Cross Purposes: Questions Remain over How the Pope Will Be Recieved in Scotland

By Dani Garavelli
The Scotsman
September 5, 2010

INSTALLED in his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo - a pretty little town 30km from Rome - Pope Benedict XVI has had little chance to relax and enjoy the views of Lake Albano.

Surrounded by briefing papers on the history of Christianity in Scotland, the Pontiff has been preparing for a foreign visit which had disaster written all over it. Under siege from the child sex abuse scandal and facing a toxic blend of hostility and apathy from his prospective audience in the UK, it is hard to imagine him setting about the task with any great enthusiasm.

Unlike his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, the frail 83-year-old has no desire to travel the world and would - insiders say - have been happier finishing off the last part of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy than writing speeches for a country which appears to be, at best, lukewarm about his visitation.

His state visit - the first by a Pope to the UK - is a legacy of the last Labour government, pursued first by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, and inherited by the more ambivalent David Cameron and Nick Clegg. It was not sought by the Vatican (for whom Britain's five million Catholics pale into insignificance when compared with the 300 million in South America, for example) nor by the Catholic Church in England and Scotland, which - with their diminishing mass attendances and income - can ill afford to pay their share of hosting the event.

The timing is terrible on a number of fronts. To invest upwards of ?12m in a state visit at a time of savage spending cuts was bound to provoke anger. And the document which the Pope's critics say proves that, as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, he was involved in covering up child abuse, has provided fresh ammunition to those who oppose him for his reactionary beliefs on issues including homosexuality, abortion and the ordination of women.

With militant atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins threatening to have him arrested, a Foreign Office memo sarcastically suggesting he should be asked to open an abortion clinic, and leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Roberston challenging his right to remain "above the law", Pope Benedict might seem less likely to kiss the ground on his arrival at Edinburgh Airport than to take a shovel and dig himself an escape tunnel.

So great have fears been that the event was about to fall apart, former Cabinet minister and European Commissioner Chris Patten was called in to pull everything back together. However, with just 11 days to go until Pope Benedict arrives, the mood is beginning to change.

Although a protest march will still take place on the day of the mass at Hyde Park in London, fears the visit will be sabotaged have subsided as dissenters focus on staging debates, press conferences and even a film festival.

In Scotland, rumours that the mass at Bellahouston would be under-subscribed have given way instead to a sense of anticipation. More than 100,000 people are expected to line the streets for a St Ninian's Day parade in Edinburgh, with a new mass setting by Scots composer James MacMillan and the appearance of singing star Susan Boyle adding to the sense of occasion in Glasgow.

But as advocates and critics alike gear up for the event, the big question remains: What will the Pope say? Will he preach repentance to a sinful country, or will he reach out to those believers and non-believers who are repelled by his conservatism?

From the onset of his Papacy, the former Cardinal Ratzinger has suffered from the kind of image problem Max Clifford would be hard-pushed to turn around. Whereas his predecessor had fought both communism and fascism, Benedict XVI's background as an, albeit reluctant, member of Hitler Youth made him an innately less attractive figure. Progressive Catholics feared that as a traditionalist he would move ever further from the liberal spirit of Vatican II, and it wasn't long before he was offending vast swathes of the population. As early as September 2006, he gave his infamous Regensberg speech in which he appeared to link Mohammed with violence.

A host of other controversies followed: his appointment of a new Archbishop of Warsaw who turned out to have had an ambiguous relationship with the Soviet secret police; his decision to allow four ex-communicated traditionalist Bishops, including a holocaust denier, back into the fold; his desire to see Pope Pius XII (felt by many to have failed the Jews in the Second World War) be made a saint, all led to him becoming a hate figure. His suggestion that condoms were intensifying the Aids crisis in Africa, and his attempt to poach disaffected Anglican priests didn't help matters either.

Towering over all the other rows, however, is the child sex abuse scandal. Concerns centre not only on the scale of the offending, which happened in the US and Europe, and was "endemic" in Ireland, but also on the cover-up which allowed paedophile priests to move on to other parishes to abuse again. Central to the affair is an edict issued by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to Bishops all over the world which said incidents of abuse should be reported directly to Rome.

