Charles Moore // Daily Telegraph
Last year, Baroness Thatcher went to see Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. I accompanied her. “Isn’t it excellent that we’re going to meet him?” I said. “Yes,” she replied, “but what does one say to a Pope?” As Benedict prepares for the first state visit by a Pope to this country, hers is a question that continues to trouble the British people.
For hundreds of years, the most common collective answer was, “Go to Hell”. Most of the English and, in different ways, the Scots and Welsh, came to define themselves by Protestantism. The state they formed was Protestant. Our present Queen, when she was crowned, swore to uphold the Protestant religion. She is absolutely free of religious bitterness, but she also keeps her promises.
Even today, you still have to go carefully. While Tony Blair was prime minister, he started to receive instruction to become a Roman Catholic. His wife, Cherie, was keen that he convert in office, which would have made him our first Catholic prime minister. Wiser counsels, including those of the Catholic Church itself, prevailed. It might have been a little more than the Protestant body politic could stand: Mr Blair converted after his resignation.
As its name states, Protestantism was a protest. It was, at its best, an appeal for the direct human relationship with God, governed by the Bible. Popes and priestcraft had got in the way.
But, as so often in religious disputes, the abuse of power by the protesters themselves quickly became noxious. Next Friday, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury will walk down the aisle of Westminster Hall, pause and pray together by the plaque in memory of Thomas More. In that place, in 1535, More, the former Lord Chancellor of England, was condemned to death for treason. More’s crime was to maintain his Catholic faith against Henry VIII’s claim to headship of the Church. From then until the 19th century, Catholics were denied their full rights as citizens. Our national liberation was real in some ways, but it had many victims.
Nowadays, Protestantism as a clear set of religious ideas is sadly weakened, but its spirit remains strong. Much of this is good – a questioning disposition, an emphasis on the unvarnished truth, a belief in political liberty. But there is also, in some, a sourness. There are quite large numbers of people in this country who still want to say “Go to Hell” to the Pope, even though Hell is something they no longer believe in.
Without quite realising it, secular anti-Papists such as the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell are using much the same “No Pope here” slogans as have adorned bigoted bonfires for centuries. Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins reject the idea that religion should have any rights beyond the private sphere: if he had his way, a Christian education would become a crime. The human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, says he wants Pope Benedict tried for failing to do enough to root out child abuse in the Church. Such people do not speak the language of rational criticism – a pity, because there is much to criticise – but of anger, rejection, intolerance.
These non-believing Protestants think that they are expressing modern liberal sentiments, but they remind me of the small crowd of Irish Republicans who demonstrated this week against the suggestion that the Queen should visit Dublin next year after a royal absence of a century. Yes, the history matters. Yes, the differences are real. But one should be suspicious of those who try to repel all gestures of reconciliation and keep themselves warm by stoking the fires of old hatreds.
The media have tended to reflect these preoccupations. Next week, both the BBC and Channel 4 will run indictments of the present Pope. A huge to‑do has been got up against the cost of the visit to the taxpayer by people who never normally object to high public spending. Might there not be some more interesting things to consider? How about informing television viewers about the life of John Henry Newman (to be fair, Radio 3 managed a decent programme on the subject), whom the Pope will beatify? How about telling the story of British Catholicism? How about examining what this Pope teaches, and why the official reconciliation between the Papacy and the British state can at last be consummated?
I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.
In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?
Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.
It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.