Pope Benedict arrives today. There will be thousands of stories and reports in the press; and the BBC, ITV and Sky – to their credit – have given a huge commitment of airtime to the visit.
It’s worth looking at the official site, where there is also a live webcast of every event in case you can’t find anything on the TV.
Here are few paragraphs to set the scene, politically and historically. First, Eamon Duffy:
The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.
But many within that society, including many Catholics, are conscious that Benedict’s church has been compromised in the eyes of many by its recent history. Neither Church nor Pope can address society now from some imagined moral high ground. The Pope will need to recognise that fact, both in what he says and how he says it.
On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.
And these words from Charles Moore:
I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.
In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?
Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.
It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “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 the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.