Reflections on the forthcoming 2010 Papal Visit.
This month the Leader of the Roman Catholic Church will visit Britain for the first time since 1982 in what will be a historic State Visit but few people seem to care and are even hostile to the idea. When listeners of Radio Four were asked last week to phone- in with their proposed questions for the Pope, the responses were painfully inevitable. Most focused on the recent child abuse scandal in the church, some focused on the Pope’s attitude to homosexuality whilst others drew attention to the time the Pope had spent in Hitler youth as a boy but all were negative in their tone.
This is, of course, not an attitude which is reserved for Catholics but is increasingly shown towards all Christians and people of faith. One possible explanation often cited is the idea that Religion is seen as “part of the problem” and is no longer valued as a useful source of guidance or inspiration for solutions. This was occasionally something that New Labour was guilty of as, at times, the quest for a pluralist society which is to be welcomed turned into a quest for a secular society. It is doubtless a fine line but one which is extremely important, especially for social democrats.
Perhaps there is something even more powerful behind the apathy with which the words of religious leaders are greeted and that is the message itself. In our society in which monetary value and capitalist ideals have firmly permeated, it is unsettling to hear the message of those who challenge this “capitalist revolution” and invite us to think beyond our earthly existence. Pope Benedict XVI in- particular has shown over the last five years that he is not afraid to challenge and criticise where necessary. His encyclical Charitas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) published last year contains a detailed reflection on social and economic issues. It includes an attack on free market fundamentalism and calls for the actions of businessmen and bankers to be informed by ethics, not just profit. The encyclical also calls for more to be done to address global poverty and hunger, greater protection of the environment, preservation of human dignity and stronger international institutions. It is an inspiring read but it does leave one feeling rather overwhelmed by the work that needs to be done.
In speaking out against inequalities and injustice, Benedict XVI is continuing with a long tradition of Catholic social principles which have made a significant contribution around the World. In this country, the contribution of Cardinal Manning to the Labour movement is well acknowledged, indeed it was he, who in 1874 talked about a “third way” between capitalism and class war.
The fact that in 2010 Pope Benedict has been invited on a State Visit will mean that his arrival will be of both pastoral and political importance and it really could not have come at a better time. Our country is recovering from an economic and political crisis; we are only beginning to grapple with the responsibilities we owe in combating global poverty and climate change and, despite Labour’s best efforts, we remain one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. The Pope will encourage us as Christians to continue to address these issues through the inspiration of the Gospels and he will have plenty of advice concerning the social and economic challenges that we face.
The visit also comes at a poignant moment for our Party. Still recovering from election defeat and needing to re-engage with many voters, including many Catholics and a leadership contest in which the two front runners are atheist. The papal visit will hopefully provide the party with an opportunity to reconsider the contribution that can still be made by Catholics and the Church’s social teaching to our future direction.
It will be impossible to escape from those voices of opposition to this visit and Catholics themselves need no reminding of the way that they have been hugely let down by a handful of their clergy. But this cannot become an excuse not to listen as it is clear that Christianity and this Pope have plenty to offer both our country and our party as we seek to address the challenges we face.
The only question is whether we are prepared to be challenged and listen to the Pope’s message with an openness and readiness to act. Benedict XVI will offer words of encouragement but he will also speak plainly about the issues affecting our country and our duty to take the lead in providing what Jonathan Chaplin has described as “practical, Christian, political wisdom.” It might be daunting but Christians do not choose this way of life because it is easy but because of its beauty and truth.
If it is successful, the Pope’s visit should provide all of us, regardless of denomination, with the opportunity to reflect on how our lives are contributing to the common good and to renew our pledge to make “Thy Kingdom come, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.”