Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bishop of Rome is in London

It is the first ever state visit of a Pope who as well as being the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is also the Head of State of one of the world’s smallest young countries.

I was in Nigeria during the only previous papal visit in 1982. That was a purely religious event with no government input. This time is different. Benedict has met Her Majesty and addressed Members of Parliament. Last time any protests were from Protestants eager to remind people of the 39 Articles of the Church of England which say, ‘The bishop of Rome has no jurisdiction in this realm of England’. Now the protests come from secularists.

Peter Tatchell, campaigner in the past against Robert Mutable, is taking a leading role in protests against the state visit. He said it was inappropriate for taxpayers to foot the £12m bill. He has a point. But the RC church is funding, and charging attendees, for the religious ceremonies while the state funds state ceremonies including Benedicts meeting with our Queen.
I am surprised to have seen no media comment on why the Pope met the Queen in Scotland and not in England. Is it merely because she is on her annual vacation at Balmoral? I think there may be more to it than that. The Queen and her government are aware that she is monarch in Scotland and in England but in England she has a role denied to her in Scotland. South of the border she is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This is the title of the monarch ever since Henry VIII broke with the bishop of Rome’s claims to universal ecclesiastical supremacy. In Scotland H.M. is merely a member of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This was one of the strokes of genius of the 1688 Glorious Revolution, which removed James II our last RC monarch.

So, meeting in Scotland, two heads of state come together. If they were meeting in England it would not be so easy to hide their contrary claims over Christians.

Ian Paisley was as ever out protesting in Edinburgh but such Protestant voices are few and while rejecting papal claims to universal authority over the church I am more ambivalent over the state part of the visit as highlighted by the likes of Tatchell and fellow secularists. Tatchell issued a challenge to the Vatican to be more open about child abuse scandals. He said: “We think it is time the Pope himself apologised for his failure to tackle sex abuse in the church.”

This is rich from Tatchell who is in favour of all things homosexual including lowering the age of consent.

I am with Benedict in declaring all sexual acts outside of marriage, not merely child abuse, to be morally wrong. I am also very pleased with what he said in Westminster Hall, “There must be no facile accommodation to the spirit of the age … Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.”
While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good…. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: What are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved?

These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world… the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance.

There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.
“There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.

And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

Here, Benedict calls the politicians to account in a way I applaud. So, I am pleased with this state visit though I am still bemused as to why he wanted to worship in Westminster Abbey with the Anglican archbishop when his RC church officially teaches that Anglican orders are null and void. I think Benedict’s message to the politicians is clearer than his one to Protestants.

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