Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day state visit to the United Kingdom, the first ever by a pope, quickly overturned negative expectations of apathy and hostility. Bidding him farewell at Birmingham’s airport, Prime Minister David Cameron told the pope he had made the nation “sit up and think” and seemed to suggest that secularism had not, after all, gained the upper hand. Faith, Mr. Cameron said, was “part of the fabric of our country...a vital part of our national conversation.”
The prime minister’s remarks suggested that the pope, who sought to deliver a sustained if gently reasoned salvo against what he called “aggressive secularism” and to mount a passionate case for the inclusion of faith in public life, was pushing at an open door. The invitation to Pope Benedict by Queen Elizabeth II to visit the kingdom was made under the previous Labour government, which had shown itself increasingly unwilling to recognize the Catholic Church’s freedoms.
In 2007 the government passed antidiscrimination legislation and notoriously refused an exemption to Catholic adoption agencies that would have allowed them to reject adoption applications from same-sex couples. The closure of those agencies was a wake-up call to the bishops, who realized that they could no longer rely on the state to treat faith-based organizations equally in the allocation of resources, and pointed to a new “deafness” to the needs and freedoms of religion. The agenda of the papal visit—to open those ears again—was cast last year.
But in May this year a new government formed, speaking a new language, releasing the values and energies of faith organizations, among others, to build what it is calling the Big Society. The prime minister drew his ideas from Philip Blond, a philosopher whose thinking was formed by the Anglo-Catholic theologian John Milbank and Catholic social teaching on civil society.
On the eve of Pope Benedict’s arrival, the Conservative Party chairman told Anglican bishops that the government would “restore faith to the heart of Britain,” promising an end to the exclusion of the religious voice from public life. While this deft political maneuver helped to position the government as the beneficiary of a successful visit, it could have turned sour if the trip had gone poorly. As it happened, the visit has helped to consolidate the government’s new faith-friendly stance.
The pope’s call to recognize the necessary interconnectedness of faith and reason, religion and politics, belief and society was made in arguments that were as persuasive as they were reasonable. Although he returned constantly to this theme in homilies and speeches throughout his visit, the message was delivered most categorically in an address to political and civil leaders in Westminster Hall, the millennium-old Parliament chamber where Edmund Campion and Thomas More were sentenced to death for putting their conscience before the king. The sight of the British political establishment, including a row of former prime ministers, waiting patiently for the successor of St. Peter to address them from a gilded chair, then clapping enthusiastically as he entered to a fanfare of trumpets, will remain the icon of the visit. The fact of it happening at all, as the pope himself acknowledged, demonstrated that faith and public life were, after all, interlinked.
Westminster Hall left some wondering whether this was the end of the myth of Britain as a Protestant nation-state. “What was once considered inconceivable now seems entirely natural,” said the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, in his speech of welcome; history was indeed being made. The pope praised the toleration, fair-mindedness and pluralism of British democracy, and its many freedoms, but warned that if the moral principles underlying the ethical discourse of politics are “nothing more solid than social consensus” then freedom and democracy rested on fragile foundations.
The pope referred to the economic collapse of September 2008 as an example of the consequences of “the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity” in contrast to the abolition of the slave trade—one of Parliament’s most famous achievements—as an example of “firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law.” The role of religion in political debate, he said, was “to purify and shed light on” reason, pointing it to objective moral principles, just as the role of reason was to prevent religion from falling into sectarianism and fundamentalism.
The pope went on to warn against a “failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square” and called for religious bodies “to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions.” This, he said, was the best guarantor of the freedoms that made Britain great.
Before and after Westminster Hall came two other papal firsts: a visit to Lambeth Palace, seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and an ecumenical service at Westminster Abbey, where the leaders of the world’s Catholics and Anglicans prayed for church unity before the tomb of the pious 11th-century king, Edward the Confessor. “What we share, in Christ, is greater than what divides us,” the pope told Archbishop Rowan Williams. Earlier, at Lambeth, the pope reframed the path to ecclesial unity as no longer about theo-logical dialogue but about collaborating in witness to “the transcendent dimension of the human person and the universal call to holiness.” He cited Cardinal John Hen-ry Newman as exemplifying the “virtues that ecumenism demands.”
Pope Benedict’s other triumph was his direct response to the chorus of searing criticisms of the church’s (mis)handling of clerical sex abuse. On the flight to Edinburgh, he expressed his shock, sadness and shame at both the abuse and the church’s failure to deal with it. At Westminster Cathedral he spoke of the “immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the church and by her ministers,” and his “deep sorrow” at these “unspeakable crimes” and “the shame and the humiliation which all of us have suffered” in consequence.
As the anti-pope protesters were gathering later that day, accusing him of coverup, news came that he had met both with abuse victims and, for the first time, with church officials responsible for the safeguarding of young people. He congratulated them and the church for always reporting allegations to statutory authorities and praised the independent oversight built into the procedures and policies. The following day, after beatifying Cardinal Newman, he asked the bishops to make reparation for the church’s sins by helping society tackle abuse.
The Mass for the beatification of Cardinal Newman, in front of a crowd of 70,000, was the pope’s final public act during the visit. Having cleared a space in the public square for Catholics, Pope Benedict’s final day was spent equipping the church to occupy it. He re-peated Newman’s call for “men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand”; he told the bishops to welcome the new liturgical translation and its opportunities for catechesis; to raise their voice in defense of the disadvantaged; and to “encourage people to aspire to higher moral values in every area of their lives.”