Two weeks before Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom this September, former British prime minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, was published in the United States. At first glance, the events may seem unrelated: a politician’s memoir, with its inevitable score settling, and a bishop’s pastoral visit, stressing unity amid contention. On closer inspection, however, Blair’s book and Benedict’s pilgrimage have a lot to do with each other, for A Journey: My Political Life helps illuminate, if indirectly and inadvertently, the ferocity of the campaign against Catholicism and the pope mounted in Britain prior to the papal pilgrimage. What Blair has to say about twenty-first-century Britain—and, by extension, twenty-first-century democracies around the world—also stands in striking contrast to the analysis of contemporary democratic public life offered by the bishop of Rome in Glasgow, London, and Birmingham.
Tony Blair was one of the more engaging public figures of recent years, and in that respect his memoir is precisely what one might expect: articulate, energetic, clever in argumentation. Blair was often accused, not without reason, of being a master of spin. Yet, in A Journey, he is admirably frank about both politics and personalities, although his candor on the latter front can be serially bracing, jarring, and weirdly confessional.
Thus, Blair the bracing, on his longtime communications chief, Alastair Campbell: “In my experience there are two types of crazy people: those who are just crazy, and who are therefore dangerous; and those whose craziness lends them creativity, strength, ingenuity, and verve. Alastair was of the latter sort.” Or Blair the jarring, on his wife: “Cherie didn’t always help herself, and as I have remarked before she had this incredible instinct for offending the powerful.” Or Blair the self-scrutinizer, in confessional mode: “By the standards of days gone by I was not even remotely a toper, and I couldn’t do lunchtime drinking except on Christmas Day, but if you took the thing everyone lies about—units per week—I was definitely at the outer limit. . . . I was aware it had become a prop.” Such self-conscious bluntness does keep one turning the pages, but it also makes one wonder about the author’s sense of propriety.
American readers will be moved (as some of Blair’s fellow Britons were not) by the former prime minister’s love affair with the United States, his confidence in the essential goodness of the American democratic experiment, and his respect for American power. And no one familiar with the increasingly vulgar folkways of the Fourth Estate will challenge Blair’s contention that the 24/7 news cycle—with its relentless hunt for the spectacular and scandalous, its capacity to destroy the reputations of the innocent, and its inability to take policy argument seriously—has become a serious problem for all democracies. Then there is Blair’s openness about the emotional costs of high office, including his profound sense that decisions he made cost some men and women their lives and made sorrow a staple in some families.
Blair haters (and Bush haters) will deplore Blair’s defense of the stalwart support he gave George W. Bush after the attacks of September 11. They also will feel their stomachs churn at Blair’s praise of Bush’s intelligence and decency. But the fair-minded reader will note that Blair can be critical of those Americans with whom he was in basic agreement on world affairs. And only the willfully obtuse will deny that Blair is right when he argues that radical Islamist jihadism is a mortal threat to the civilization of the West, and that the West’s self-defense is imperiled by sentiments of “malaise, decline, impotence, challenges unmet, promises unfulfilled.”
Participants in the ongoing debate over just war and the Iraq War will have to contend with Blair’s claim that Iraq fell into bloody chaos after the deposition of Saddam Hussein not because of culpably inept postwar planning by American and British strategists but because of the bloody-minded determination of al-Qaeda and Iran, together with Iraq’s remaining Baathists, to turn Mesopotamia into a central battlefield in the jihadist war against the West.
Blair also makes a powerful case against Michael Walzer and those Catholic just-war theorists who argued that invasion of Iraq was unnecessary because “small war” (with intensified sanctions and a countrywide no-fly zone) would eventually bring Saddam’s regime to its knees. In marshaling evidence against this claim, Blair gives a lucid explanation of the definitive Duelfer Report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It’s a useful reminder that, while the report’s first conclusion has been set in concrete in the public mind (Iraq destroyed its WMD after the 1991 Gulf War), its critical second conclusion remains nearly unknown (Saddam retained the human and technological infrastructure to ramp up his WMD programs once he got out of the sanctions box and undoubtedly would have done so).
