Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

No Pope Here crusade draws unholy alliance

Pope Benedict's visit to Britain in September is already mired in controversy, writes Mary Kenny, with the newly ennobled Lord Bannside leading the opposition

Ian Paisley- who went to the House of Lords yesterday as Lord Bannside - has dented his growing reputation for emollience and sharply criticised the forthcoming state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain.

"I think he should not be invited to the country," said the new peer. "But I don't know how it has been done because they have had it all secret. Nobody knows who made the thing. You go and ask a (Government) minister and he says he doesn't want to have anything to do with it."

Actually, the reason for the Papal visit - September 16 to 19 - is well known at Westminster. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown issued the invitation to the Pontiff in 2009 and for a compelling political reason. He was desperate to curry favour with Scottish Catholics and damage the rival Scottish National Party, inconveniently gaining ground among that Catholic constituency (traditionally faithful to Labour).

And so the state invitation was sent in the Queen's name (as head of state, it is Queen Elizabeth who formally issues such invitations).

You would not need to be a member of Lord Bannside's Free Presbyterian Church to concede that the forthcoming Papal visit is beset with anxieties. Many British Catholics are uneasy about it because, one way and another, it seems to have been so jinxed. Primarily, there are controversies around Cardinal John Newman, who is to be beatified by the Pope in Birmingham and thus put on the road to sainthood.

But as John Cornwell writes in his new biography, Newman's Unquiet Grave, a growing number of Catholics regard this canonisation as "unsatisfactory".

Cardinal Newman - who undoubtedly added to the acceptability and prestige of British Catholicism when he converted to Rome in 1845, and was a brilliant writer and intellectual - has only performed one miracle since his death in 1890 and that seems to some to be less than decisive.

Jack Sullivan, a 70-year-old deacon in Boston, has been cured of back and leg pain after praying to Newman and doctors have testified that there is no medical explanation for his cure. But is one such miracle enough? Doesn't back pain sometimes heal itself spontaneously? Moreover, Newman himself expressly did not wish to be considered a saint.

To add to the complexities, the homosexual lobby claims Newman was gay - he was buried with his friend, Father Ambrose St John, whom the cardinal admitted he had loved more than anyone else. This claim of homosexual orientation is not new: in 1933, the author Geoffrey Faber described Newman's "characteristically feminine nature" and portrayed Newman's Oxford Movement (of High Anglicans, many of whom became Roman Catholic) as "homoerotic".

The campaigner Peter Tatchell thus has a twofold agenda in demonstrating against the Pope when he arrives in England.

He wants the Holy Father to accept Cardinal Newman as a gay icon, in the most literal sense of that "iconic" word, but he also supports the arrest of the Pope on civil charges of homophobia and child abuse. (Professor Richard Dawkins and the author Christopher Hitchens were also due to seek to arrest the Pope. Sadly for Chris Hitchens, he was diagnosed with throat cancer last week, and will not now be well enough to participate). Pope Benedict thus steps into a nest of trouble. He will be met with many hostile demonstrations, including secularists and victims of clerical child abuse who say not enough has been done by the Pope to remedy their wrongs.

A giggling memo circulated at the Foreign Office, suggesting the Pope should open an abortion clinic while in the UK and distribute his own brand of condoms was met with a formal reprimand, but it seemed to show a spirit of juvenilia among Foreign Office officials which was hardly respectful to an overseas head of state.

When the new Cameron-Clegg administration came to power after the May election they found that preparations for the Papal visit were a shambles. David Cameron has, therefore, appointed Lord Patten, the Conservative (and Catholic) peer, and former governor of Hong Kong, to "clear up the mess" and straighten out the financial entanglements.

Under Gordon Brown's arrangements, the cost was to be shared between the state and Catholic voluntary contributions. The Church has raised £5m, but much more will be required.

David Cameron has pledged to spend more public money on the visit - despite howls of outrage from those who oppose the visit, including, presumably, Lord Bannside (who will hardly make a comfortable comrade for the gay equality campaigners, since it was he who launched the somewhat homophobic Save Ulster from Sodomy organisation.)

Some observers have compared the Papal visit to Britain with next year's royal visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Republic, but the two differ in substance.

There has been no British state visit to the Republic since the foundation of the state, while there has been a highly successful Papal visit to Britain, by John Paul II, in 1982 - not officially a state visit, but a national one which made all the proper gestures of reconciliation.

The Queen has no political power and obeys her Prime Minister, whereas the Pope has considerable political power in his own realm and universal influence among a billion Catholics.

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