary beads craned for a glimpse of the Holy Father inside his iconic white Mercedes. Perched on a specially designed throne the beaming Pontiff... waved to his fans, flashing the historic gold Ring Of The Fisherman on his right hand."

Elsewhere in the same paper, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, summed up what nearly everyone was saying by now: "he came, he saw, he conquered". So, to return to A.A.Gill: why did he get it so wrong? I speculate (I may be wrong, of course) that the answer has to do with the fact that the deadline for the various magazine sections has to be several days before they appear on the following Sunday. This piece may well have been written and filed (it's the only credible explanation) before the Pope arrived: internal evidence encourages the conclusion that it was.

So what A.A.Gill's piece reflected was not what actually happened, but what everyone thought (and Catholics feared) was certain to have happened by the time the visit was over. Looking back on my regular Catholic Herald blogs I detect a mood of anxiety as the visit approached. My final blog before his arrival began: "This is my last post before the arrival of the Pope. By the time you read this, he will be here; as I write, he is in the air. In my last column, I wrote that I confidently expected all the media attempts to wreck the visit to be swept away by the visit itself. I still believe that: but it is clear that the media attempts to play up the paedophile scandals in the Church will continue."

My next blog appeared the following day, on Friday morning, by which time it was already absolutely clear that everything was going to be just fine. "Scotland has done us all proud"; I announced in my headline, "suddenly the anti-Catholic campaign has lost its power" and then "The papal chemistry is still active on British soil; now, we can relax and enjoy the visit".

And so it proved. It was true, of course, that in some quarters this anti-Catholic policy would continue. The Guardian and the Independent were still at it on the Friday morning.

It is worthwhile at this point returning to A.A.Gill, whose fantasy article was not just an anti-pope piece but part of a quite widespread reaction among secularists against the Dawkins/Tatchell brand of aggressive anti-Catholicism which, they felt, had given atheism a bad name. Gill had a bit of a laugh at the Pope's expense. But when he went on to attack the campaign against him he was not just being perverse. "It's been both uncivilised and unedifying" he pronounced (seriously, now); "You might have imagined that secularism and humanism and bleak atheism would have made them uninterested in the doings of the superstitious. But no: it's like professing to have no interest in football, then becoming a football hooligan".

This ignores the fact that, of course, the atheist coalition calling itself "Protest the Pope" weren't just being hooligans, though they were that at least: they also had a specific strategic goal. Their aim was to poison the atmosphere of the visit and to discredit the Pope before he set foot on British soil and thus strike a blow against the Catholic religion: and they failed utterly.

Their only success was in alienating, by their hate-filled fanaticism, not only public opinion at large but even much of what should have been their own atheist constituency. In the words of the secular humanist Clare Fox, "There are many reasons to criticise religious leaders... but secularists really should take the opportunity to remind themselves of the Enlightenment values they claim to stand for - such as tolerance, freedom of thought and conscience and a human being as a rational subject - rather than focusing on what they hate about the Church and, by extension, Catholics".

The sheer venom of the attack, at times, had had me rattled. Claire Rayner, the former agony aunt, was one of those asked by the New Humanist website to think of something she would say if introduced to the Pope. "I have no language", she spat, "with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the Pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him."

This, I wrote at the time, "is all horrible for anyone who regards Pope Benedict with the admiration and love most Catholics feel for him; and I find myself almost wishing that the decision had been taken to beatify Cardinal Newman in St Peter's Square and not a muddy field, and for the Pope to be spared this dreadful business of a state visit".

Well, I got it wrong. Any doubts I had about the state visit were all swept away by that wonderfully impressive address to the leaders of civil society in Westminster Hall. A purely pastoral visit would have inspired the faithful, no doubt: but the result of a state visit has been seriously to re-engage the Church with our society, to regain our place in the public square: now the Pope has gone, that is something we need to keep alive.

In the event, that headlong confrontation of values, between the Pope's transparent humility and goodness, and the vicious hatred and arrogance of Protest the Pope, could only end in one way: with the utter failure of the atheist campaign to gain the hearts and minds of the British people - a people who, in the end, will always choose decency over gross incivility. In the end, British fair-mindedness was the Holy Father's secret weapon. Protest the Pope was just not cricket.

The Pope's visit ought to be a gamechanger. Firstly, it changed the atmosphere, sweeping away the antagonism towards the Church that Protest the Pope had taken many months to build up. Max Clifford, the ultimate PR pro commented that "In the build-up to the visit there was far more criticism than praise and then after he arrived far more praise than criticism. The pluses far outweighed the minuses. From a PR perspective there is a huge amount that needs to be done, but the visit was a success - far more a success than I thought it might have been."

A starry-eyed papalist might be a little more enthusiastic than that: but Clifford's is on the whole a positive assessment from a wholly disengaged non-Catholic professional. So does all that mean that the Church in England is now united behind the Pope, as it all seemed from the television coverage at the time? I'm not so sure. The Tablet online assessment was much less positive than Max Clifford's: if you didn't know, you might almost have thought it had been composed by a member of Protest the Pope. "Unfolding sex abuse scandals", this website pronounced, "the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop, and the Pope's traditionalist leanings that have led him to relax restrictions on Tridentine liturgy while continuing to limit Catholic clergy to unmarried men had cost thePope a degree of support he might have enjoyed from inside and outside the Church (my italics). Secularists and gay rights activists joined forces to create a "Protest the Pope" group and 10,000 people took to the streets of central London when the Pope was in town". Nothing about the Pope's success in swamping them: incredible.

The Tablet's print edition did very slightly better, opining that at the Hyde Park rally (which took place at the same time as the anti-Pope rally which so impressed their online correspondent) "British Catholicism set out its stall, saying simply, 'Here we are, this is what we do.' It displayed its diversity, its contributions to the common good through its care for disabled and elderly people and for the education and welfare for young people, its inclusive concern for immigrants, strangers and refugees, its commitment to international development and to protecting the environment. This is precisely what the Pope, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, once called a 'creative minority' ". More enthusiasm there for "British Catholicism" (whatever that is) than for the Pope, but it wasat least an attempt to be positive.

The Tablet's online assessment, though, represents all too accurately the ideology of a certain kind of English Catholic, who like Grima Wormtongue in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings aims to sap courage and self-confidence by depression and defeatism, and which, as we see, was already, within a week of the Holy Father's departure from British soil, finding once more its insidious voice. That voice has always been fundamentally anti-Wojtyla and anti-Ratzinger; and though it surely will find it a lot more difficult, now, to be heard, it is not yet a thing entirely of the past: it is very tiresome; but we need, even now, still to be on our guard.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2010