Blair is equally forceful in his argument that sanctions imposed by the United Nations eventually would have crumbled in the face of Iraqi intransigence, although he is less sharp than George W. Bush’s memoirs are likely to be on the subjects of French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
A Journey provides a compelling account of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, in which Blair was admirably indefatigable (and, by his own account, notably dishonest at one point, to keep the negotiation going). But some of Blair’s most passionate arguments concern his creation of “New Labour.” It was to be a party disentangled from the sacrosanct “Clause 4” (a relic of Marxist antiquity about common ownership of the means of production) of the old Labour-party platform—a party comfortable with middle-class aspiration; a party no longer in thrall to trade-union obtuseness and leftist intellectual abstraction; a party tough on crime but bullish on empowering the poor; a party that, by appealing to a broad constituency, could become Britain’s natural party of governance rather than its natural party of opposition.
It was a grand aspiration but a truncated one, and its shortsightedness helped create the kind of Britain that eventually would turn on a reasonably successful prime minister such as Tony Blair—and a pope.
A Journey is also rife with judgments that those who admired Blair’s steadfastness as an ally will find, well, strange. Bill Clinton (who never got 50 percent of the popular presidential vote) is nevertheless “the master” and a “brilliant president” who “ran a good economy” and “made big reforms.” Barack Obama, similarly, is “brilliant,” a “man of genius.” Blair suggests that Russia’s increasingly brutish domestic and foreign policies have been the by-products not of Vladimir Putin’s nationalism and KGB background but of Putin’s sense of not getting enough respect from George W. Bush. Blair even avers a certain sympathy for the Russians’ paranoid reaction to U.S. missile-defense emplacements in central Europe, “which, in a sense understandably, they saw as aimed at them.”
The same Blair who could be tough as nails on the need to use military force to repel the genocidal Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo can, without blush, repeat the old, tired shibboleths about a Palestinian state being the magic key that will unlock the minds and hearts of Arabs unreconciled to the fact and legitimacy of the state of Israel. As for climate change, well, that, for Blair, “is the global challenge,” the answer to which is a “global agreement,” a “collective bargain” which China, India, the United States, and Europe all recognize is in “their national interest.”
If Tony Blair is right that in the early twenty-first century the war against jihadism is the defining struggle between the West and the rest, he is wrong about the defining battle within the West, which John Paul II defined as the contest between a “culture of life” and a “culture of death” and which Benedict XVI has described as a struggle against the “dictatorship of relativism.” Blair’s otherwise comprehensive account of his ten-year run as prime minister is strangely silent on these issues. There is no account of his government’s support for embryo-destructive stem-cell research, for abortion on demand as a universal human right, for sex-education programs that now require eleven-year-olds to demonstrate familiarity with the use of condoms, or for the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration from patients deemed beyond the reach of medical science.
Alastair Campbell famously said of New Labour, “We don’t do God.” However one might parse what the great spinmeister meant by that glib line, A Journey is notably reticent about religious conviction as either a personal matter or a factor in public life. There is nothing about Blair’s own path from Anglicanism to Catholicism (completed, to be sure, after he left 10 Downing Street), but we are informed that “religion starts with values that are born of a view of humankind,” which curious formulation perhaps explains a later reference to the “inestimable Hans Küng.” The name Rowan Williams does not appear in the book’s index, although Dr. Williams’ appointment as archbishop of Canterbury took place during Blair’s second term and may be seen, in retrospect, as the appointment that put paid to Anglicanism as it has been known for centuries.
George W. Bush, in conversation in the Oval Office in 2008, described the funeral Mass of John Paul II as one of the three most moving and important days of his life; Tony Blair’s spare narrative of what NBC’s Brian Williams called “the human event of a generation” is dominated by recollections of his efforts to avoid being photographed sitting next to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. Blair’s description of New Labour stresses that “progressive” politics should be about strengthening “community”—the notion that “people owed obligations to each other and were social beings, not only individuals out for themselves.” But he betrays no familiarity with Catholic social doctrine, with its balanced emphases on the person and the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. And his concept of religious communities as crucial components of democratic civil society seems largely confined to their being delivery vehicles for social services.
