One of Private Eye's most enduring satirical devices is the imaginary letter of apology by the press as a whole, when their commonly-held opinion about an individual is confounded by events. This would certainly apply to the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI. The headline on this newspaper's leading article yesterday – "Benedict spoke to Britain" – was not one that could have been imagined a week earlier.
Or, as Private Eye might put it: "The Pope. An Apology. We wish to apologise for describing His Holiness as the jackboot-wearing tyrannical leader of a corrupt institution committed to the rape of children and the extermination of the entire African continent. We now accept that he is a sweet old man, never happier than when kissing babies, and that this country has much to learn from his humanity and concern for the weakest in society."
Satire apart, I suspect the Pope's gentle manner and even his very evident physical frailty really did play a part in a reversal of rhetoric by what one might describe as the anti-clerical press. When someone is conjured up as a monster (or "a leering old villain in a frock" as Richard Dawkins put it) and emerges as a modest scholarly figure visibly ill at ease with the political bombast of a state visit, the opinion-formers sense that their readers will want a more gentle tone.
The fact is that the Pope is not, for all that those who demonstrated against him might believe, a political figure. As one might expect from someone deriving his world view from a religious leader who declared that the temporal and spiritual worlds should be entirely separate ("Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's"), Benedict has no interest in inserting the Catholic Church into the political process.
This, of course, is not what the Rev Ian Paisley, one of those who damned the Pope's visit, believes; and many of those apparently free-thinking liberals who demonstrated against the very idea of the Pope being invited here seemed to share that Protestant fundamentalist's view that the Vatican represents a lethal threat to the nation and to the British way of life. Thus Geoffrey Robertson QC warned his fellow anti-Papal visit demonstrators on Saturday that Benedict XVI did not accept "British values".
This idea that anyone who supports the Pope is conspiring in something inherently un-British is an unpleasant echo of the sort of poisonous sectarianism with which Dr Paisley was so intimately associated. It is not so long ago that the British establishment would not countenance the idea of a Catholic representing the Queen – and therefore the state – overseas: my father-in-law was vetoed as the Governor-General of New Zealand explicitly because he was a Catholic convert. To this day there is a law specifically denying the possibility for a Catholic to become the head of state, or even for the head of state to marry a Catholic.
Both those ancient but unrevoked laws and Geoffrey Robertson's more modern-sounding evocations of "British values" seemed based on the notion that the Vatican is fixatedly engaged in plotting the overthrow of the British political settlement, presumably in the hope that we become a theocracy, ruled from a hundred acres of ancient Rome; our Parliament and all the elected representatives therein, on this account, would have been hypnotised into slavish subservience to its Latin encyclicals.
It is true that there is a peculiar religious quota in the Palace of Westminster: the 26 "Lords Spiritual", comprising the leading Bishops of the Church of England. This is the only element that could remotely be described as theocratic within the British political system: campaigners for the legalisation of euthanasia have claimed that this religious block vote has scuppered their chances of getting such legislation on to the statute book, but so far as I can tell, they would not have won those votes even had all the Church of England Bishops abstained – and in any case, the opposition to euthanasia in the democratically elected Commons is even greater than it is in the Upper House.
More tellingly – at least as a refutation of the claim that the Pope envisages some sort of theocracy – when last year Gordon Brown offered a peerage to the retiring Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Vatican was very much opposed to the notion, and O'Connor was prevailed upon to reject the honour of sitting in the legislature. Rome's view, in essence, was that canon law specifically abjured the idea that clergy should take any office which might involve the exercise of political power.
I suspect it is precisely the unpolitical nature of Pope Benedict that gives him a certain popular appeal, even to those who are not members of the Catholic Church, and who would certainly not feel bound to follow its unyielding doctrinal pronouncements. They can see that, unlike the world's temporal rulers, ultimately he has only the power of persuasion – and, some would add, of myth. He cannot imprison anyone for breaking his church's laws; nor does he have an army to impose his will on other states (the truth behind Stalin's dismissive remark to those who said he could not take on religion: "How many divisions has the Pope?").
This, of course, is all to the good. The worst excesses of child-abuse within the world-wide Catholic Church, and the most corrupt attempts at covering it up, occurred within regions where the Church had most control over the politicians, such as the Republic of Ireland, and, in the US, the state of Massachusetts. It was precisely because the priesthood in those states were so sure of special political protection, that the child-abusers in their number felt able to act with such impunity.
During the Mass at Westminster Cathedral Benedict apologised for "the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children ... within the church and by her ministers." He went on to describe these acts as "unspeakable crimes" – the use of the word "crimes" rather than "sins" an acknowledgement that this must be dealt with by the secular power of the criminal justice system.
Humility is perhaps the most difficult of all the virtues; the smuggest among the Pope's secular critics could learn from his example.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies