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What to expect from the Pope's visit to Great Britain

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 14, 2010

What should discerning Catholics be expecting when the Pope begins his visit to Great Britain? 

1. Expect a lot of nasty rhetoric

The anti-Catholic activists have been stirring up their follower for several weeks now, with some generous assistance from the mass media. In the last few days before the Pope's trip, the rhetorical temperature had risen high enough to prompt the Irish Catholic to denounce a "wave of anti-Catholic hate" sweeping the country. Criticism of the Church has become almost an obsession, and old-fashioned undisguised anti-Catholic bigotry has become socially acceptable. A little group led by the atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins managed to attract publicity with its absurd calls for the arrest of the visiting Pontiff. A television network aired a nasty attack "documentary" on the Pope, focused heavily on the sex-abuse crisis, directed by a gay-rights activist. (That activist, by the way, has advocated lowering the age of consent for sexual activity, putting him in a strange position to criticize priests who prey on teenagers!) The anti-papal frenzy will undoubtedly produce some nasty public demonstrations, to which the media will surely provide extensive coverage. 

To complicate matters, the English hierarchy has been reluctant to engage in any sort of head-on confrontation with the reigning secular culture. The bishops will answer the anti-Catholic charges gently, quietly, and sometimes not altogether persuasively. When he tackles the most controversial issues of the day-- as he will, because he always does-- Pope Benedict will be exposed to more criticism, and it is not clear that the British hierarchy will speak out to deflect that criticism. In fact, one of the more delicate challenges facing the Holy Father during this trip may be the effort to persuade the British bishops that they must be bolder in confronting secularism. The unabated anti-Catholic frenzy that we are now witnessing shows how far the forces of secularism have advanced, often largely unopposed.

2. Expect a continuing struggle over the legacy of Cardinal Newman

The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman will be the high point of this papal trip. It will also be the primary point of contention between liberal and conservative Catholics. Liberal Catholics would like to cite Newman in defense of their favorite causes. During the next week, we can expect a spate of essays claiming that Cardinal Newman was sympathetic toward theological dissent, or independence from the Vatican, or homosexuality, or even (improbably) Anglicanism. Fortunately, we can also expect a masterful answer to these arguments, delivered by Pope Benedict himself at the beatification ceremony. The Holy Father clearly sees the importance of this battle for the Newman legacy. He is traveling to Britain and presiding at the beatification not only to honor Cardinal Newman but also to illustrate his importance as a guide for today's Church. 

3. Expect criticism of the organizers, and finger-pointing after the fact

The planning for his papal trip has been marred by confusion, gaffes, budget problems, and maladroit public relations-- all avoidable. With the resources at their disposal the bishops of the United Kingdom should have been able to organize things smoothly. If there are miscues during the trip, as seems likely, there will be recriminations afterward. 

4. Expect the unexpected 

Pope Benedict has established a track record. He never fails to produce headlines, particularly during his trips abroad. But his most provocative statements do not always come when they are expected, and he rarely says exactly what he is expected to say. Vatican-watchers unanimously expect the Pope's sermon at Cardinal Newman's beatification to be the most important papal message of the trip.  But do not dismiss the possibility that the Pope will make his most newsworthy statement in some other venue: during his flight to Britain, or his meeting with the Queen, or even his talk with the British bishops on the last day of his visit.

If in fact the beatification homily is the centerpiece of the Pope's visit (as I think it will be), expect the Holy Father to press the argument in an unexpected direction. Given the ferocity of the attacks on Catholicism, the media will expect the Pope to defend the Church, to answer those attacks. But this Pope doesn't allow himself to be pinned down on defense. He will, I am sure, seize the offensive and press forward with his argument. In what direction? We can only wait and see.

5. Expect the media to miss the point  

Because they invariably expect the Pope to respond to their concerns, secular reporters often fail to recognize the most important points in a papal address. The mass media still don't understand the thrust of his Regensburg speech-- which was every bit as much as a challenge to European secularism as to Islam. If the Pope challenges the secular culture again in Great Britain, don't expect the media, the guardians of that secular culture, to catch his point.

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