Blair’s recounting of the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, brings into clearest focus the hollowness at the heart of the Britain he helped midwife into being. That this was a crucial moment for Blair personally, and for his premiership, seems evident from the fact that he devotes an entire chapter to the tale. Diana, he writes, was “an icon” who “captured the essence of an era and held it in the palm of her hand.” She was, in the Alastair Campbell / Tony Blair phrase, “the people’s princess.”
And so her state funeral, the prime minister decided, “had to be dignified; it had to be different; it had to be Diana.” What it didn’t have to be, at least by Blair’s account, was Christian, despite its being held in Westminster Abbey, “hard by the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor and the sacring place of the kings of England,” as Evelyn Waugh once wrote. Somehow, according to Blair, “Elton John singing ‘Candle in the Wind’ and doing it rather brilliantly” was “in keeping with Westminster Abbey.” Well, yes, if Westminster Abbey is simply a stage, a shrine to the Real Absence on which any romance may be produced.
There is something rather sad about the fact that Tony Blair, an obviously intelligent man with certain admirable qualities, grasps far less of the truth about Diana, Princess of Wales, than celebrity journalist Tina Brown, whose biography, The Diana Chronicles (2007), shattered a lot of the Diana mythology in which Blair seems stuck like a fly in amber. Yes, as Blair contends, Diana was “hunted down” by the paparazzi and the editors who paid huge sums for pictures of her and her lover, Dodi Fayed. Yes, she was a devoted mother to her two sons, and, yes, her royal husband was a callous, self-absorbed bore of dubious metaphysics and equally dubious morals.
But, as Tina Brown amply demonstrates, Diana was also a wildly ambitious, poorly educated, shallow, and vindictive woman who came close to bringing down the British monarchy in a fit of pique over its unwillingness to integrate her Sloane Ranger style into the royal family. That this woman’s death, however tragic, sent an entire country into a nervous breakdown says something deeply disturbing about the culture of contemporary Britain. That Tony Blair perceived this national crack-up as “a tide that had to be channeled” rather than a nonsense that had to be confronted suggests that he is not quite the Churchillian figure some of his American admirers would like him to be. Imagine Churchill dealing with his fellow Britons in June 1940 the way Blair dealt with his fellow Britons in September 1997, and you can begin to imagine the royal family, led by the heirs of the Nazi-sympathizing duke of Windsor, reverting to speaking German.
This shallowness is of a piece with Blair’s surprisingly superficial view of the West he wishes to defend against jihadists. How is the West to confront the self-destructive cultural malaise of which Blair rightly warns if he can define the West only as a set of political and economic arrangements agreed to on essentially utilitarian grounds?
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the emeritus archbishop of Westminster, makes no pretensions to being an intellectual. But in a 2001 conversation he offered an analysis of the cultural crisis of Tony Blair’s Britain that cuts much deeper into the truth of the matter than the analysis put forward by New Labour. I asked him what his pastoral priorities were in the years he had left as head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. The cardinal responded that he had to “make [John Paul II’s encyclical] Veritatis Splendor come alive” in British public life, “where we have no idea today of absolute moral norms.” In twenty-first-century Britain, Murphy-O’Connor said, “the doable” trumps everything else, especially when it’s a question of “deferring to science” on issues such as stem-cell research.
Tony Blair would claim, with some reason, that he is a man of principle who met John Paul II’s standard for a serious statesman: He was willing to lose his office over something he believed was right. Yet Blair’s tone-deafness to urgent questions of the moral-cultural foundations of democracy suggests that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor perceived the hollowness in the soul of the New Labour project in a way that escaped that project’s progenitor and embodiment.
In the face of old Labour’s bewitchment by Marxist shibboleths and class struggle, and after eighteen years of Tory governance under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, New Labour found a winning electoral formula in its “emphasis, bordering on the religious,” that “what counts” is “what works,” as Tony Blair writes. But New Labour failed to address the cultural crisis of a Britain that had largely come unstuck from its historic Christian foundations. And into the hollow soul of Britain during the Blair years roared any number of demons, such as those that could, with no fear of public retribution, describe the eighty-three-year-old Pope Benedict as a former Nazi who ought to be arrested, on arrival in the United Kingdom, as the central figure in an international criminal conspiracy of child rapists and their abettors.
