Leading Article: Let's hear it for tolerance

Supposed liberals can sometimes be both illiberal and selective about opinions with which they do not agree. Many readers of this newspaper will not agree with the Pope's teaching on contraception, abortion, equal rights for women and gay people, or transubstantiation.

Nor, as it happens, do an awful lot of Britain's Roman Catholics – we report new survey evidence today which finds that nine in ten Catholics in this country accept contraception and seven in ten support a woman's right to choose abortion. But that does not mean that they want to leave their church, or that they are embarrassed by the visit to these shores of its leader.

Nor should it mean that the non-Catholic majority should be offended by the state visit of Benedict XVI. There was a reasoned debate to be had – some time ago, to be blunt – about whether the British taxpayer should help to fund the trip. Joan Smith makes the case against in a measured tone on page 53. But some of the reaction to the Pope has been shrill, mean-spirited and intolerant.

Of all the media furores that attended the Pope's arrival, the one about a cardinal who said that landing at Heathrow was like arriving in a "third world country" (which was then glossed by a genius in the Church's communications department as a reference to our "multicultural" society rather than to the state of the Piccadilly Line) was the least important. The serious one, of course, is the Vatican's handling of the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests over the years. In many ways, the Pope's record on this issue is poor, and his words in Westminster Cathedral yesterday of "sorrow", acknowledging "the shame and humiliation" of these sins, are inadequate. Secularists are bound to observe that all the attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to make amends for past crimes and to prevent further abuse are undermined by its adherence to the doctrine of celibacy, one of most obvious contributory factors.

Yet, although it must be unlikely that Benedict XVI will be remembered as a great pope, history may record that he was the one who finally started to confront the issue. It is possible to see him as the unfortunate leader with poor communication skills inheriting a terrible mess from his charismatic predecessor. Perhaps that was what Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were discussing as they sat in the front row before the Pope addressed Parliament on Friday.

Whatever one's view of the Pope's personal culpability in the child abuse scandal, or the Church's collective guilt, it needs to be balanced in any reasonable view by the power of the modern Catholic Church for good, as expounded by Paul Vallely on page 52. The Church's social message, its capacity for good works, and the practical contribution of its members to the fight against poverty, at home and abroad (despite unhelpful dogma about contraception and HIV), should not be disdained. The demands of Richard Dawkins and the letter-writing luvvies that the Pope should be arrested is not only disproportionate and intolerant, it is poor tactics. If it is in the interest of the great liberal cause to persuade more Catholics to move further in the direction of the enlightened attitudes to sexuality that the survey we report today confirms most already hold, then it is not sensible to behave as if all Catholics are the deluded followers of a criminal cult leader.

Some of the condemnation of the Catholic Church as an institution also betrays selectivity. Some of those accusing the Vatican of being misogynist, homophobic and obscurantist would never use such language about Islam.

The Independent on Sunday is a liberal newspaper. We believe in the equal rights of all people. We also recognise the contradiction in the idea of equality irrespective of an individual's religion when one of the obstacles to the realisation of that goal is organised religion in various guises. A number of these have similar historical-cultural roots. But if Catholics, or Muslims, or conservative Jews, feel that they are a besieged minority, surrounded by what the Pope calls "aggressive" secularists, it will be more difficult to dismantle the obstacles to equality.

Subjecting the leader and the symbol of the Catholic faith to unseemly ridicule is neither wise nor liberal, because the value that ought to define modern liberalism, above all, is tolerance.