29 Mar 2010

What reception will the Pope receive in Britain?

Three times I have stood in St Peter’s Square and heard a red clad cardinal declare “Habemus Papam” – “we have a pope” – thus concluding the secret conclave that elects the successor to whichever dead one has just past.

The redoubtable Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called in the columns yesterday “Grey Lady” – for a time when we might hear the words Habemus Mama. And so, perhaps it is.

For beneath the scandal that currently threatens to throttle the authority of the present incumbent – no female he – is a harsh reality that has largely not been discussed.

That if women and men enjoyed equality of opportunity in the Catholic church, the abuse, the discovery, the cover-up, and the failure to prosecute would never have happened.

Indeed some think it not too fanciful to suggest that the victims of the abuse have been victims not only of the appalling crimes themselves but of a very male abuse of power.

It all brings us so exquisitely to the Equality Bill still in parliament – from which the religious organisations have had to be exempted in pivotal regards.

It brings us to the dilemma facing any secular state. How permissive can the state be of practices which run against the secular legal code?

Isn’t the pursuit of faith as fundamental a human right as that of equality? Should for example the Catholic church, and the Muslim faith be allowed to restrict key positions of prayerful power to men only? I have no idea how that one is resolved.

But what I do know is that where men and men are gathered together under one roof and there is lax interest, let alone control, over those who intersect with the innocent young, there is danger. The secular power has a duty to protect the innocent young.

According to several Vatican sources that I spoke to in Rome at the time of his consecration – the present pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger, very much wanted the papacy. It is something which set him apart from the two other incumbents whose Habemus moment I witnessed.

John Paul I had not the slightest expectation, hope, nor desire to become Pope – he wasn’t even a cardinal, being at the time the Archbishop of Venice – the papacy rarely ever went to a man without the ‘red hat’.

Ahead of his election, John Paul II was the junior of the two Polish cardinals and almost the most junior cardinal of all. There hadn’t been a non-Italian elected in centuries. He was said to have had a girlfriend before he entered the seminary. He enjoyed skiing and football, and likewise had no expectation or immediate ambition of becoming pope.

Those of us who had worked in Rome as correspondents knew Cardinal Ratzinger as a renowned Vatican operative – who did much of the political heavy lifting whilst John Paul II was on his charismatic travels. He had political form, the fallout from which we are only just beginning to experience.

It all sets one wondering how the Pope’s visit to Britain, currently a comfortable six months away, will be viewed.

Amongst some Catholic sources here, whom I have spoken to, and some temporal ones too, there is already a real fear that matters will get much worse on the child abuse front; and that come September there will be a good number of Catholics and non-Catholics alike who will seriously regret ever inviting him.

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