The forthcoming visit of the Pope to the United Kingdom seems to be generating far less interest than organizers had hoped, which is a pity.
We do not have to be Catholics to recognize that with all his human fallibilities – though the word is rather provocative, come to think of it – Pope Benedict is a thinker and spiritual teacher of the first rank, even leaving aside his position as leader of a significant section of one of the world’s great religions.
He has not always been well served by his advisers. Welcoming the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson back into the fold backfired spectacularly. In his early foray into interfaith relations, he alienated large numbers of Muslims by repeating criticism of the prophet Muhammad by a medieval Christian scholar.
Moreover, it is his misfortune that the greatest scandal to hit the Catholic Church in centuries – revelations of clergy sexual abuse – has happened on his watch, and that he has to deal with well-founded claims that Catholic teaching on condom use (they’re against it) is promoting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
But no one who reads his first encyclical, the remarkable Deus Caritas Est (Latin for “God is Love”), can doubt that his mind and spirit draw on the very deepest wells, and that from the perspective of an unbroken 2,000-year-old tradition he sees very clearly the sort of ills that affect our modern world.
The beatification of Cardinal Newman, which will be the highlight of the visit, is symbolic in many ways of issues the church – not just the Catholic Church – faces today. Newman, a leader of the Oxford Movement high-church Anglican revival in the 19th century before his conversion in 1845, was a life-long and dedicated enemy of liberalism, a social conservative who always regarded himself as theologically conservative, too.
But his subtle and wide-ranging mind was too much for many Vatican warriors, and he spent much of his Catholic life under suspicion of not being “one of us.” His refusal to settle for easy answers in the war against unbelief in his own day led, paradoxically, to fears that he was insufficiently orthodox when his whole energies were bent toward establishing the faithful more firmly in their faith.
This profound engagement with the modern world and equally profound commitment to truth revealed in Scripture and tradition are what led him to be regarded by some as the father of Vatican II, which – whatever traditionalists might say – opened so many windows and allowed many dusty accretions to the gospel to be blown away.
We Baptists don’t know as much about Catholics as we should; many Protestants imbibed “No Popery” sentiments with our mothers’ milk. But we should, by now, have moved beyond this, for charity’s sake if nothing else.
Of course we don’t believe everything that Roman Catholics believe. If we did, we’d be Roman Catholics. There are Baptist/Catholic conversations taking place, and no doubt they will help to cast light on some of the many areas in dispute when they are concluded.
In the meantime, it is, yes, a pity that the Pope’s visit is not making more waves than it is – or that essentially secularist questions of who is to pay for it is uppermost in people’s minds. (Do we really want to expose ourselves to international humiliation by telling him he can’t come because we can’t afford it?)
But there is still time, in the providence of God, for this visit to be of great significance not just for the Roman Catholic church in this country, but for the cause of the gospel. We are, in the eyes of the general public, not several churches, but one faith. (And it is deeply ironic that it is the indifference to religion of the mass of our population that should have brought about this desirable situation, when the valiant attempts of dedicated ecumenists over the last decades have entirely failed to do so.)
We should pray for this visit: that there will be no verbal blunders for the media to make hay with, that the “Protest the Pope” movement has at best a limited success, and – since these are very negative wishes – that the transforming and enlivening power of the Spirit of Christ will be seen in the Pope’s grace, wisdom and humility.