Anger over papal visit shows religious freedom is alive and well in Britain

“In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.” Thus did Claire Rayner, a British journalist, novelist, former advice columnist and professional-campaigner-for-worthy-causes, greet news of the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom.

Others were more welcoming. Because this was the first papal state visit to Britain, Benedict had a friendly chat with the queen, shook hands with the prime minister and prayed with the archbishop of Canterbury. He said Mass in Hyde Park and beatified Cardinal Newman, a 19th-century convert from Anglicanism. It was the first beatification to take place in England, ever.

Yet Rayner’s reaction to him was, at least in some circles, more typical. One prominent left-wing pundit lumped together the pope with the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Koran; another accused Benedict of manipulating Newman to “serve his own autocratic, homophobic leadership.” Others called for protests — against pedophilic priests, against sexual discrimination, against religion itself. The phrase “aging theocrat” was bandied about quite a bit.

So vicious were the attacks in the run-up to the visit, in fact, that there was talk of cancellation. One Vatican official grumbled publicly about the “aggressive new atheism” in Britain, a country where all religions are protected except Christianity. Whatever your view of the pope, you can see his point: It is certainly hard to imagine liberal British pundits using such words as “disgusting” and “repellent” about a prominent foreign Jewish or Muslim religious leader, particularly one whose visit was intended to honor an Englishman and have tea with Queen Elizabeth II. He wasn’t there to instigate violence or terrorism, after all.

On the other hand, it is even harder to imagine many other foreign religious leaders receiving so much air time or having their views so expertly dissected. Because the pope was attacked so furiously, his defenders were given acres of newspaper space — if nothing else, the British press knows that a two-way controversy is always more interesting — and multiple slots on talk shows. Some environmentalists discovered Benedict’s little-known views on global warming (he’s worried about it). Some atheists decried the “intolerance” of other atheists. Accounts of Cardinal Newman’s life and teachings appeared everywhere.

Competitive politics also played a role: Since the nastiest attacks on the pope came from the left, the Conservative Party became interested in the case for the defense. A cabinet minister called a Catholic journalist of my acquaintance and asked to be taken, point by point, through the Humane Vitae, a previous pope’s encyclical on birth control. The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, publicly thanked the pope for making Britain “sit up and think” and said it had been “an incredibly moving four days for our country.”

All in all, it was a huge success. But had the pope been treated politely from the start, I suspect he would have come and gone without a trace. The vast majority of Britons are not Catholic and would have tuned out deferential accounts of his sermons. The press would have relegated the whole thing to the religion section. Perhaps the faithful would still have gone to Mass, though maybe not so many: In the end, some 500,000 people probably saw him during his visit, which is quite a lot in a country largely composed of pagans and Protestants.

And thus did Benedict’s visit to Britain turn into an advertisement for religious freedom — the freedom to abhor religion and the freedom to practice it. Much to everyone’s surprise, including the Vatican’s, raucous discussion of Catholicism turned out to be good for Catholicism and interesting for atheists, too. The true aging theocrats — in Saudi Arabia, in Iran — should take note.

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