Given the orgy of hostility that preceded his arrival, Pope Benedict might have been forgiven if he had chosen to stay at home, contemplating the glories of the Sistine Chapel, rather than boarding his Alitalia plane for Edinburgh. Fortunately, in the circumstances, he was not arriving at Heathrow, so any warnings about landing in a "third-world country" – thank you, Cardinal Walter Kasper – were superfluous. All in all, proceedings got off to a quiet and rather leisurely start: less state visit, more pensioners' day out.
For which there were doubtless sighs of relief in the entourages of both hosts and guests, because this full state visit – another singularly bad idea from the playbook of Tony Blair – united two strands that run deep in the British psyche. One is Protestant anti-Papism; the other is dislike and suspicion of all things German.
First, the Germans. It is not Benedict's fault that he was born German. He was elected Pope in the same way that Popes have been elected for centuries, the choice of his fellow cardinals. Had he been of almost any other nationality, his renunciation of the world after his teenage years in the Hitler Youth would have been lauded as evidence that he had put away childish things.
In Britain, though, there is strong tendency, still, to believe that once a Nazi always a Nazi; worse, that every German has his inner Hitler. This is the prejudice Benedict has to overcome every time he is described as the German Pope, every time he speaks his (excellent) English with that accent. Yesterday, Benedict did his hosts the courtesy of speaking their language. It might have been better if he had spoken in German or Latin. That accent cannot shake off a certain resonance.
Anti-Papism in Britain runs even deeper, to the point where those of us brought up in the Protestant mainstream – which is probably most people who endured daily assemblies at school – do not notice how embedded it remains in social attitudes. For all the hedonism and individualism of recent years – thanks again, Cardinal Kasper – there is a gritty ascetism about Anglican Protestantism, something of an age-old Blitz spirit, a lack of ceremony and fuss, and a great burden of personal responsibility.
Small matter that our soaring medieval cathedrals link us, aesthetically, far more to the Roman Catholic tradition than to the bare Protestantism of northern Europe. We have inherited profound misgivings about those who decorate their churches with "graven images", and we still half-believe that Catholics are inclined to take misdemeanours of all kinds less seriously because confession is a sacrament that comes with absolution. Separate schooling by faith does little to break down such prejudices. The secularisation of the last 30 years (yes, Cardinal Kasper, you may be on to something here) has probably done far more to propagate a general air of tolerance.
That said, there is still a tendency in this country to believe the worst of Catholicism. Which may be one reason why child abuse by priests has been so readily identified with the Church, rather than being treated as a heinous deviation from all its teachings. The Church hierarchy's early response – the one it had applied for centuries – was to invoke canon law, not realising perhaps that times and attitudes had changed. That change was particularly stark in Ireland. After generations of deferring to the Church, lay people no longer accepted that its dignity should be upheld at the expense of theirs, collectively and as individuals. It is, in a way, the cross Benedict has to bear that his years at the Vatican, and the particular responsibilities he held, coincided with that very profound social shift.
In mainstream Britain, the child abuse scandal and the way it was covered up seemed of a piece with the view that the Catholic Church was not just conservative, but dangerously and unjustifiably out of touch. Priestly celibacy, and the temptations that attended it, was just one example, to which had to be added the Church's refusal to countenance women priests, its hard line on divorce and homosexuality, its rejection of abortion and euthanasia, and its stubborn opposition to artificial birth control, including the use of condoms as a precaution against the spread of Aids. Such was the charge sheet against Benedict drawn up in advance of his visit.
But several things need to be borne in mind. The first is that not all these examples of conservatism are unanimously rejected by Protestants. The issue of women priests, for instance, and now women bishops, has brought the Anglican Church close to schism. This is a thorny doctrinal question, with deeply held views on either side. As a feminist on practically everything else, I tread carefully here.
The second is that on many other issues – artificial birth control, condoms and celibacy, for instance – Catholics themselves are divided. It is possible that a future Pope might usher in a new age of Vatican II style reform. Benedict is clearly not the one, but it would be wrong to regard him as uniquely and reprehensibly conservative. John Paul II was at least as conservative, but this was concealed by his common touch.
That is something Benedict conspicuously lacks. But conservatism and reticence have their own value. Is there not something admirable in a Church that demands and expects the best of its members, rather than bowing routinely to fashion and frailty? Catholicism is an integrated belief system – older and less austere than Protestantism and without the untidy edges of Anglicanism – and this, for many, is its appeal.
Everything Benedict is, and a great deal of what he stands for, could be calculated to rub up mainstream Britain the wrong way. That may be why this visit has been so fiercely contested. But it is no bad thing, once in a while, to be reminded that there is more to the Christian tradition than Anglican flexibility. And it should be salutary for even the most militant of British atheists to see with their own eyes that, even now, reason and modernity do not conquer all.
For further reading
'Protestants and Catholics', by Benito Arrunada, Economic Journal, September 2010Reuse content