The leaders of Britain's three largest political parties last night united in welcoming the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain in September, but said that his views on a range of issues - including contraception and homosexuality - needed to be discussed and challenged.
The exchange occurred during the second TV Leaders' Debate - which excluded Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru - on Sky and the BBC.
Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all said they welcomed a positive role for faith in public life, recognised the importance of the Pope's impending visit for Catholics and others, but made it clear that they disagreed with some of his doctrines.
Pope Benedict XVI is the spiritual and temporal head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
The issue of the cost of the impending visit and how it should be paid for was not discussed, although the questioner, Michael Johns - who highlighted what he saw as the disastrous consequences of the Church's stance against condom use for the HIV-AIDS crisis, and its anti-gay equality positions - had clearly wished that they would.
However the response of the three party leaders, who will between them produce the next UK Prime Minister, clearly poses a significant challenge for the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, in Scotland, and in the north of Ireland.
In addition to touching on the child abuse crisis for the Church, which produced an unprecedented public apology from the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, yesterday (22 April 2010), the three men showed great respect for the Pope and for faith - but said that this should in no way mean that vital issues raised by his public statements should not be debated openly.
Gordon Brown, who described himself as of "the Presbyterian faith" made an impassioned plea for more work on bringing the faiths together and discovering common values in a conflicted world.
The full statements on the issues of the Pope's visit were as follows, in order of presentation:
David Cameron (Conservatives)
"I do think it’s welcome that the Pope is coming to Britain and if were your Prime Minister I would want to support that visit and make sure I could do everything in my power to make it a success. There are millions of people in our country who would welcome that, who share the Pope’s Catholic faith and I think we should try and make a success of it but do I agree with everything the Pope says? No. I don’t agree with him about contraception, I don’t agree with him about homosexuality and I think the Catholic church has got some very, very serious work to do to unearth and come to terms with some of the appalling things that have happened and they need to do that but I do think that we should respect people of faith, I think faith is important in our country. I think faith-based organisations, whether they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu do amazing things in our country, whether it is working in our prisons or providing good schools or actually helping some of those vulnerable people in our country, so a country where faith is welcome, yes. A good visit from the Pope, yes, but does that mean we have to agree with everything he says? No."
Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats)
"My wife – I’m not a man of faith – my wife, Miriam, is Catholic, my children are being brought up in her faith so I have a little bit of an insight into the immense feelings of anguish in the Catholic community here and elsewhere and I think many Catholics themselves feel really extremely torn apart by what’s happened and I think they do want to see the Catholic church express greater openness and repentance. You can’t keep a lid on sin and of course you need to move with the times. I do welcome the Pope’s visit but I hope by the time he does visit there is a greater recognition that there has been terrible, terrible suffering, there has been abusive relationships which have left immeasurable scars on individual people’s lives and we need a process of openness and then healing. You can’t undo the tragedies of the past but you can be open about them so people can start to move on."
Gordon Brown (Labour)
"I’ve met some of the people who have rightly complained about the abuse that they were subject to when young and it never leaves them, it’s something that is with them always and no matter what you can try to do to help, there is always this problem that they have to face up to every day that they were abused, cruelly abused, by people in whom they placed their faith and trust. So the church has got to deal with these problems and it has got to make sure there is an open and clean confession about what has happened and that we help those people that have been put into difficulty by this abuse. But you know, I welcome the Pope’s visit to Britain and I want him to come to Britain for two reasons. One is the Catholic church is a great part of our society and we should recognise it as such and I hope every British citizen wants to see this visit by the Pope take place, and secondly, we must break down the barriers of religion that exist in our world. The faiths must come together and recognise that they have common values and common interests. We all believe that we should be good neighbours to each other, I’m from the Presbyterian religion but I support the visit. I not only support it, I want religious faiths to work more closely together in society."