At a Christmas party hosted by my Catholic weekly journal, The Tablet, in December, I joined a group huddled in intense conversation about the forthcoming papal visit: the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell; two prominent QCs, Professor Conor Gearty and Baroness (Helena) Kennedy; and the former International Development Secretary, Clare Short. Like me, they are all cradle Catholics. Like me, they have some difficulties with Church teaching on issues such as contraception and homosexuality. But they are also well aware of the huge benign influence the Vatican plays at the international level on issues such as climate change, poverty and the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. That is a key reason why the Government was so keen to invite the Pope to Britain.
At senior government levels, it has been acknowledged that there might be objections to, even demonstrations against, the visit, given some people's opposition to Catholic teaching on matters such as Aids and condoms. I presumed that was why Sir Gus organised a committee to co-ordinate government departments planning for the visit. But now – with the leaking of the internal Foreign Office paper which suggested that the visit should include the launch of papal condoms, and that Pope Benedict should visit an abortion ward and witness a "gay wedding" – I wonder if the two senior Whitehall officials realised something else: that while the Prime Minister might welcome the Pope, lower down the Foreign Office pecking order there is a cultural contempt for Catholicism in this country. For the Foreign Office briefing was not down to one clownish junior: around six middle ranking officials were involved.
In politically correct Britain, people are normally careful not to offend – and rightly so. Yet being offensive about the Pope is OK. Catholics are the minority that it it acceptable to treat as whipping boys.
Sometimes this cultural contempt emerges from the shadows – a contempt you'll never see allowed to be shown to a chief rabbi or a grand mufti.
Like millions of Catholics in Britain, I want my country to welcome the Pope, not least because we're hoping he'll meet clerical sex abuse victims and learn about their plight. Even his critics surely realise that this is a visit by a serious player on the global stage – not a figure of fun.
Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weeklyReuse content