Worshippers wary of a leader who speaks from head not heart

The Church has a vital message – but can Benedict convey it? Paul Vallely reports

Saturday 14 August 2010 00:00

The scandal of paedophile priests – and the church's cover-up – shocked and outraged believers and non-believers alike. But there was an additional hurt for many members of the Catholic Church: they felt betrayed as well.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of that but it manifests itself in many ways. One of them is the nervousness and ambivalence which is widespread in the Catholic community at the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain next month.

The wider community has been bolder in expressing negativity. Secularists have attacked the visit. Public debate has largely focused on whether the cost to the state is justified and asked whether the Pope will meet victims of clerical abuse. Some news outlets have tried to manufacture further controversy, seeking out interviews with Ian Paisley (who, unsurprisingly, is against the visit) or unsuccessfully inviting Jewish leaders to complain that they had been invited to meet the Pope on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Many Catholics have been irritated by the media's inability or unwillingness to focus on anything other than the negative aspects of the church, of which 11 per cent of the British population are members.

The fact that the visit was prompted by successive invitations from British prime ministers rather than at the request of the Vatican – and that all state visits are usually paid for by the taxpayer – is routinely ignored.

Little mention is made of the fact that the English bishops have put in place a child protection scheme, which Lord Nolan devised at their behest, which is an exemplar for other institutions in its rigour and transparency.

And there is little attempt to contextualise the place of the church in society or mention its extensive work in education, healthcare, housing, international poverty relief or with the homeless, refugees, asylum-seekers and in Britain's most run-down inner city areas.

But set against all that are a number of reservations which are no less deep-seated for being more nuanced. Benedict has been a more pastoral figure than many English Catholics feared when the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican's hardline doctrinal watchdog, was elected their leader. But ordinary churchgoers are disturbed at the present Pope's evident insensitivity as to how his pronouncements impact in the world.

Catholic relations with Muslims and Jews have taken several knocks under this papacy which has shown itself to be extraordinarily maladroit in PR terms – as was again evidenced when the Pope coupled the announcement of his visit with an apparent attack on Britain's equalities legislation. The possibility of another PR disaster makes many Catholics nervous.

The other tension is that the Pope is regarded by English Catholics with dutiful respect rather than warmth. His predecessor, John Paul II, was embraced by those who did not agree with his every pronouncement because he spoke from the heart. Benedict is an altogether more cerebral figure; when someone speaks from the head it is easier to disagree with what he says.

There is also the question of his style. Contrary to many of the smears made against him, Benedict has not been soft on paedophile priests. Indeed, all the evidence from Rome is that he has done so much to root them out that a number of senior Vatican figures have complained that he has not given a fair hearing to accused priests.

The problem is that he always acts in secrecy – for fear that dirty linen washed in public will bring the church into disrepute. Of course, in an age which values openness, such an approach only adds to scandal rather than reducing it. It gives the appearance that this offence is not being dealt with at all.

But the difference between the enthusiasm for John Paul II's visit here 28 years ago and the present mood is not all down to Benedict. Then Catholics felt they had a good story to tell and a charismatic leader to tell it; today the picture is far more mixed.

In 1982 the general population shared more of the negative attitudes to homosexuality which shamefully remain part of the Church's teaching. In those days, to the secular élite, religion was a harmless irrelevance – a view which has shifted significantly since 9/11.

A generation with minimal religious knowledge and sympathy has grown up – extending even to the Foreign Office where the papal visit team earlier this year bizarrely suggested that the Pope should open a British abortion clinic – which is unable to disentangle paedophile priests from celibacy, sexuality, clericalism or the centralisation of power.

All of this means that Britain is unlikely to be receptive to the important messages Benedict has on offer. Catholicism has a rich tradition of teaching on the interplay between economics, politics and morality. It could tell David Cameron why his idea of a Big Society, as an alternative to a vision dominated by the market or the state, will not work without a reawakening of values such as mutuality, solidarity, compassion and generosity. And it can offer strategies for rebuilding them in a world where consumerist materialism and militarism have relativised morals.

All that is embodied in the person of that most English of figures, John Henry Newman, the Anglican cleric who became a Catholic cardinal – and whom Benedict will beatify on the last day of his visit.

Newman was a man who understood that faith had to encompass both the intellectual spirituality of Oxford, where he was a leading Anglican academic, and work among the destitute in disease-ridden Birmingham, where he lived for the final decades of his life.

That's a message many Catholics feel contemporary Britain needs to hear, but is Benedict the man to communicate it?

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