Controversy Accompanies Historic Papal Visit To U.K.

Final preparations are made at Bellahouston Park ahead of the pope's visit.

Children arrive for a rehearsal at Glasgow's Bellahouston Park ahead of Thursday's visit by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope will celebrate Mass in the park following his visit to Edinburgh, where he will be met by Queen Elizabeth II. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

The first state visit by a pope to Britain comes at a low point in relations between Catholics and Anglicans and under the weight of the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Scotland on Thursday morning to spend four days in Britain — the first visit by a pope in nearly 30 years and the first papal state visit since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534 over a divorce.

The trip includes a meeting with Queen Elizabeth in Scotland, a speech in Westminster Hall, an ecumenical service with the archbishop of Canterbury and the beatification of a 19th century Anglican who converted to Catholicism.

Looming over the visit are 400 years of religious tensions and more contemporary divisions.

Particular Challenges For Benedict

Protests are being planned by gay activists, secularists, advocates of female ordination and militant atheists — some of whom have called for Benedict’s arrest on charges of covering up sex abuse of minors by priests.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Sept. 15. i i

Pope Benedict XVI (right) prays during his weekly general audience Wednesday at the Vatican. Benedict takes his campaign to revive Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe to Britain on Thursday. He faces a daunting task in a nation largely at odds with his policies and where disgust over the church sex abuse scandal runs high. Alessandra Tarantino/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Sept. 15.

Pope Benedict XVI (right) prays during his weekly general audience Wednesday at the Vatican. Benedict takes his campaign to revive Christianity in an increasingly secular Europe to Britain on Thursday. He faces a daunting task in a nation largely at odds with his policies and where disgust over the church sex abuse scandal runs high.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi is unfazed.

“There have always been protests by some groups during papal visits,” he says. “There will be more groups on this trip — such as atheists and anti-papists."

Lombardi adds, “It’s normal in a pluralistic society like the British one. We are not worried because we believe the media has overblown reality."

But a visit to such a pluralistic society is particularly challenging for a pope who has set as his mission the re-evangelization of Europe.

Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, says the pope’s main goal is "to try to help make a space in society for religion, for faiths."

"It is very clear that [the pope] believes that the Catholic Church and Catholics within that church have been too lax in presenting the faith in reasoned, rational, argued terms that can stand up toe to toe in the arena of ideas," Mickens says.

Weekly church attendance among Britain’s 5 million Catholics has been dropping steadily, as it has elsewhere in Europe. In fact, many tickets to papal events — which unusually carry a price tag — have gone unsold.

Anglican-Catholic Relations A Key Issue

Just 11 months ago, the Vatican stunned the Church of England when — without consulting the archbishop of Canterbury — it offered to take in dissident Anglicans angered over their church’s consecration of female and homosexual bishops.

Anglican critics see it as part of a centuries-old campaign by Rome to annex the Anglican Church.

Vatican analyst Marco Politi says Catholic-Anglican relations are at their lowest point in recent history, as the Vatican tries to woo Anglican conservatives.

“All the issues of modernity which already in the Catholic Church the pope is fighting are just the reasons for which he is embracing this traditionalist part of the Anglicans,” Politi explains.

Benedict has the dubious precedent of having caused offense during several of his foreign travels: his remarks in Germany describing Islam as violent, which outraged Muslims; and his claim on his way to Africa that the use of condoms spreads AIDS.

Some Vatican watchers say Benedict’s decision to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a priest in the Church of England who converted to Catholicism in the 19th century, could further strain relations with Anglicans.

The pope has described the decision as an act of ecumenism. But Politi points out that Benedict has always upheld the primacy of Catholicism — “that the only real church is the Catholic Church, and that the Protestant churches for him are not real churches but only Christian communities.”

God's Somewhat Surprising 'Rottweiler'

Benedict will not receive the warm welcome given to his charismatic predecessor Pope John Paul II in 1982. Many of the British media have been openly hostile to the papal visit, which is costing British taxpayers some $18 million.

But The Tablet's correspondent Mickens says Britons may be surprised when they see firsthand the man described as "God’s Rottweiler." “They will see someone who speaks with a lilting voice, soft-spoken, and he’ll look sweet and have white hair," Mickens says.

“But in the end," he adds, "the words will remain and he is going to have to choose his words carefully on this visit, words that are said with great kindness in the voice but really have a sharp bite to them on the page."

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