Pope avoids controversy in BBC broadcast message

By staff writers
24 Dec 2010

Pope Benedict's landmark BBC Christmas broadcast avoided controversy and relayed the traditional Christian message of God's love fleshed out in Christ.

The two-and-a-half minute message went out in the BBC Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' slot on 24 December 2010 (Christmas Eve), arousing further debate over this long-standing reflection feature - which at present bars non-religious people from offering a moral or spiritual message.

But Pope Benedict was careful to avoid re-iterating his remarks about alleged 'aggressive secularism' which sparked debate during his September 2010 state-sponsored visit to Britain.

Instead he used the occasion to thank people in the UK for welcoming him to their shores.

In terms of the Christian content, the pontiff stressed that the liberation Christ brings is not political-military in style, but is about the defeat of death, God's self-sacrificial gift of life, and Jesus being born of God "in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power".

That ethos of self-giving love will find an echo with many Christians and non-believers alike, but questions remain inside and outside the Church about the Vatican's contrasting power and wealth, its claims as a 'city state', and the the Pope's own role in a number of long-running controversies - including the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Church and responses to the HIV-AIDS crisis.

The National Secular Society (NSS), which in the past has favoured getting rid of the 'Thought for the Day' slot altogether, objected to the Pope being invited on to the airwaves, accusing the BBC of being "obsessed" with religion, and saying that Benedict should instead have been cross-questioned over abuse and other issues.

"The BBC is giving the Pope an unquestioned slot to continue whitewashing his Church's disgraceful record on covering up child abuse by its priests," National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said in a statement.

"Why isn't the Pope being subjected the same rigorous questioning that other heads of state would get?", he asked.

The status of the Pope as a Head of State is seen by some as raising very awkward questions, but the BBC stressed that the invitation was to him as a religious leader. The broadcast took "many months" of planning, they said.

Catholic leaders and other supporters welcomed the move, pointing out that the Pope is recognised by 1.2 billion believers worldwide, and a large number of Catholics and others in Britain.

Austen Ivereigh, co-ordinator of the group Catholic Voices, responded positively to the broadcast, saying it was "another milestone" in the papacy's relations with the media.

"Just weeks after the publication of the first ever sit-down interview with a Pope comes the first ever papal 'Thought for the Day'," he declared.

The Christian think-tank Ekklesia said that the occasion of the broadcast being handed over to the Pope in different circumstances to the ones in which it is usually scripted and transmitted provided another opportunity to re-visit the issues around the 'Thought for the Day' slot as a whole.

Ekklesia has argued that the debate about 'Thought for the Day' needs to be reframed away from "fruitless pro- and anti-religion battles" and towards practical proposals for broadening its appeal and range of contributors.

In a report published earlier this year Beyond the god-of-the-slots (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/thought_for_the_day/main_report), the thinktank said that TfTD could play an important and creative role in deepening conversation and ethical insight between people of different beliefs.

However, the ban on non-believers should be ended, and Christians in particular should be willing to share media space with others rather than claim a privileged position, Ekklesia said.

"The Christian voice is most effectively heard as part of a rich, hospitable dialogue," said co-director Simon Barrow.

The thinktank points out that local and regional ‘Thought’ slots have been more diverse for some time, and says the 4Thought.TV sequence after Channel 4’s evening news shows how a more varied approach can be rich and creative.

Commented Simon Barrow: "The issue here is not that there is anything wrong with the BBC broadcasting a Christmas message from the Pope. It's that the BBC should now end the ban on non-religious people offering their moral and spiritual reflections in the same 'Thought for the Day' slot. Giving an immensely powerful individual (and head of state) access to airwaves denied to those he attacked when we has last in Britain also raises questions which should not be ducked."

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The Pope's message in full reads as follows:

Recalling with great fondness my four-day visit to the United Kingdom last September, I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you once again, and indeed to greet listeners everywhere as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Our thoughts turn back to a moment in history when God's chosen people, the children of Israel, were living in intense expectation. They were waiting for the Messiah that God had promised to send, and they pictured him as a great leader who would rescue them from foreign domination and restore their freedom.

“God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them.”

God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them. The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place - he was to be the Saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history. And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military means: rather, Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross. And while he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God. Out of love for us he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability, and he opened up for us the path that leads to the fullness of life, to a share in the life of God himself. As we ponder this great mystery in our hearts this Christmas, let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us, and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down: he gives us hope, he brings us life.

Dear Friends from Scotland, England, Wales and indeed every part of the English-speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this Holy Season. I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time. I pray especially for the elderly and for those who are approaching the end of their days. I ask Christ, the light of the nations, to dispel whatever darkness there may be in your lives and to grant to every one of you the grace of a peaceful joyful Christmas. May God bless all of you!

You can listen to this talk online or via a podcast here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/today/pope-thought-for-the-day/

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