Pope's UK visit let us peek beyond caricatures


Benedict’s triumphant UK jaunt showed there is limited tolerance for lazy verbal abuse, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

‘TOO BIG to fail” is a term used to justify protecting financial institutions, no matter how great the gambling they engaged in, on the grounds that their failure would be disastrous for the economy. During his speech in Westminster Hall, Benedict XVI put a new twist on it.

“The world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.”

The pope’s speeches are full of such passages that linger in the memory. It puts into words what many feel – that the world’s priorities are fundamentally skewed. Billions can be pumped into preserving a system that is ultimately dedicated to the worship of profit, while at the same time we shrug at the plight of the poorest.

I wonder what Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, the high priests of New Atheism, would make of that passage? Would it be dismissed because of its source, or are they capable of seeing any common ground?

It is deeply ironic that at least one of the sources of the success of the pope’s visit to Britain lay in the amount of vitriol prior to the event. In March, in the Washington Post, Richard Dawkins, responding to whether the pope should resign because of child abuse scandals, said “no”, that the “leering old villain in a frock”should stay.

“He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch Sacred Hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.” The Catholic Church as the incarnation of evil? We are wearily becoming used to that. But I had a chat with Richard Dawkins once, and realised that he has rather a fixation with Sacred Heart pictures. After all, he confided to me, at least the Church of England could say that it had given the world the glorious English of the King James Bible. What could the Catholic Church claim it added to human culture? Sacred Heart pictures?

I opened my mouth, and closed it again. Not much point trying to convince this man. I doubted whether the Sistine Chapel or the Pieta, or a Botticelli angel, would convince him of anything other than the corruption of the papacy, and the tortured Catholicism of a Graham Greene would only annoy him.

Anyway, Terry Eagleton, that wonderful Marxist atheist, had said it all so much better than me. “Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

Dawkins and Hitchens, or Ditchkins, as Eagleton so unkindly dubbed them, have begun to turn off even other atheists. Caspar Melville is a self-styled “godless editor” who writes for the GuardianComment is Free section. He pays due homage to the fact that the New Atheists have generated a great deal of debate, but says that he is tired of them for a somewhat “base reason” – they have begun to bore him.

Whatever Benedict did in Britain, he did not bore. People used to the slur, “Nazi pope”, saw instead an elderly man who suffered under Nazism, forced like so many of his generation to join Hitler Youth.

According to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, Hitler Youth was the largest youth group in the world, with 7.3 million members. Any parent who held out against it was threatened with forcible removal of their children to an orphanage.

Ironically, it may have been Benedict’s experience of Nazism that shaped his commitment to truth as a boundary against totalitarianism. John L Allen jnr, the respected reporter on the Vatican, agrees. “Under Hitler, Ratzinger says he watched the Nazis twist and distort the truth. Their lies about Jews, about genetics, were more than academic exercises. People died by the millions because of them. The church’s service to society, Ratzinger concluded, is to stand for absolute truths that function as boundary markers.”

For some people, the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church has been fatally undermined by the nature of the response to the abuse scandals. Benedict mentioned the scandals four times, and made clear his abhorrence. However, the UK visit showed that while the scandals are and should continue to be central, this does not negate every other contribution that faith can make. In a sense, Benedict was not there just as a representative of the Roman Catholic faith, but as an articulate exponent of the right of religion to be treated with respect and tolerance. Much was made of his references to aggressive secularism, and the fact that he spoke of attempts to prevent celebration of Christmas struck a particular chord with British listeners. However, the pope has made it clear that while aggressive secularism exists, he is a proponent of what he calls “positive secularity”.

As Raymond d’Souza says: “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.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams echoed this theme. “We do not, as churches, seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere, but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies.” It’s a modest enough hope, and one that came closer as a result of the recent visit.

The visit was a triumph for civility, and for mutual respect. It showed there is a limited tolerance for verbal abuse, and an ability to see goodness beyond the caricatures.