Given that anti-popery was a crucial ideological component of nation-building in sixteenth-century England, it is not altogether surprising that, 181 years after Wellington’s Catholic Emancipation Act, pope-baiting remains a popular blood sport in the United Kingdom. Previously militant Protestant (think Ian Paisley), a lot of Britain is now militant secularist in character. Even by local standards, however, the torrent of vitriol visited on the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict in the months before the papal visit was astonishing. As The Spectator put it, in a leader published just before Benedict arrived, protests against the papal visit “far exceed[ed] those that greet the state visits of blood-drenched dictators.” But, then, blood-drenched dictators don’t embody all that Britain’s Christophobic high culture loathes.
The first to garner extensive British media attention prior to the pope’s visit were the paladins of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who, in league with transplanted Australian barrister Geoffrey Robertson, proposed in April that Benedict be clapped in irons on his arrival in Britain and charged with enabling child abuse. That baseless indictment was repeated relentlessly by the chattering classes for the next four months, with the BBC and other media outlets serving as a tax-supported megaphone for calumny. Three days before Benedict landed in Scotland, Channel 4 aired an hour-long “documentary” in which British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell claimed that Catholic teaching on artificial contraception is a prominent factor in global poverty, that Catholic teaching on the appropriate ways to combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS has caused untold deaths, that Catholic teachings against embryo-destructive stem-cell research are cruel and “dogmatic,” and, of course, that the Catholic Church is a global criminal conspiracy of child abusers. (As Scottish bishop Philip Tartaglia pointed out, Tatchell’s ignorance of the facts about poverty, AIDS prevention, and the curative possibilities of stem-cell research is matched by a certain implausibility in his self-presentation as a defender of the innocence of the young: In a 1986 book, Tatchell, a campaigner for lowering the age of consent, argued that “not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive, and harmful.”)
A few days earlier, Geoffrey Robertson added to Britain’s fund of ignorance about the Catholic Church by claiming, in a lecture at the London School of Economics, that the Holy See (which was involved in diplomatic exchange centuries before the United Kingdom existed) ought not to enjoy the privileges of sovereignty, which have functioned as a blind behind which criminal popes have evaded the reach of domestic and international law. (Mr. Robertson, his eyes on what he imagines to be the Croesus-like wealth of the Vatican, is hard at work trying to bring the joys of American liability law into the British legal system.)
The pile-on continued in the op-ed pages, with The Independent ’s Julie Burchill bawling that “a Church which rails against abortion and then spends decades covering up the most appalling degree of child abuse obviously has no problem with holding two opposing ideas at once.” But, wrote Burchill, “at least the opposition to termination now makes perfect sense, with hindsight. All those unborn children that could have been molested—what a waste!” Three days later, fifty prominent British intellectuals and writers published a joint statement in The Guardian insisting that “Pope Ratzinger should not be given the honor of a state visit” to Britain because “the organization of which he is head has been responsible for opposing the distribution of condoms and so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of AIDS; promoting segregated education; denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women; opposing equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender people; [and] failing to address the many cases of abuse of children within its own organization.” Then, having acknowledged in their preamble that the pope is a “head of state,” the signatories rejected “the masquerading of the Holy See as a state and the pope as a head of state as merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican.”
The secularists’ anti-Benedictine campaign was given tacit support by the feckless British Catholic left. A former Blair counselor and former public-affairs adviser at the archdiocese of Westminster, Sir Stephen Wall, took to the op-ed page of the Financial Times to propose that the “demonstrations of hostility” that would greet the pope had “everything to do with opposition to the Roman Catholic Church as a political entity,” by which Wall meant a community that had not bent its moral teaching to the prevailing sentiments of the chattering classes. For the Church to regain a foothold in the West, Sir Stephen wrote, it must recognize that “individuals have their own values” and that a “changing moral code is a normal part of social evolution.”
