I am looking forward to the Pope’s visit to the UK. For a start I am interested to see what reactions it will actually evoke among the British people and in the media. I am expecting to see hostility, appreciation and indifference, but I am not sure which of these reactions will predominate. Another thing that I am looking forward to is the variety of programmes, news articles and radio discussions focusing on the Papal visit. I think that some of these may serve to raise some interesting questions, not only about the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but also about the changing role and nature of religion in British society and the huge shift we have seen in attitudes to religious faith and institutionalised religion.
I understand the reasons why many people object to the attitudes and approach of the Roman Catholic (and Anglican) church. People will tell you that they have been shaken and sickened by the stories of the cover up of child abuse, the position of women, the attitudes towards sexuality, the hypocrisy, the obsession with hierarchy, ritual and power that seems so far removed from the teachings of Christ or our instinctive understanding of a God who tells us to love each other.
And that’s just the Roman Catholics themselves! As reported on Radio four this morning, two thirds of Roman Catholics in the UK disagree with the fact that women are marginalised in the Roman Catholic Church and about half disagree with the need for priests to be celibate. There is increasingly a widening gap between the “official” pronouncements of the Vatican and what everyone actually thinks and does! Then, of course, you have what I am coming to think of as the “fundamentalist atheists”, people whose virulent dislike of religion latches with scorn and disgust on the Papacy – a soft target which can be so easily caricatured as an inward looking, ridiculously outdated, potentially kiddie-fiddling, misogynistic, all male enclave, wearing ludicrous embroidered frocks and expecting the rest of us to revere them as a source of spiritual truth and moral guidance.
While it is true to say that the Church is its own worst enemy and deserves some of these criticisms, it should also be said that there is a need for a sense of proportion in the reactions of those who condemn the Church or religious belief in general. I am far from thinking that Christians are a persecuted minority in the UK; nevertheless there can be a level of hostility that topples into rank prejudice, and, like all prejudice, is fuelled by ignorance, stereotyping and arrogance.
I am hoping the level of coverage (and even protest) that we see will be proportionate, sensible and balanced. I do expect that we will see some excellent and challenging debate; I hope we will not see too much anti Catholic prejudice, disrespect or ignorance, but I won’t be surprised if we do!