Channel Four Television has announced that human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell will present an hour-long documentary on the Pope, to be broadcast shortly before the pontiff's State Visit to Britain in September this year.
"My aim is to make a robustly factual programme that explores the Pope's personal, religious and political journey since the 1930s, as well as the motives and effects of his controversial policies," said Mr Tatchell, who has been an outspoken advocate of rights and dignity for LGBT people - and a strong critic of Pope Benedict.
The move was immediately attacked by some leading Catholic figures - including Tory politician Ann Widdecombe, Opus Dei member Jack Valero, composer James Macmillan, and journalist and commentator Christina Odone.
Ms Widdecombe declared to the Telegraph newspaper: "I think this will confirm the view that there probably already is in the Vatican that this is a profoundly anti-Catholic country. I wouldn’t call this the right thing for any serious broadcaster to do, but they’re doing it for the publicity, they’re doing it to stir up controversy. Mr Tatchell certainly won’t be sympathetic to his subject, so what’s the point of doing it? It won’t be sceptical, it will be hostile.”
However, Mr Tatchell robustly denies an anti-Catholic motive or an intent to present only one side of the argument about Pope Benedict.
"I intend to ensure that we hear the voices of the Pope's defenders, as well as his critics. I would be like to interview the Pope himself. It would be ideal for Pope Benedict to be able to explain himself in his own words. But I doubt that I will be granted an audience," he said.
Mr Tatchell continued: "This will not be an anti-Catholic programme. I have great sympathy with grassroots Catholics who want a more open, democratic, liberal and inclusive church. The 'We Are Church' movement is admirable. I salute it."
He added: "Some of the inspirations of my own human rights campaigns have been Catholic humanitarians, including the editor of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, US anti-war activists, Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and theorists of Catholic liberation theology such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff."
A Channel Four spokesperson commented: "Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, a long-term critic of the Papacy, will challenge Pope Benedict XVI's beliefs and positions on a range of issues - including condoms, homosexuality and fertility treatment - and examine the impact his policies have had on both the developing and Western world. The programme will give voice to a range of views on the Pope - featuring interviews with both critics and supporters."
Ralph Lee, Head of Specialist Factual programming at Channel Four, added: "The Papal visit in September provides an ideal opportunity to examine the impact of Benedict XVI after five years in office. In keeping with Channel 4's remit to provide a platform for diverse and alternative perspectives, equality campaigner Peter Tatchell will assess the effect of the current Pope's teachings throughout the world and the conflict between some of his values and those held by modern Britain."
The programme, due to air in a prime-time slot in the autumn, is being made by Juniper TV. Samir Shah is the executive producer and the director is Chris Boulding.
The production company, Juniper TV, explained: "Juniper TV is making an hour long documentary for Channel 4 on Pope Benedict XVI to coincide with his State visit to Britain in September. The programme will be presented by Peter Tatchell and be an exploration of the Pope's life - exploring his ideas, values and thoughts. It will provide a thoughtful perspective on the Papacy's present condition, and make a serious assessment of the impact of Pope Benedict's views and policies on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. To ensure this, we currently plan to film in the UK, Europe and South East Asia."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, welcomed the documentary. He said: "The visit to Britain of Pope Benedict is already exciting comment and controversy and will continue to do so. A healthy society and media should be able to accommodate and reflect a broad range of views, from both inside and outside the churches. In a mixed-belief culture it is especially important that Christian communities are able to hear and respect views from trenchant critics as well as friends, allies and less passionate observers."
"Peter Tatchell is a man of immense moral courage who has directly experienced the hurt and harm some kinds of religious faith can embody. But equally he has been inspired by people of strong religious commitment standing up for justice, peace and human dignity. His will not be the only voice and assessment on the current papal reign, but it is likely to be a vibrant, provocative and interesting one. It reminds the churches that in a post-Christendom setting they do not 'own the rights' to interpreting and commenting on their history, beliefs and actions," said Mr Barrow.