Without quite realising it, secular anti-Papists such as the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell are using much the same "No Pope here" slogans as have adorned bigoted bonfires for centuries. Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins reject the idea that religion should have any rights beyond the private sphere: if he had his way, a Christian education would become a crime. The human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, says he wants Pope Benedict tried for failing to do enough to root out child abuse in the Church. Such people do not speak the language of rational criticism – a pity, because there is much to criticise – but of anger, rejection, intolerance.Two:
These non-believing Protestants think that they are expressing modern liberal sentiments, but they remind me of the small crowd of Irish Republicans who demonstrated this week against the suggestion that the Queen should visit Dublin next year after a royal absence of a century. Yes, the history matters. Yes, the differences are real. But one should be suspicious of those who try to repel all gestures of reconciliation and keep themselves warm by stoking the fires of old hatreds.
I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.Three:
Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the "deadly boredom" of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – "who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance." Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call "the big society" and how it can achieve the common good. "Without truth," he says in one of his encyclicals, "charity degenerates into sentimentality." His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.