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Controversy Accompanies Historic Papal Visit To U.K.

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Controversy Accompanies Historic Papal Visit To U.K.


Controversy Accompanies Historic Papal Visit To U.K.

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Pope Benedict arrives in Britain tomorrow. It's the first visit by a pope in nearly 30 years, and the first official papal state visit since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534. The trip comes amid continued revelations about sex abuse by Catholic clergy, and it comes at a new low point in relations between Catholics and Anglicans.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Looming over the visit are 400 years of religious tensions and more contemporary divisions. Protests are being planned by gay activists, secularists, women ordination advocates and militant atheists - some of whom have called for Benedict's arrest on charges of covering up sex abuse of minors by priests.

Yet, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi is unfazed.

Father FEDERICO LOMBARDI (Vatican Spokesman): (Through Translator) There have always been protests by some groups during papal visits. There will be more groups on this trip, such as atheists and anti-papists, but it's normal in a pluralistic society like Britain's. We're not worried because we believe the media has overblown reality.

POGGIOLI: 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.

Mr. ROBERT MICKENS (Vatican Correspondent, The Tablet): His main goal is to try to help make a space in society for religion, for faiths.

POGGIOLO: Robert Mickens is the Vatican correspondent of the British Catholic weekly The Tablet.

Mr. MICKENS: It's very clear that he 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.

POGGIOLI: Anglican-Catholic relations will be 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.

Mr. MARCO POLITI (Vatican Analyst): So all the issues of modernity, which already in the Catholic Church the pope is fighting, are just the reasons for which he's embracing this traditionalist part of the Anglicans.

POGGIOLI: Pope Benedict has the dubious precedent of having caused offense during several of his foreign travels. For example, 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, 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 Vatican analyst Politi points out that Benedict has always upheld the primacy of Catholicism.

Mr. POLITI: That the only real church is the Catholic Church, and that the Protestant churches for him are not real churches but only Christian communities.

POGGIOLI: Benedict won't receive the warm welcome given to his charismatic predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1982. Large portions of the British media have been openly hostile to the papal visit, which is costing British taxpayers some $18 million.

But The Tablet correspondent Mickens says Britons may be surprised when they see firsthand the man described as God's Rottweiler.

Mr. MICKENS: And they're going to see someone who will speak with, you know, a lilting voice and soft-spoken, and he'll look sweet. But in the end, the words will remain and he's 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.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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