First, even in what appear to be thoroughly secularized societies, the religious instinct has hardly been extinguished. Benedict’s crowds exceeded expectations, buoyed by substantial Catholic turnout. What was most fascinating, however, was the appeal of the trip to other Christians, members of other religions, and ordinary secular folk who still somehow feel the tug of faith.
Aside from the activists who have a specific beef with the pope, most people seemed curious about what Benedict was saying and doing, and also genuinely impressed with the sincerity and good will of the throngs of pilgrims they saw over these four days. (As a footnote, one of the fruits of a papal visit is that ordinary believers have the chance to tell their stories to a national audience.)
Benedict did not magically refill the churches or win waves of converts, but the largely favorable interest in religion his presence stimulated offered a reminder that many people, even in the heart of the secular world, do still want to believe – even if, as sociologist Grace Davies has put it, they find it much tougher to belong.
Second, the trip was a reminder that when wielded wisely, the papacy is still a unique bully pulpit, the single greatest asset Catholicism has in shaping public debate. It’s difficult to imagine any other figure on the planet who could have come to Great Britain and led a four-day national examination of conscience about the role of religion in public life like Benedict XVI did.
In part, the reason Benedict was able to pull it off was because he gave those prepared to dismiss him no excuse to do so. He did not ride into town breathing fire about the equality laws, abortion, gay marriage, or any of the other fronts in the culture wars. Instead, he went to the foundations of the issue -- the right of citizenship of people of faith in a secular culture that prizes tolerance, and the positive contribution believers can make to common humanitarian and social concerns.
Put that way, it was virtually impossible to paint the pope as an extremist, and it made Dawkins’ claim that Benedict is an “enemy of humanity” seem faintly ridiculous. In effect, Benedict’s U.K. trip offered a model of how religious leaders can successfully engage secular conversation, through the template of “affirmative orthodoxy” -- no compromise on church teaching, but phrased in terms of what the church says “yes” to, rather than its well-known catalogue of “no’s.”
This was Benedict’s 17th foreign trip, and many of them have left behind the same kind of warm afterglow, only to be quickly swamped by some new crisis or PR meltdown in Rome. One can only hope that in this case, the past is not prologue.
Friday, 24 September 2010
The veteran Rome-watcher John Allen gives an upbeat assessment of the success of Pope Benedict's UK visit, from which he draws "two rays of hope":