It is hard to see the Pope's state visit to Britain as anything other than ill-timed and misconceived. What details of the planning process have emerged suggest that it has been fraught with difficulty: from the leaked Foreign Office memo suggesting a spoof schedule, to a state banquet that will be attended by neither the principal guest nor the Queen. The £12m cost to British taxpayers is bound to attract opprobrium at a time when swingeing public sector cuts threaten.
The Catholic Church has had its own difficulties raising the necessary funds, what with the legacy of the child abuse scandal and the general air of austerity. Nor has the image of Benedict himself made things any easier. Lacking the inspirational life story and personal charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict is a doctrinal conservative and an unapologetic intellectual at a time when the public climate is unsympathetic to both. John Paul II was hardly a progressive theologian, but his rock-star qualities tended to obscure that.
Of course, not all the present complications could have been foreseen when the invitation was first extended, on behalf of the Queen, by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, or when it was renewed by Gordon Brown. The impetus came from the Vatican's support for the Government's agenda on Africa – although the clear conflict between the Catholic Church's stance on the use of condoms and measures to combat Aids might even then have given pause for thought.
In one respect, though, problems could well have been anticipated. Pope John Paul II's tour in 1982 was designated a pastoral visit, and it remained within the religious domain. It ventured beyond the Catholic Church only with a historic service at Canterbury Cathedral, where the Pope and the then Anglican Archbishop, Robert Runcie, prayed side by side. Such a religious "summit" could have been an appropriate highlight of Pope Benedict's sojourn, too.
A state visit, however, requires state involvement, which is doubly complicated when the monarch is also head of the established church. Both diplomatic and ecclesiastical protocol have to be observed. The result is the awkwardness that sees the Queen greeting the Pope in Scotland (where she does not head the church) and elaborate receptions and banquets that appear not to be to the Pope's taste. It would be churlish not to bid Benedict welcome, but it was a mistake to elevate into a full state occasion a visit that will not be without controversy even among the Pope's own flock.Reuse content