Courtesy, conscience and the Pope

By Jill Segger
September 20, 2010

As Pope Benedict's visit to the UK comes to an end, I am left with a sense of sadness. Despite the words of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, attempting to paint the visit as he would perhaps have wished it to be – an endorsement of pluralism and a call to quiet dialogue rather than shrill confrontation, it seems hard to imagine a clearer example of differing cultures failing to understand each other than we have observed over the past few days.

The pontiff is a Bavarian – a native of a culture steeped in the old 'throne and altar' model which is little changed from the days of Constantine. It does not offer a direct parallel with our Establishment though both are inimical to the 'post-Christendom' thinking which does not seek to privilege faith groupings in the public square. Combine centuries of monoculture with a creed which contains the concept of infallibility, and it is scarcely surprising that there has been a failure to connect or to understand a pluralist and secular society more at home with ambiguity than with certainty. That society, in its turn, finds no point of contact with an absolutism and authoritarianism which claims a divine mandate and seems to interpret opposition as a validation of its own rightness rather than a stimulus to honest self-scrutiny.

Benedict's clumsy conflation of atheism with Nazism and Cardinal Kaspar's description of the UK as “aggressively secular” were without context or nuance. To be without belief is an entirely honourable and honest stance. If you have no faith, it would be a failure of integrity to pretend otherwise. It is as divisive and potentially malignant to suggest that all 'non-believers' are willing or unwilling agents of evil as to refuse to see that priesthood is not synonymous with paedophilia. And if so many are no longer engaged by the mainstream churches in this rapidly changing world, what questions should those institutions be asking themselves?

Our secular society is the best guarantor of the religious freedoms of all. Theocracies will always oppress those whose consciences are not in harmony with the ruling creed. Where no confessional strand is privileged above another or above the safeguarding adjudications of a democratic state, respect for difference is enabled to flourish and difficulties have at least the chance of being the subject of dialogue rather than denunciation.

The visit of Pope Benedict has given great joy to many faithful Catholics. If we would stand on true ground, we must acknowledge and welcome that fact. If he has done something to put faith on the agenda as a deep and precious attribute of the human psyche rather than as a pathology to be deplored, then let us be glad of it. For those of us who are uneasy about power and authoritarianism, about the certainties which categorise and thereby diminish the rich diversity of human experience, about hierarchy and about obsession over human reproductive and sexual ethics to the exclusion of ardour for justice, liberation and equality, this may not have been the most comfortable few days.

But let us not fall into the error of critics like Richard Dawkins. It is easy to set up an Aunt Sally and congratulate ourselves for knocking it down. It is more demanding and more fruitful to seek common ground at the same time as standing for what we believe to be right. If the papal visit is the cause of further polarisation and selective self-deafening, it will have done nothing for either the Catholic Church or UK society

John Henry Newman, beatified yesterday by Pope Benedict in Birmingham, was held in considerable suspicion by the Catholic hierarchy of his time. It is ironic that a conservative Pope has chosen to co-opt this subtle thinker as a poster boy for his traditionalist cause. Newman famously remarked that he would “drink to the Pope if you please, still to conscience first and the Pope afterwards”.

That combination of courtesy and integrity is a model for us all.

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