Catherine Pepinster: Could the Pontiff's values have a lasting impact on society?

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As Pope Benedict flew back to Rome yesterday after a visit to Britain that saw tens of thousands of people turn out to greet him, the mood of many Catholics was euphoric, even among those who have sometimes been critical of the former Cardinal Ratzinger. But euphoria is not something that lingers; could there be a more lasting impact on the Church in this country?

What the visit accomplished above all was to unify Catholics and humanise a Pope who has so often been perceived as cold, aloof and authoritarian. The fabled Vatican "Rottweiler" turned out to be a shy, warm and frail 83-year-old who perked up every time his security detail allowed him to greet people, especially youngsters and his own generation.

Outraged by the sexual abuse scandals, Catholics needed to hear the Pope speak of the shame of "all of us", indicating corporate responsibility, as he did during his homily at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. Now they will want more done to not only root out paedophiles and protect children but also support victims. There does seem to be a shift in the Vatican: the homily talked not only of abuse being a sin but a crime, prompting the hope that it might co-operate more with police inquiries.

This visit was designed to reflect not only the faith of Catholics but also the Church's contribution to society in education, and its work with the elderly, homeless, and those with special needs. As David Cameron sets about shaping the Big Society, the Church has indicated it wants to contribute.

The Church will now also want to persuade policy-makers how vital it is that society reflects that all people, regardless of age or vulnerability, have innate dignity. But many Catholics still have questions about the Church and its treatment of those equal in the eyes of God. The Church has always been good on race; it's not so good on gender and sexuality. Gay Catholics and women will still be asking: how does the Vatican and Pope Benedict see us and our role, not in society, but in the Church?

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

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