If you’re a typical Brit, you’re probably not much bothered about the visit to our shores this weekend of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, aka Pope Benedict XVI.
About two-thirds of Britons are neither for his visit nor against it, according to a recent opinion poll, which, given the history of these islands, you may find somewhat surprising.
But there again, maybe not. We are, by and large, a secular nation these days – fewer than half of us go to church and our national leaders are careful to keep religion out of day-to-day politics. (Tony Blair’s former consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who once famously remarked “We don’t do God”, wrote interestingly yesterday of being a “pro-faith atheist”.)
And yet. Even if you remember only a few scraps from your school history lessons, you’ll recall that the role of Rome in our national life has often been the major issue of the day. You could even argue that Britain’s post-Reformation identity is built overwhelmingly on the notion that we are not subject to religious diktats from Rome.
On the other hand, there are about a billion Catholics in the world. About five million live in the UK, although only about one million go to church regularly. (That’s about the same number as in the Church of England.)
Back in the days when I was a reporter based in Rome, I had to cover Papal pronouncements on a regular basis. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to decide whether they were genuinely news-worthy. The rough rule of thumb, I was advised, was this: if the Pope had said the opposite, would the world have been surprised? If the answer was Yes, then probably the latest pronouncement wasn’t earth-shattering.
For example, suppose the Pope says it’s important to abide by Church teaching. Would we have been surprised if he’d said it wasn’t important? Yes, we would, which means that what he actually said probably wasn’t all that interesting.
Yesterday, in Edinburgh, Pope Benedict spoke out against what he called “aggressive forms of secularism”. In his homily during the open-air Mass that he celebrated later in Glasgow, he talked of the “dictatorship of relativism”, a favourite theme of his.
It’s not for me to pass judgment on what he said –– but I can say, I think, that these remarks needn’t necessarily be taken as shocking or provocative. After all, if you believe that you have been chosen by God to lead his flock and spread the Christian message, you are bound to be concerned by the secularism you see all around you.
All Popes have their critics, both within and outside the Catholic church. This pope in particular had no shortage of them even before he was elected to the pontificate. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was known in some circles as “God’s rottweiler”, because of his previous job as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy. His reputation, you could say, preceded him.
And then came the terrible deluge of sex abuse allegations made against paedophile priests in many different countries. The Vatican’s response was less than sure-footed, and I suspect that a substantial part of the anger that’s being directed by some critics at the Pope during this visit stems directly from the horror of the stories that have emerged.
Take Richard Dawkins, for example (and if anyone qualifies for the title of aggressive atheist, then surely he does). He described the Pope as “a leering old villain in a frock” and the church he leads as a “profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.”
Would he have chosen to write in similar terms about the Chief Rabbi and Judaism? Or the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and Islam? The Guardian columnist Michael White quoted a friend the other day as having once remarked that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the Left". That may be stretching things a bit, but there does seem to be a visceral hatred of Catholicism in some quarters that you don’t find aimed at other religions.
Perhaps part of the explanation is that we live in a sceptical age, and Catholicism, more than most, is a religion of certainties. Non-Catholics – and especially non-believers – tend to find religious certainty difficult to deal with.
That’s not to say that there aren’t different theological strands in Catholicism, just as there are in all other major religions. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a Pope – especially this Pope – preaches a traditional Catholic message.