I recently posted about the response of the three main Party Leaders to a question about the forthcoming visit of Pope Benedict to England and Scotland, a question asked during their second TV debate. The video excerpt on which I based that post omitted the text of the question itself, and the continuation of the Leaders' responses subsequent to their initial answers. A transcript of the whole debate is now available; the question and responses to the question about the Papal Visit can be found on page 12, and following, of the transcript.
I still believe that it is significant that all three of the Party Leaders stated that they welcome the visit of Pope Benedict, and would want that visit in September to be a success. As I said in my first post, I think there was a particular strength in Gordon Brown's welcome and in his observation that "the Catholic Church is a great part of our society, and we should recognise it as such". After these statements, the coalition opposing Pope Benedict's visit might as well pack up, save their money and go home. In that sense, the question proved to be a bit of a political own goal for the opponents of the visit.
I think, however, that the continuation of the discussion that I did not comment on in my first post, raises a completely different question. What we saw was the leaders of all three major political parties in this country speak against Catholic teaching on abortion, homosexuality, contraception and the use of human embryos for the development of medical treatments. The extent of the agreement between the three leaders was acknowledged by the debate moderator. Such an explicit expression of opposition to Catholic teaching by the political leadership of our country is, I suspect, unprecedented [corrections in the comments box if necessary!].
How should Catholics react after the leaders of the three major political parties have all explicitly and publicly spoken against Catholic teaching, precisely as Catholic teaching? Is silence appropriate? Or should we be defending the cause on the subjects at issue? Will we stay faithful to Catholic teaching?
An internal memo
Much of the media coverage of the internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office paper "The ideal visit would see ..." avoided use of the word "offence" or "offensive" to describe the contents of that paper. The tone was set by the words of an FCO spokesman, quoted in the BBC news site report (my italics added):
This is clearly a foolish document that does not in any way reflect UK government or Foreign Office policy or views. Many of the ideas in the document are clearly ill-judged, naive and disrespectful," he said.This tone was echoed by the reaction of Catholic commentators. However, according again to the BBC news site report, and as I heard it described by a presenter on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, the FCO was "deeply sorry" for any offence the document had caused.
Now, I think there is some merit in not taking the contents of this background paper to be more than they actually are. The conciliatory response of Catholics in the media reflects this, and certainly presents a much more dignified face to the wider world than the invective that might have issued had it been others in society who had been the target of such a paper. The attitude of forgiveness also reflects a living out of a Christian value.
But it is my view that the contents of the background paper are offensive to Catholics as a whole, and to Pope Benedict in particular. I have no difficulty in seeing others disagree with Catholic teaching; I have great difficulty with unreasoned and blatant ridiculing of that teaching. At this first level, I consider the contents themselves of the background paper to be offensive. At a second, more significant level, I find offensive the idea that a number of people in public office have found it acceptable, first of all to have written them, and then to have given these contents a circulation, accepting thereby that their contents were acceptable. This is what I find most offensive about this incident.
Party Leaders Debate (part 2) + An internal memo =....
It is quite unfair to put side-by-side the words of the three Party Leaders - courteously presented in the context of political debate - and the offensiveness of the FCO "background paper". And it is quite unfair to try to imply in any way that the Party Leaders would give any approval to the offensiveness of the internal memo. The two events are quite distinct and causally un-related, and I want to be clear about that.
But if we do add them together, if we do view them at the same time, do these two events not give us a picture of where the Catholic Church stands in the perception of society today?