Pope Benedict: the faith of authority

A delicate papal visit to Britain was in the end a diplomatic success. All the more reason to examine the ideas it advanced, says Michael Walsh.
Michael Walsh
22 October 2010

When Pope John Paul II returned to Rome from his visit to Britain in May-June 1982, it was widely reported that the Vatican regarded the trip as one of the pontiff’s most successful. After Benedict XVI’s journey to Scotland and England from 16-19 September 2010, a similar reaction has been heard. But a month after the event, any such judgment must relate to the content of the pope’s message as much as the impressive atmospherics surrounding the trip.

The latter were significant in that the pre-tour reports of low interest seemed confounded by the day. The crowds along the route in on Edinburgh were relatively sparse, and Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in Glasgow could have held many more (a comparison with the numbers in 1982, the largest single gathering of Scots in the history of the country, may be unfair). Yet London’s Hyde Park looked packed for the evening prayer-vigil, and even more impressive (as seen on the big screens which dotted the venue) were the thousands that lined the pope’s route to the vigil celebration.

All went remarkably smoothly. There were guards of honour on his arrival and departure, there were state trumpeters welcoming him into Westminster Hall to address assembled politicians and civic leaders; but the formal state trappings of the visit were kept to a minimum. Protesters against the cost had themselves partly to blame for the overwhelming presence of police and rather too zealous security personnel at the various sites. But as it turned out, opponents of the papacy - from Ian Paisley’s coterie to Geoffrey Robertson QC bellowing into a microphone - made little or no impact, and certainly did not mar the enjoyment of the occasion for the hundreds of thousands of Catholics and others who celebrated.

The doctrinal heart

Yet if the visit may have been a success for those who participated, and fuelled the self-confidence of British Catholics, its long-term consequences are much more difficult to measure. Benedict came, no doubt, because he wanted to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, and that he duly did in a relatively simple but moving ceremony. Monsignor Rod Strange, the rector of Rome’s Beda College and an authority on the new beatus, somewhat piously remarked that Benedict was like a parish-priest in his parish church - though with a rather larger congregation (and, it might be added, with a very much larger choir, a plethora of television cameras and an extravagance of bishops).

But he had a point. For those present it was not only a beatification but their Sunday mass. The sermon, with its touching tribute to the anniversary of the “Battle of Britain” fought over the skies of southern England in 1940 - when Josef Ratzinger, though he did not mention this, it, briefly helped operate a German anti-aircraft battery - was perhaps rather more intellectually demanding than most congregations are used to.

That may perhaps be one of the lasting legacies of the visit. The Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch - no great friend of the Roman Catholic church - remarks that Pope Benedict used the visit to introduce a much needed note of seriousness into religious discourse. Nowhere was this more evident than the pope’s address in Westminster Hall. There, he paid the appropriate compliments to Britain’s parliament; spoke of the achievements of the country’s democracy, highlighting as one example the abolition of the slave trade under Christian (though of course not Catholic, inspiration); and talked of freedom of conscience.

The appropriateness of the last topic, much discussed in the run-up to the visit, was highlighted by Newman’s famous remark - in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk - “if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please, - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”. Moreover, as Benedict did point out, the issue of conscience brought the Catholic martyr Thomas More to trial on the very spot from which the pope was speaking. It was all very symbolic.

The main thrust of his Westminster speech, however, dealt with the issues of church and state. “While couched in different language”, he said, “Catholic social teaching has much in common with [the British parliament’s] approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.”

Maybe so, but there was also a remark which could be taken to question the whole notion of parliamentary government: “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident - herein lies the real challenge for democracy”.

It’s not hard to read between these lines. “Social consensus” in Britain might very well try to reinstate the death penalty. Parliament has resolutely opposed capital punishment, and so (now - it did not always) does the Catholic church. The church, and MPs, might very well be described as out of step with society on the issue.

This is but one example of a wider problem that the pope is identifying. It has arisen lately for the church in Britain on the issue of gay rights and adoption, which has led to some Catholic adoption agencies closing down, others cutting off their links with the church. It may reappear over Catholic schools, one of the great successes of the church in this country.

The pope’s speech on 18 September may provide a framework for discussion of these, and other, issues, but it does not resolve them. The pope, as Catholics traditionally do, bases his argument upon natural law. Natural law is a philosophical theory, it is not a religious dogma. No authority can impose a particular interpretation upon natural-law arguments (though there are some, perhaps, it can rule out on the grounds that adopting them might lead to un-Christian outcomes). In any event, late in his own life Pope John Paul II seemed to express a degree of disappointment with the outcome of the democratic process. I wondered if there were not just a hint of that in Benedict’s Westminster Hall address.

The ghostly faithful

Such protests as there were focused on sexual abuse by clergy, on women’s rights and gay rights, on contraception. On the abuse scandal the pope spoke out clearly and forthrightly (if belatedly) calling it a crime as well as a sin.

The other issues received only an oblique mention, if that; abortion and contraception, which John Paul II spoke of often and called “the culture of death”, played little part in Benedict’s discourse (neither on his British nor other visits).

When he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned the soubriquet of “Cardinal Rottweiler”. His journey in Scotland and England presented the image of a much more congenial pope. But the papal project has not changed. Catholic institutions, he said, “need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the church”. In his mind, the Vatican - unswayed by “social consensus” - remains the only authentic interpreter of that teaching. Newman, it may be remembered, wrote a book with the evocative title On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.

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