Saturday, 25 September 2010

Breda O'Brien: papal visit 'triumph of civility'

Writing in today's Irish Times, the teacher and columnist describes how Benedict XVI confounded those who sought to paint him as an authoritarian.

Whatever Benedict did in Britain, he did not bore. People used to the slur, “Nazi pope”, saw instead an elderly man who suffered under Nazism, forced like so many of his generation to join Hitler Youth.

According to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, Hitler Youth was the largest youth group in the world, with 7.3 million members. Any parent who held out against it was threatened with forcible removal of their children to an orphanage.

Ironically, it may have been Benedict’s experience of Nazism that shaped his commitment to truth as a boundary against totalitarianism. John L Allen jnr, the respected reporter on the Vatican, agrees. “Under Hitler, Ratzinger says he watched the Nazis twist and distort the truth. Their lies about Jews, about genetics, were more than academic exercises. People died by the millions because of them. The church’s service to society, Ratzinger concluded, is to stand for absolute truths that function as boundary markers.”

For some people, the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church has been fatally undermined by the nature of the response to the abuse scandals. Benedict mentioned the scandals four times, and made clear his abhorrence. However, the UK visit showed that while the scandals are and should continue to be central, this does not negate every other contribution that faith can make. In a sense, Benedict was not there just as a representative of the Roman Catholic faith, but as an articulate exponent of the right of religion to be treated with respect and tolerance. Much was made of his references to aggressive secularism, and the fact that he spoke of attempts to prevent celebration of Christmas struck a particular chord with British listeners. However, the pope has made it clear that while aggressive secularism exists, he is a proponent of what he calls “positive secularity”.

As Raymond d’Souza says: “He has argued not so much as a Christian combatant against secularism, but rather in favour of a secularism that preserves the great achievements of European culture.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams echoed this theme. “We do not, as churches, seek political power or control, or the dominance of Christian faith in the public sphere, but the opportunity to testify, to argue, sometimes to protest, sometimes to affirm – to play our part in the public debates of our societies.” It’s a modest enough hope, and one that came closer as a result of the recent visit.

The visit was a triumph for civility, and for mutual respect. It showed there is a limited tolerance for verbal abuse, and an ability to see goodness beyond the caricatures.