Saturday, 11 September 2010

P-5: "Benedict grasps a lot of the nuances of modern Britain"

There are some nice pieces of media coverage today about Pope Benedict and his forthcoming visit to Britain.

The Times has published, on its Faith page, an account of an interview with the Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell.  A snippet:
Having to calm the Vatican a few months ago over the infamous "Foreign Office Memo"... was "not a good moment", he says. "It is not every day you have to apologise for the stupidity of your colleagues".
I am looking forward to Pope Benedict's address in Westminster Hall, and agree with the Ambassador's assessment that this will be the number two highlight of the visit, after the beatification of John Henry Newman. I am certainly expecting that it will provide much food for thought and discussion. The place and the occasion are so full of different resonances.

The article does discuss something that I believe lies at the heart of the visit, and at the heart of the address in Westminster Hall:
The Pope, however, does not want to return "to some golden era in which the Catholic Church has some unique position in the constitutional order. He draws a distinction between the Anglo-Saxon version of the Enlightenment, which was about freedom for religion, and the French or continental version, which was about freedom from religion". Consequently the Vatican does not see Britain as a rabidly secular state hostile to Christians in general and Catholics in particular.

Benedict's 2004 dialogue with the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas confirmed his belief that "faith and reason must have a conversation. What he would object to is not atheism or humanism, they have their place and are part of the dialogue with faith. What he objects to is the irrationality of some of those on the polemical militant fringe who want to impose their order to the detriment of everything else."
The analysis of the way in which the Enlightenment relates to the situation of religious belief in Britain today is not one that all may follow. My own sense is that life in Britain is more profoundly secularised than, say, in France, where there might be a greater polarisation between belief and secularism but there is a greater public "presence" of religious belief. But the essential question being raised here is a key one. It is the question of what constitutes a rightful secularity ("laicite" in the French or Italian contexts) of the state with regard to religious belief, and the rightful place of religious belief and practice in civil society.

I am, in passing, fascinated by the post to which Ambassador Campbell will move after he finishes his posting at the Holy See. It is to be Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan.

The Daily Telegraph is carrying this comment in its print edition today:  Can't we set aside old hatreds, and simply welcome the Pope?  There is also an interview with Archbishop Nichols, which is set in a somewhat combative tone and, as published, devotes a lot of space to the question of clerical sexual abuse: "He is a man of real poise, with an inner peace". But the following passage from the interview with Archbishop Nichols describes, quite elegantly and with a turn of phrase of which I think Pope Benedict himself would be proud, a point that is complementery to that made by Francis Campbell:
Is it difficult defending a man regarded by so many as reactionary?

"That's unfair. He is out there intellectually and spiritually. He engages with the contemporary world but retains an inner peace and a rooted spiritual life. He is a man of real poise, gentle and respectful.

"His view is that the Church should not be a closed place, trying to preserve tradition, but that it should be a luminous place. And he believes the only way the Church can shine is by being deeply rooted. People try to construct him as a conservative pope, but he's not. What he's trying to say is that, as a society, we need deep roots from which to draw this luminosity."
UPDATE: Some critical comment is being offered on this passage, which I think arises from reading it in too narrow a context. I think it is alright, and quite nicely expresses how the Church, precisely in its engagment with the wider world, seeks to make its tradition live. It also brings to my mind the remarks that Pope Benedict was going to make at La Sapienza about the contribution of a religious tradition to a dialogue in a secular university.
The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance. Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom – the wisdom of the great religious traditions – should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.

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