As Damian Thompson and Ed West of the Daily Telegraph already noted, the Protest the Pope Action has achieved almost nothing. And now the media speak generally about the success of the Papal Visit. It is interesting to see how some wide sighted commentators already foresaw this success, like Peter Hoskin from The Spectator, who wrote on the first day of Papal visit:
The arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in Britain has provoked protests that […] far exceed those that greet the state visits of blood-drenched dictators. That is because the Pope is seen to represent — in ascending order of secular distaste — religion, Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative wing of Catholicism. Fair enough: Benedict does represent all of these things. He opposes atheism, regarding it as a desperately sad alienation of man from his creator. He embraces Christianity in what he regards as its most definitive, classical and pure form: that Church that he leads. […] To that extent he is conservative.
But, if the protestors know where Benedict XVI stands on issues of sexual morality, they have a very shaky grasp of his precise relationship to these issues. We keep hearing — for example, in Peter Tatchell’s ignorant Channel 4 documentary — that the Church’s opposition to condoms, gay sex and women priests is the product of the Pope’s ultra-reactionary style of Catholicism, whereas these teachings were actually set in stone by his predecessors. Paradoxically, however, Benedict’s critics very rarely focus on those ideas that genuinely do bear his personal stamp.
Joseph Ratzinger is the most important theologian to become Pope for centuries. His work would be studied in universities even if he had never been made a bishop. Yet this fact goes unrecognised by almost everyone who has commented on his visit. The only public figure who, to his credit, consistently draws attention to Benedict’s significance as a Christian thinker is the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams does not, of course, agree with the Pope about papal infallibility or female ordination; but he does recognise the subtle imagination with which Benedict addresses Christianity’s role in the shaping of Western civilisation.
[…] He (Pope Benedict) is also surprisingly non-polemical in the way he envisages the sweep of history, seeing it not so much as the battle of good and evil as the struggle between love and the in-ability to love.
The message that both the tolerance and the traditional family structures of Western civilisation are primarily expressions of love is one that should appeal not only to all Christians but also to thoughtful non-believers. Yet it is being drowned out by the mendacious caricature of the Pope as a former Nazi apologist for child abuse. Also, and this is perhaps an even greater source for regret, there has been little attempt to explain what is truly distinctive about Benedict by the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. […] Pope Benedict must therefore speak for himself if he wishes to convey what is, in essence, a radically optimistic vision of the future of Christianity. We hope that he is given a chance to do so.
In spite of all this, it was exactly the personal stamp of our Pontiff that won the heart of millions of people, and it was exactly his understanding of Christianity which won him support and turned many people into his friends. His conservatism is not turning people away from the Gospel, like many liberals would like to claim, instead, it is what makes the Catholic Church strong and that what makes the Church stand firmly like a rock undaunted ‘Mid the raging storms of time, like Ross Douthat from The New York Times analyses:
Conventional wisdom holds that such respect is increasingly misplaced, and that the papacy is increasingly a millstone around Roman Catholicism’s neck. If it weren’t for the reactionaries in the Vatican, the argument runs, priests might have been permitted to marry, forestalling the sex abuse crisis. Birth control, gay relationships, divorce and remarriage might have been blessed, bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold. Theological dissent would have been allowed to flourish, creating a more welcoming environment for religious seekers.
And yet none of these assumptions have any real evidence to back them up. Yes, sex abuse has been devastating to the church. But as Newsweek noted earlier this year, there’s no data suggesting that celibate priests commit abuse at higher rates than the population as a whole, or that married men are less prone to pedophilia. (The real problem was the hierarchy’s fear of scandal, which led to endless cover-ups and enabled serial predation.)
And yes, the church’s exclusive theological claims and stringent moral message don’t go over well in a multicultural, sexually liberated society. But the example of Catholicism’s rivals suggests that the church might well be much worse off if it had simply refashioned itself to fit the prevailing values of the age. That’s what the denominations of mainline Protestantism have done, across the last four decades — and instead of gaining members, they’ve dwindled into irrelevance.
The Vatican of Benedict and John Paul II, by contrast, has striven to maintain continuity with Christian tradition, even at the risk of seeming reactionary and out of touch. This has cost the church its once-privileged place in the Western establishment, and earned it the scorn of fashionable opinion. But continuity, not swift and perhaps foolhardy adaptation, has always been the papacy’s purpose, and the secret of its lasting strength.
Catholics do not — should not, must not — look to the Vatican to supply the church with all its saints and visionaries and prophets. (Indeed, many of Catholicism’s greatest figures have had fraught relationships with the Holy See — including John Henry Newman, the man beatified on Sunday.) They look to Rome instead to safeguard what those visionaries achieved, to guard Catholicism’s inheritance, and provide a symbol of unity for a far-flung, billion-member church. They look to Rome for the long view: for the wisdom that not all change is for the better, and that some revolutions are better outlasted than accepted.
On Saturday, Benedict addressed Britain’s politicians in the very hall where Sir Thomas More, the great Catholic martyr, was condemned to death for opposing the reformation of Henry VIII. It was an extraordinary moment, and a reminder of the resilience of Catholicism, across a gulf of years that’s consumed thrones, nations, entire civilizations.
This, above all, is why the crowds cheered for the pope, in Edinburgh and London and Birmingham — because almost five centuries after the Catholic faith was apparently strangled in Britain, their church is still alive.
God bless our Shepherd, God bless us all.