- Catholic morale and moral credibility have taken a special battering from the revelations here, as across Europe and the US, of cases of physical and sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and the hardly less devastating exposure of a culture of institutional secrecy that often put the interests of the Church before the welfare of the victims. Pope Benedict’s personal revulsion at these revelations is not in doubt. In a series of Good Friday meditations delivered while still a cardinal, he denounced the “filth” that had entered into the heart of the Church. But under his pontificate the Vatican has responded defensively to the crisis, slow to grasp its seriousness and the need for complete openness in dealing with it. The numbers of priests involved in such cases is miniscule, but the impact on the decent majority of the clergy has been crushing. Even in the broadsheet press, indiscriminate disparagement of all priests as potential abusers is on the way to replacing gunpowder treason or the cruelties of the Inquisition as the stuff of a resurgent and apparently visceral anti-Catholicism.
- The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.
On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.