Not being a Catholic, I didnt have much invested in the recent visit of Pope Benedict. However, I didn’t like the way certain sections of the Christian world kicked up a fuss about the visit in advance, and on the whole I thought that Benedict and his team made a good fist of the public relations surrounding the visit.
I think in general there is now much more good feeling towards the institution of the Catholic church in the UK than there was before hand. He even seemed somehow to smooth over things with the Anglicans, even managing to make a positive out of what could have been seen as the extraordinarily provocative beatification of Newman.
However, all the positive PR and potential for political upset aside, there was something that bothered me about the Papal visit, and it was this: the Pope seems to be treating the world as though Christendom was still an active reality.
He spoke as though this were a nation which, like the children of Israel, had followed God and then stepped away. I just can’t accept that as a accurate assesment of the state of affairs, not because we are a holy society, but because we arent a chosen nation. He spoke of the renewal of the church (much needed) and of Christian society… but is this really Christian society?
When you consider the ‘conversion’ of these islands, I dont think that there was ever really a point when the rulers were working for God rather than their own interests – and I’m sorry to say that in one way or another the Church was often complicit in this self interested monopoly of power.
In speaking in this strongly Christendom based way of course, he built a barrier up between the secularists – of whom there are of course many, and the religious lobby, of whom there are a similar number of vocal proponents. This to me was not sensible. Yes we have an established church here, but the reality is that although Bishops sit in the house of Lords, on the whole the wider ‘church’ does not hold a lot of earthly power. In my opinion that is not necessarily a bad thing. When we have power we tend to go bad, we’re better off as an irritant outside the circle of power, reminding rulers and leaders of the responsibilities they bear. Its kind of like saying that instead of crucifying Jesus and oppressing his disciples what the governments of the relevant states should have done was made them cabinet ministers. I think even Nick Clegg has realised that doesnt work.
The rule of this country is based upon secular law, undergirded at one time perhaps by religious principles, but now very much all about a capitalist social democratic philosophy.
Although you might think so when listening to some people speak, capitalist social democracy is not equivalent to Christianity.
The Vatican, who must surely be aware of the relatively dire straits of his church in the UK, surely saw this as an opportunity to try and get some more british bums on seats. For after all, the whole strength, identity and purpose of the very Vatican state is based upon its worldwide diaspora of Catholics. In order to reassert this, in order to re-invigorate their catchment, the organisers of the Papal visit thought it best to push the Christendom thing, but couch it in such a way that the Pope, who after all has had a lot of mud slung at him recently, was effectively rehabilitated in the eyes of the British people. Ok that’s a gross oversimplification (moi?) – but I think it holds some element of truth.
As I say, I have no axe to grind here, I am not anti Catholic at all, indeed I find myself reflecting on Bonhoeffer’s words that when viewed in the context of the wider church Protestantism (even more so evangelicalism) seems like a tiny sect. The richness of the traditions which come from the Catholic and Orthodox world have huge amounts to teach and offer all of us, we neglect them at our peril.
So I’m not anti Pope, (although I find his accent rather hilarious), but I dont think that his deeply Christendom based language is useful. His visit was a success in PR terms for a beset Vatican regime, but the idea that a spiritual leader can address a nation in this way belongs to a different way of thinking.
Come the revolution… we’ll all be on our bikes.