Benedict faces a bitter Britain

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

In the lead-up to the papal visit to the UK there has been remarkable hostility and unspeakable rudeness in wide sectors of British opinion.

In 1558, Elizabeth I succeeded Mary, and that Tudor succession marked a definitive resolution of which way Britain would go in the Reformation era.

The subsequent telling of the tale also indicated how British culture would develop: History would assign the two queens the names Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen. The British crown would for centuries be anti-Roman Catholic, even if more tolerant abroad, as was the case in Quebec.

In Edinburgh today, almost 500 years later, Queen Elizabeth II will graciously welcome Pope Benedict XVI on a state visit to Britain. She will be the Pope's official host, inviting him to speak not only to his fellow Catholics, but to all British society. How Britons will react remains an open question.

In the lead-up to the papal visit there has been remarkable hostility and unspeakable rudeness in wide sectors of British opinion. Yesterday, a letter to The Guardian newspaper protesting the visit was signed by 50 of the great and titled of British society.

The secular extremists – Richard Dawkins, Geoffrey Robertson and their fellow religion-haters – have suggested that the Queen, having invited Benedict, should have her constabulary arrest him as a sort of grand finale to the sexual abuse scandal. That won't happen, but in mainstream British opinion there is no shortage of voices clamouring against even the idea of a state visit for a pope, and perhaps particularly this pope. Some of that reflects persistent and ignoble bits of British history, in which neither Catholics nor Germans are regarded kindly, so a German pope is doubly offensive. Yet there is also something new.

The Pope will encounter a potent mix of contemporary secular fundamentalism; suspicion of religious arguments in a country dangerously infected by Islamic radicalism; the almost complete marginalization of religious voices in shaping public arguments; and historical antipathy toward a Catholic religion seen as both foreign and backward (meaning Italian or, even worse, Irish). The international firestorm this year over clerical sexual abuse has also poisoned the few pockets of goodwill that remained.

Into this mix, Benedict will offer an argument for Britain as a whole, and for the Catholic Church in particular.

For most of his long life, he has argued not so much as a Christian combatant against secularism, but rather in favour of a secularism that preserves the great achievements of European culture.

That is why he has spoken in France in favour of a "positive secularity" that allows space for all voices in public life, with the state remaining neutral between different religions.

Benedict's argument, to be made most dramatically tomorrow at the Palace of Westminster, is that an exclusive or extreme secularism that drives all religious values and voices out of public life leaves itself defenceless against the tyranny of passing trends. A Europe that cuts itself off from its religious roots puts at risk the foundation of a free and virtuous society.

Benedict's argument, to be made most dramatically tomorrow at the Palace of Westminster, is that an exclusive or extreme secularism that drives all religious values and voices out of public life leaves itself defenceless against the tyranny of passing trends.

To Catholics, Benedict will propose that their distinctive contribution to the British public life lies precisely in laying out a distinctive vision of the human person and the common good, shaped by the Catholic tradition but accessible to believers and non-believers alike.

In this he will lift up the example of the great 19th-century intellectual, Cardinal John Henry Newman, whom he will declare "blessed" on Sunday.

Newman, the greatest writer of his generation and perhaps the greatest scholar, too, was a relentless seeker after the truth he held was both objective and accessible to human reason.

Convinced of the deep compatibility between faith and reason, he detected early on the dangers of relativism, in which truth is reduced to only one option in a naked struggle for power.

Newman converted to Catholicism in 1845 at a time when this meant leaving Oxford University and the leading institutions of British life. He found a sometimes awkward reception as the small and marginal Catholic community did not know what to do with such a luminous scholar.

Newman's intellectual brilliance could not be accommodated within a piety suspicious of learning and reason. His piety was at the same time a challenge to a nascent rationalism that saw no public role for religion.

Benedict, who in temperament and scholarly vocation is very much in Newman's mould, will address similar issues today, 120 years after the cardinal's death.

He will face formidable challenges, not least of which will be the distortions of a local press corps famously irresponsible and ignorant on matters Catholic, including prestige publications such as The Times and The Daily Telegraph. There is no guarantee he will succeed.

The Queen will no doubt grant him an open hearing this morning. Will the rest of Britain extend the same courtesy?

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Benedict faces a bitter Britain." National Post, (Canada) September 16, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 National Post




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