Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Protest the Pope?

September 19th, 2010 · 6 Comments

Thanks to so many of you for asking about my experience at Pope Benedict XVI’s prayer vigil in Hyde Park yesterday afternoon. It was profoundly renewing spiritually and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I don’t want to get boring, soap-box-y, or too personal, so I’ll leave it at that.

But I would like to start a discussion, if anyone’s willing, about the controversy surrounding the Pope’s visit. I think this was a bit of a missed opportunity in class – the past few days have been historic, marking the Holy See’s first-ever state visit to the UK, first visit of any kind in 28 years, and perhaps most importantly, the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, an Christian theologian from the Victorian Era and an important English figure, historically, intellectually, and religiously. (The beatification – or the penultimate step on the road to sainthood – of Cardinal Newman has taken a kind of backseat to the “state visit” thing. Actually, Newman is the main reason for the Pope’s visit. To learn more about the Cardinal – and why he’s so important to England and to the Church – read here: http://www.thepapalvisit.org.uk/Cardinal-Newman)

The visit’s official theme – “Heart Speaks Unto Heart” – comes from the writings of Cardinal Newman. Although Newman was a theologian and a professor at Oxford, he recognized the importance of faith deeply felt. He found in the Catholic Church what he considered to be a perfect union of intellect and spirit, mind and heart. You can probably guess why Benedict wanted to emphasize this aspect of Newman’s life to believers in England- we’ve spent plenty of time talking about how secular today’s England is. In his homily at Hyde Park, in front of an estimated 80,000 he encouraged Christians to join with Newman and “radiate” faith rather than just accepting it intellectually. He also recognized that believers in England fight a bit of an uphill battle as they try to live their faith in a nation that wants little to do with faith. The Guardian reported quite fairly, in my opinion, on the Hyde Park vigil here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/18/pope-benedict-hyde-park-speech

Waiting for Benedict in Hyde Park (personal photo)

What I’m driving at is that, in my experience, the Papal visit was tailored very carefully to fit the English character. The visit reflected a lot of what we’ve talked about in class, actually. He wanted to address secularism as well as a long history of religious strife – the altar at Hyde Park was set up, intentionally, very close to Tyburn, where Protestants and Catholics alike have been martyred. Benedict also, at other times during his visit, addressed the British tendency toward moderation – reminding them, essentially, to be moderate in moderation. He paid homage to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – pointing out that he was a child during the dark days of Nazi Germany, and expressing his gratitude for the sacrifices of British servicemen and women.

I mentioned the controversy surrounding the visit a little earlier, though. Although I’m sure most of us noticed the Scientologists protesting in their Guy Fawkes masks – a little paradoxically, considering that Guy Fawkes was Catholic, or maybe that’s the point – the main group protesting the visit is called Protest the Pope. Their official website contains a list of grievances against the state visit of Benedict XVI: http://www.protest-the-pope.org.uk/ Although they claim that 20,000 protesters came out to support their cause yesterday, the police can’t confirm that number and neither can I – really, I don’t know where all those people were hiding because we certainly didn’t notice them.

For me, at least, Protest the Pope’s arguments are flimsy. They’re essentially saying the Pope can’t have a state visit because he’s Catholic, as far as I can tell. And it seems to me that when 17.5% of your country accepts the moral authority of one person, the government has a vested interest in a good relationship with that person. Not to mention that the Holy See is an ally for the UK government on matters of worldwide poverty, healthcare, and education, of climate change and sustainability, of nuclear disarmament and peace.

There’s one last aspect to the religious controversy surrounding this visit: six Muslims were arrested in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate the Pope. Here’s some more information on that: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/the-pope/8010002/Pope-visit-sixth-man-arrested-over-alleged-assassination-plot.html. The men have been released without charges. But I can’t help but wonder how this will affect Britain’s religious climate as well. Until these arrests, the conflict was between Catholics and secularists. Now, there’s a whole new dimension. Will the Muslim community react with anger and outrage? Will some Catholics resort to discrimination and hate? Will the whole story be forgotten by tomorrow? It will be interesting to watch this unfold.

Sorry for the length of the post – I just wanted to give some background on the visit and see if anyone has thoughts to share. I think this would be a good space to have a respectful dialogue about the place of religion in the British government.

Tags: 2010 MaryKate