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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Religion

Angst Eased in U.K. During Pope’s Visit

September 18, 2010 - 9:13 AM | by: Father Jonathan Morris

While much of the international news about Pope Benedict XVI’s visit is now fixated on yesterday’s arrests of six men for alleged plans to attack the pope, the more persistent news here has been the warming of the English people, and their press, to this eighty-three year old German pope.

Beginning a year ago when this trip was announced and continuing until Pope Benedict landed on British soil, negativity and controversy has saturated the British press.  Some of the angst has centered around civic and political issues, including whether Queen Elizabeth II and the British government were right to invite the Pontiff to come as head-of-state and on the public expense of preparing for and securing the event.  And anger over the Catholic Church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse understandably dominated the pre-event coverage.

These particular controversies, however, all but disappeared upon the Holy Father’s arrival.  Local officials now say the considerable expense has been offset by the many visitors to the United Kingdom.  More importantly, the English people have expressed incessantly great pride in their Royal Family for having extended such graciousness to the pope, especially given the historic tensions between the British monarchy—who is also the head of the Anglican Church—and the papacy.

And it was the Pope himself who initiated conversation about clerical sexual abuse.  On the plane from Rome to London, as well as in his homily this morning in Westminster Cathedral, the Holy Father spoke transparently about the problem and gave some of the strongest words to date against sexual abuse within the ranks of Catholic clergy.  He offered yet another apology to victims, stated that abusers will have no place in the Church, admitted Church authority had reacted too slowly, and promised institutional reform to protect children in the future.

Since the Pope’s arrival all this heated controversy has turned into profound public debate about the role of faith and religion in society.

The Queen’s opening address quieted critics who say religion is a negative force for society.  In her words:

“In this country, we deeply appreciate the involvement of the Holy See in the dramatic improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland.  Elsewhere the fall of totalitarian regimes across central and eastern Europe has allowed greater freedom for hundreds of millions of people. The Holy See continues to play an important role in international issues, in support of peace and development and in addressing common problems like poverty and climate change. We hold that freedom to worship is at the core of our tolerant and democratic society”

The Holy Father responded to the Queen with an address that challenged British society to defend itself against aggressive atheistic movements that would seek to rid society of public expressions of belief.

“Today the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.  In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”

In his historic address yesterday to both houses of the British parliament, the Holy Father took this challenge a step further and in language nobody could misunderstand.   In the same Westminster Hall where Thomas More was condemned to death by Henry VIII for not supporting his wish to trade in his first wife for one who could bear him children, Pope Benedict spoke of the legislator’s responsibility to protect the sovereignty of “conscience” and the public expression of religious belief.

“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 marginalization 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.”

No doubt his words will be a new reference point as England continues its debate of “Equality Laws” that would force religious institutions to act against their conscience to conform to civil law.

And British Airlines, a government controlled company, may have some explaining to do regarding their recent decision to not allow their flight attendants to wear a visible cross or crucifix while on the job.

The Holy Father is not speaking against disbelief, or against atheists, but rather against a society that allows aggressive non-believers to restrict the public expression of those who believe or that punishes citizens for obeying their conscience.

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