Papal visit to UK will be a success in the absence of PR banana skin


ANALYSIS:A reserved personality has not prevented the pope from offending many during his reign, writes PADDY AGNEW

WHEN THE BBC first began to consider how it might handle Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to England and Scotland this week, a number of possibilities were mooted.

Would His Holiness like to give an eve-of-departure interview to the British state broadcaster? Or would he perhaps consider giving one of Radio 4’s early morning Thought for the Daytalks?

The laudable intent was to find a respectful, yet thoroughly contemporary way of presenting Benedict to a wider British public which, if it knows him at all, does so only along the lines of “God’s Rottweiler”, the stern Teutonic enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy.

To hear 83-year-old Benedict gently articulate some of his subtle thoughts about “ethical ecology”, for example, as you chump through your cornflakes, might well give you a very different insight into the man.

The Holy See politely declined both offers.

It has been said many times, but it is worth repeating, that this is a pope with a serious public relations problem. Put simply, he is not “God’s Showman” – that John Paul II figure who, while his health lasted, was instinctively sharp, witty and insightful with his one-liners and sound bites.

If Benedict were ever tempted to be more accommodating to the world’s media, he need only think back to what happened on the papal flight to Yaoundé, Cameroon, in March of last year, on his first trip to Africa. His globetrotting predecessor had famously made a habit of walking down to the back of the papal plane at some stage during the flight for what was, to all intents and purposes, an impromptu pre-visit press conference.

The practice has continued under Benedict but, given that he is less comfortable with the media, the Vatican press office now asks for the questions to be filed in advance and chooses a selection. Despite the precautions, Benedict walked himself into the father and mother of an international row when asked a question about HIV/Aids in Africa by a French TV reporter.

“I would say that you cannot defeat the Aids problem with money alone, even though money is obviously necessary,” the pope said. “But if there is no heart, if Africans do not help, you cannot overcome the problem just by the distribution of condoms, which on the contrary exacerbate the problem.”

Within days, the world’s media, the governments of Belgium, France, Germany and Spain, the Belgian parliament, the EU parliament in Strasbourg and numerous NGOs had all registered their virulent condemnation of “the pope’s unacceptable standpoint”.

Even if the pope had wanted to suggest that sexual abstinence and sexual fidelity can play as important a role as condoms in the fight against HIV/Aids, he had chosen a particularly unhelpful way to make his point. Not for nothing, on his flight to Edinburgh on Thursday morning, the pope will give a prepared answer to a series of questions submitted by journalists the previous day.

It says much about the very particular bubble in which Benedict often moves that, according to a recently published book, Attacco A Ratzinger(Attack on Pope Benedict), he remained unaware of the international furore prompted by his condom remarks until he got back to Rome, six days later.

Apparently, given the stress and strain of the journey for the ageing pope, the papal entourage decided that “he couldn’t be informed on everything”.

That the Vatican takes particular care of 83-year-old Benedict is clear from the arrangements for this trip. For example, although he flies into Edinburgh on Thursday morning, he will end the day in London.

Following an incident which saw him break his wrist in a fall during his summer holidays in the Val D’Aosta region of northern Italy last summer, his minders are keen to limit his movements, preferring to have him sleep under the same roof (the Papal Nunciature in Wimbledon) for the duration of the UK visit.

Ideally, the Vatican would have preferred to fly directly to London. However, the Holy See was also very keen that Benedict be formally received by Queen Elizabeth. For that to happen, Benedict flies to Edinburgh, since this is that time of year when the queen traditionally moves to Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

As the pope prepares to travel to a country that not only boasts a strongly liberal, secular culture, but also a certain ingrained suspicion of Catholicism, many observers ask themselves what the PR bloomer will be this time. After all, in the five years since he was elected pope in April 2005, Benedict has had his fair share of image problems.

Leaving aside sex abuse-related troubles, the list is still very long. Incidents of note include: apparently anti-Islamic remarks in his September 2006 Regensburg address; the January 2009 reintegration of excommunicated “Lefebvre” Bishop Richard Williamson, who turned out to be a Holocaust denier; and church appointments such as those of Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus to Warsaw in December 2006, and of Bishop Gerhard Wagner in Linz, Austria, in March 2009. Both men had to be “resigned” even before they could take up their new appointments. It turned out that the former had been a collaborator with Polish secret services during the Communist era. The latter’s unorthodox views – he was on record as having called Hurricane Katrina a “divine punishment” visited on New Orleans, and he said the Harry Potter books corrupt young minds – so outraged his fellow priests that they effectively blocked the appointment.

The tendency of Benedict’s pontificate largely to walk its way into problems of its own making was no better summed up than during Easter week this year. It began with the papal household preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, making a less than adroit comparison between “attacks” on the church prompted by the sex-abuse crisis and the sufferings of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. On Easter Sunday, the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, appeared to dismiss sex-abuse-related criticism as mere “idle gossip”, while to round it all off, the current secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, speaking in Chile the next day, claimed “experts” had told him there was a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.

Put all the above together and you have managed to offend Muslims, Jews, gays and clerical sex-abuse victims, not to mention your own faithful. It would take some spin doctor to sort all this out. Church commentators have a tendency to suggest that the origins of such incidents are linked to the quality of Benedict’s advisers and the news management of his pontificate.

There may be some truth in this observation, but it may also be that, mistakes or PR blunders notwithstanding, the nature of the message Benedict brings to the modern, non-Catholic world is deeply unattractive. “Company policy”, as formulated by Benedict himself for the best part of the last 30 years firstly as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope, is focused on an anti-woman, anti-gay (homosexuality is a functional “disorder”), pro-institution, pro-family, ultra-conservative Catholicism, one which instinctively covers up when faced with the sex-abuse crisis and which would argue that non-Christians are “seriously deficient”, while other Christian churches do not have a “valid” episcopate (Dominus Jesus, 2000).

For all those reasons, it is little wonder that UK atheists, agnostics, gays and liberals, not to mention sex-abuse victims and some fellow Christians, have their reservations about their forthcoming VIP visitor.

Despite all this, Benedict’s visit will very likely be a huge success. Given the awesome reputation that precedes him, Benedict often surprises people when they discover that, up close, “God’s Rottweiler” is actually a rather timid academic more comfortable with a Mozart sonata than the modern madding crowd.