Advocates of the Pope - including the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols - claim he is the victim of a smear campaign, that he speeded up the process of defrocking priests and that he is being let down by incompetent advisers.

No amount of blaming other people, however, can shift the public perception that Pope Benedict knew what was going on and tried to hush it up.

It's little wonder then that the state visit has met with some hostility, with questions about the use of public funds and the wisdom of giving the Pope an official endorsement.

"We feel very strongly that the Pope should not be honoured in this way when there are so many questions about his role in covering up child abuse still hanging in the air," says Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society and spokesman for the Protest the Pope campaign, an alliance of militant non-believers, gay rights campaigners and liberal Christians, including Catholic Women's Ordination.

"If this was a progressive pope, a pope who said: 'Let's live in the modern world, where stem cell research could lead to the cure for some of the most horrendous diseases which affect humanity,' rather than objecting to it, I think it would be a different thing altogether," Sanderson says. "But while the Pope continues with these very regressive teachings, teachings that defy human nature, we will be hostile to him, because he is hostile to us."

Lesley Orr, a Church of Scotland member and historian who has worked with survivors of clergy sex abuse, is equally critical. "I'm uncomfortable with the state recognition of the Vatican as a political state partly because the Vatican has used that role to block, or to argue against various concerns and global initiatives I would be in favour of.

"I think those who have been victims or are survivors of sexual abuse will feel ambivalent to say the least about the role of the Pope in relation to what they've endured at the hands of the representatives of the institution. He has characterised and embodied some of the worst aspects of institutional violence: abuse of power, collusion, protection of the church against the interests of those who have been victimised."

If antipathy towards the Pope from non-Catholics represents the biggest threat to the Pope's visit then the apathy of disaffected liberals within the Church - as well as errors of judgment on the part of those organising the event - come a close second. The decision to stage another mass in Bellahouston Park was an enormous gamble as it set the event up for direct comparison with the 1982 mass by John Paul II.

The fact that it is taking place late on an autumn evening as opposed to a morning in June means the heady atmosphere is unlikely to be recaptured.

The ?20 ticket price was off-putting to some, as was the news that "pilgrims" would have to stand in the park for hours before the event began.

Down south, a failure to book Coventry Airport - the original venue for the beatification of Cardinal Newman, which is now being held in Cofton Park in Birmingham - combined with a suggestion on the part of the organisers that most people would be unable to see the Pope and would have to watch him on TV has also been blamed for dampening enthusiasm.

As to what message the Pope will bring to the UK, it's still anybody's guess. Sanderson believes the visit will provide another opportunity for him to offend. "It's quite clear from the opinion polls that most people in this country support some sort of assisted dying for the terminally ill, they support abortion, divorce and contraception. I think it would be impertinent for the Pope to come here criticising our legislation which has been arrived at after a long debate and by democratic process."

Church insiders, however, insist the Pope won't set out to antagonise. "It's not his style to be a polemicist and he will be very respectful of the host nation, its traditions and its culture," said Ronnie Convery, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Glasgow. Philosopher Professor John Haldane, who is a Papal advisor to the Vatican, says he should "reach out and go big".

"For what it's worth, I have suggested that his speeches ought to rise above the detail of some of the recent disputes and try to fit them and other things within a larger context," he says. "I think it would be a good idea to talk about the human quest for meaning, and say that, at the heart of human self-awareness, is the question: 'What is life for?'"

Others hope the Pope's visit will be more narrowly focused on his own flock, and provide Catholics with a sense of renewal. "I think he will be asking us to turn more to God and be part of our religion not just part of a society where God has no place. It's high time Catholics and Christians put their head over the parapet," one insider said.

Haldane believes the Catholic Church, which has seen off the French Revolution and Communism, will survive. "I think what will happen is that we will have a smaller Church, but a Church much more in the mould of John Paul II or Benedict than it is in the mould of Chris Patten, an avowedly liberal Catholic.

"Right now to be a Catholic, or to be a serious Catholic, is a time for carrying the cross," he adds. "You have to accept these are difficult times. It will pass. It's not going to be easy, but it will pass."


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