The hostility that many British are voicing toward Pope Benedict XVI has shocked church officials in Rome as they prepare for the first formal state visit to Great Britain by a reigning pontiff.
The four-day papal visit, which begins Thursday, has prompted negative reactions by far exceeding anything the Pope has encountered when traveling even to non-Christian countries such as Turkey or Israel.
The protests have ranged from the mean-spirited and the tasteless to the vehemently ideological. Some even called for the Pope's arrest upon his arrival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Queen Elizabeth II is to greet him.
At the bottom of the scale, the cost of the visit — an estimated 10 million pounds (about 15.4 million U.S. dollars) to British taxpayers — has generated repeated complaints, although such protests are never heard when other heads of state come to Britain.
More seriously, a controversy arose in April after the leak of a joke memo that a junior Foreign Office official had written suggesting that the Pope should bless a gay marriage and open an abortion clinic as part of his official program.
The government offered an apology to the Holy See, but the prank betrayed the sort of ignorant contempt that passes for cleverness in the corridors of power in Britain.
The National Secular Society, an atheist lobby group, has submitted to the government a petition against the papal tour and will demonstrate against the pontiff during the visit. The group's opinions are quoted widely and even promoted in the British press whenever the papal visit is discussed. The society’s protests against Islam, by contrast, seem limited to campaigning against the ritual slaughter of animals.
Worst of all have been the antics of those who say they want to put the Pope behind bars. Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, the evolutionary scientist and militant atheist whose book “The God Delusion” sold millions, has stated that he would try to stage a citizen’s arrest of the Pope.
Together with human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, Dawkins claims the Pope bears guilt for the child abuse scandal. A week before the papal visit, Robertson published a book arguing that Benedict should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and explaining why he believes the Pope cannot claim sovereign immunity.
And on Monday, just days before the Pope’s plane was to touch down in Edinburgh, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was given an hour on prime-time television to attack the Pope, the visit, and Catholicism generally in the most simplistic and virulent terms.
Indeed, so bad-tempered has been the mood in Britain surrounding the visit that the British ambassador to the Holy See felt compelled to suggest in August that it is better for the Pope to generate hostility than indifference.
But why would there be such enmity in a Christian country when there was none from a Muslim or a Jewish one?
The fact that these attacks come from people who are already discredited has done nothing to stem their resonance. Tatchell attacks the Pope over the child abuse scandal, but he himself defended sexual relations between adults and children as young as 9 in a letter to The Guardian in 1997.
Robertson, meanwhile, was sacked from his post as president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2004 because he refused to withdraw as judge in a case whose defendants he had proclaimed guilty in one of his books. But he continues to pose as an authority on the law and due process.
On the contrary, the outpouring of anti-Catholic feeling has put British Catholics so far on the defensive that many of them now think their opponents are perhaps at least partly right.
Britain has become one of the most virulently anti-Christian countries in the world. After a few decades in which the traditional anti-Catholic prejudices fell into abeyance, the basic anti-popish reflexes of an ancient Protestant nation have come back with a vengeance, spurred on by ideological attacks on the only Christian church that seems to stand for anything at all. The Anglicans, meanwhile, having been mired in their own internal problems for years.
Common to all these attacks is an obsession with sex and a refusal to see Christianity as anything but a “teaching,” a mere series of moral “thou shalt nots.”
One might not expect militant atheists to understand the notion of transcendence or divinity, but Britain’s widespread hostility to the largest religion in the world does not square with its trashy indulgence of all other movements, however marginal or inchoate, that choose to label themselves “spiritual.”
Britain has traveled further down the road of political correctness than even traditionally permissive European societies like those of the Netherlands or Scandinavia. At a time when the basic social conservatism of some of those countries is manifesting itself in various protest movements, especially against Muslim immigration, British politics and society is now well to the left of the already very left-wing Western European average.
Soon after David Cameron was elected to power, the new “Conservative” prime minister hosted a garden party at 10 Downing Street for the nation’s most prominent homosexuals. This kind of demonstrative support for gays is something not even the progressive Dutch have ever done, and certainly not something a right-wing politician would normally deem necessary.
The contrast also is striking with the United States, which is, like Britain, a country with a strong Protestant ethic, but unlike Britain, a country where religion plays a big role in public life.
Whereas a Florida pastor’s desire to burn the Koran is widely denounced as extremist, even in the United States itself, the prevailing mood in England regards virulent attacks on Catholicism in England as mainstream. The BBC treats opponents of the Pope as decent campaigners with a voice that deserves to be heard but derides opponents of a mosque at ground zero as redneck right-wingers and racists.
How times have changes since the pastoral visit of John Paul II in 1982, when the pontiff was received with generosity and good grace. The country Joseph Ratzinger will get to know this week has changed unrecognizably since then, and for the worse, to become little but an uncouth, boorish, and sex-obsessed Rude Britannia.
John Laughland, a British citizen, is studies director at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris.
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