There was some pushback to this torrent of disinformation, slander, and deep theological confusion. One Guardian journalist, albeit unnamed, told his paper’s ombudsman that his colleagues had “an instinctive hostility to religion” that led them to “stroke our readers’ prejudices and reinforce them. . . . Over the last five to ten years we have adopted a pompous, self-satisfied triumphalism.” The redoubtable David Quinn, a hardy campaigner against the secularist wave washing over Ireland, made a telling comparison in the Irish Independent:
BBC 2 last week ran an interview with former Conservative politician Chris Patten, who is helping to oversee the arrangements for the imminent visit of the pope to Britain. The interviewer treated the strident objections to the visit as perfectly reasonable and understandable. Patten did his considerable best to answer. The very next item covered the objection of a majority of Americans to the building of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero in New York. These objections were treated by the reporter as manifestations of “Islamophobia.” [Thus] criticisms of Catholicism, no matter how extreme, are now treated as mainstream and acceptable, but criticisms of Islam are seen as indications of bigotry.
A week before the pope arrived, Edinburgh’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien unloaded on the BBC, charging it with an “institutional bias” against Christianity and describing the forthcoming “documentary” as a “hatchet job.” But no such broadsides issued from the Archbishop’s House in Westminster, which seemed more concerned with distancing Archbishop Vincent Nichols from the comments of an archdiocesan staffer who described Britain to the Zenit news agency as “the geopolitical epicenter of the culture of death” and a country beset by an “ever increasing commercialization of sex”—sharply stated judgments, to be sure, but not substantively different from the pro-life advocacy of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor during his years in Westminster.
Sir Stephen Wall warned that, given Benedict’s intransigent “conservatism,” the papal visit would see the pontiff “whistle into a wind that threatens to blow him, in the U.K. at least, into irrelevance if not ignominy.” A week later, at the pope’s departure, Prime Minister David Cameron described the papal pilgrimage as an “incredibly moving four days” and thanked the pope for raising “searching questions” that challenged “the whole country to sit up and think.” The winds of irrelevance and ignominy, it seemed, had blown in a direction other than that taken by the popemobile.
From September 16 through September 19, the numbers of those gathered to see the pope, pray with him, and listen to him were consistently higher than predicted. Lining the streets of Edinburgh to cheer Benedict XVI on September 16 were 125,000 people, and while a combination of aggressive governmental security measures and inept work by Catholic trip planners made getting to the papal venues difficult, hundreds of thousands greeted the pope in London, and some 80,000 attended an evening vigil in Hyde Park on September 18. (London antipapal activists claimed to have turned out 20,000 protesters that afternoon; the police estimated their number at 2,000.)
Anger was the dominant emotion prior to Benedict’s arrival. But, as Bishop Tartaglia put it, the pope’s “grace and intelligence” changed the atmosphere among those willing to maintain an open mind and encouraged all those Catholics whom the secularists (and self-marginalizing Catholics such as Stephen Wall) had written off as relics of a lost past. Good humor, even amid long waits at papal venues, prevailed—as did the British taste for curious expressions of affection: One poster spotted as Benedict entered Crofton Park in Birmingham for the beatification of John Henry Newman read, “We [heart] Papa More Than Beans on Toast.”
Benedict intended Newman, who got rather short shrift amid the pre-visit polemics, to be the symbolic centerpiece of history’s second papal pilgrimage to Britain: Newman, who embodied modernity’s quest for religious truth amid skepticism and uncertainty; Newman, revered by both Anglicans and Catholics; Newman, who (like Joseph Ratzinger) had a way of doing theology outside the classic Thomistic channels; Newman, for whom the truth of faith was grasped when heart spoke to heart. Thus, while the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales proposed that the papal visit would be about reaffirming religion’s place in the democratic public square, Benedict XVI (who indeed warned against the dictatorship of relativism and the marginalization of religious voices in democratic public life) focused intently on holiness and friendship with the crucified Lord as his key themes.
