Belfast Telegraph

Pope takes baby steps towards church unity

The lesson of Pope Benedict's visit is that all the churches must tailor their message to the demands of a secular world to be understood, argues Malachi O'Doherty

Before Benedict XVI arrived in Scotland last Thursday, the media had built him up to be an ogre.

A generation which is familiar with the sinister religious demagogue had an easy category to fit him into, alongside warrior mullahs, fakirs and fakers, money-raking broadcasting shysters, and the whole panoply of religious overlords, conmen and lunatics.

The difficulty in maintaining a vision of Benedict as a dogmatic and small-minded thug is that his audience was not like the ones that endorse either the more abrasive ayatollahs or the slicker evangelical showmen.

He evoked no hysteria. He didn't rant. No one came forward to set himself alight, or flay his flesh with whips. People did not prostrate themselves and weep, or claim to have been healed.

Religion may be the best possible forum for the megalomaniacal egotist.

We may live in a world in which men of God direct bombers, inveigle the savings of pensioners, and bamboozle the minds of the vulnerable, but the papal visit to Britain seemed to make the point that the Pope doesn't cut it as the stereotypical spiritual villain.

If he had a PR team worth its name, then, in the last weeks, young men in suits would have been agonising over how to protect him from himself, and the fallout from the church's massive cover-up of paedophile priests.

One of their first concerns would have been whether it was safe to let him kiss children in front of the cameras.

Yet he had children around him most of the time, and he kissed some and laid hands on the heads of others.

And it was plain that this church cannot survive without children, and has little else to do than to try to influence them.

A horrendous number of priests have been raping children, but the prospect of the Catholic Church surviving at a distance from children is negligible.

The images reminded us of that normality, and of the impossibility of weaning the whole Catholic population away from devotion to the Papacy.

Those outside the church, who are wary of this man, have valid points to make about his grim sexual theology and his absolute status, but they must have felt that it was harder to convert their objections into a widely-felt, popular contempt for religion and this man.

The Pope himself stayed away from the loony elements of his teaching, perhaps sensing himself that he was dealing with a British Catholic culture that simply disregards them. He flattered Scotland with a use of Gaelic that seemed more mellifluous than his English, and he referred often to the historic Christian tradition, with facts at hand about the places of Scotland and England in that history.

He was occasionally gauche. In a speech in Twickenham to leaders of other religious traditions, he eulogised the achievements of science, but included references to Adam and Eve. He really appears to take Genesis literally.

And it is impossible not to doubt that many of those sitting listening to him were taking in what he said. His accent is difficult and he reads flatly, with little feeling, often mispronouncing English words.

Still, he emphasised the generous side of his teaching. This is the man who wrote the Dominus Lesus document that dismissed other churches as 'ecclesial entities', asserting that all other faiths took what light of truth they received through the linkage to Heaven formed by the Papacy.

From asserting that the Catholic Church was the One True Church, he appeared only to have moved to teaching that it was the Most True Church.

But that is, presumably, what Methodists and Unitarians believe of their approaches too.

Now he told the Chief Rabbi and the leaders of other faiths that Catholics have the greatest respect for them, and that they must work together to provide 'convincing witness'.

This is a long way from the old Catholicism that dismissed Hindus as heathens and Jews as Christ-killers.

Now they are brothers and sisters who must stick together in a secularising world, and find ways to communicate directly the values of their perspectives to secularised cultures which don't share them.

Does that mean that the message must be modified to enable the church to be better understood in societies where gays and their relationships will be protected, where no excuses will be accepted for the raping of children and the concealment of evidence, and where ordinary, healthy, and cheerful young couples sleep together when they are ready, without any consideration of church teaching?

Maybe it does. Maybe that is the meaning to take from this visit.

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