In that respect the most winsome of the pope’s addresses was to a gathering of students at Twickenham on September 17; it was linked via television to Catholic schools throughout the country. The pope’s brief remarks were vintage Joseph Ratzinger—over a half century of scholarship distilled into a compelling catechetical message:
It is not often that a pope, or indeed anyone else, has the opportunity to speak to the students of all the Catholics schools of England, Wales, and Scotland. And since I have the chance now, there is something I very much want to say to you. I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness. . . .
When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. . . . Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple—true happiness is to be found in God. . . . As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. . . . You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on your way to becoming saints.
At Westminster Cathedral the next day, Benedict addressed the sin and crime of sexual abuse in its appropriate context: as an evil that can be overcome by the power of the Cross. Directing the congregation’s attention to “the great crucifix dominating the [cathedral’s] nave, which portrays Christ’s body, crushed by suffering, overwhelmed by sorrow, the innocent victim whose death has reconciled us with the Father and given us a share in the very life of God,” the pope proposed that it was here that we find the courage to address “the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers.”
And address it Benedict did, bluntly: “I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace” to broken lives. Acknowledging the “shame and humiliation” felt by serious Catholics because of the scandal of abuse and episcopal malfeasance, Benedict asked that the Church offer that shame and humiliation “to the Lord with trust that this chastisement will contribute to the healing of the victims, the unification of the Church, and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people.”
That afternoon, Benedict addressed the political and cultural leaders of Britain in historic Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster and, as he reminded his audience, the place where St. Thomas More was tried (having been abandoned by the British establishment, a point the pope discreetly omitted). Here, Benedict put a crucial question on the table: What are the moral foundations of democracy, and of the democratic commitment to civility, tolerance, and the rule of law? Can there in fact be democracy “if the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus?” Would this not lead to a condition of “fragility” that could, in time, lead to democratic crack-up—and either the imposition of a dictatorship of relativism or surrender to another cultural project (such as that of militant Islam) with a very different view of the political future?
The pope continued with a plea for reason and reason’s role in understanding the irreducible moral dimension of public policy. While warning against “distortions of religion [that] arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion,” Benedict nonetheless proposed that people of faith can, with the aid of revealed truth, “help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles” for the guidance of public policy. Faith and reason, he concluded, “need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”*
It was likely an accident, but it was not without poignancy that, on this sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Benedict reminded those praying in Hyde Park, the night before Newman’s beatification, about the opposite of cheap grace. Newman’s life teaches us, the pope said, “that passion for truth, intellectual honesty, and genuine conversion are costly.” Moreover, Benedict noted, “Newman reminds us that . . . we are created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our human aspirations.” It was a pointed, if tacit, rebuke to a political culture that, as Tony Blair puts it in his memoirs, places an “emphasis, bordering on the religious,” on the notion that what counts is what works.
Shortly before the pope arrived in Scotland, the choice before the Catholic Church in Britain was made unmistakably clear in a single story in The Scotsman. In it, Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell and Bishop Philip Tartaglia of Paisley were interviewed. The impact of the papal visit wouldn’t be “great,” Bishop Devine said, because “we have known Benedict XVI for a very long time, or at least the clergy have. . . . [So] I don’t anticipate that [the visit] will have a long, lasting effect. No, I don’t think so.”
Bishop Tartaglia, a man of a different generation and a different ecclesial sensibility, had a strikingly different prognosis:
Let me tell you that with this pope there will be no lack of insightful, encouraging, and challenging reflections on the Christian message and the condition of humanity today, and I think this will help Catholics and other Christians and people of faith and goodwill understand better the period of history they are living in, in which faith is not the default position of society, when parliament enacts laws which stand Christian conviction on its head, when fundamental teachings on the sanctity of human life and the nature of marriage are not just rejected but actually considered subversive in our liberal society.
Thus the choice that the remarkable success of Benedict’s pilgrimage to Great Britain has put before British Catholics: on the one hand, institutional maintenance amid downsizing, with a modest place in the public square being accepted as recompense for not being too pushy on “Those Issues”; on the other hand, evangelical Catholicism, unapologetically and persuasively offering friendship with Jesus Christ and proclaiming the truths that can be known by reason as essential to sustaining free and virtuous societies capable of defending their democratic commitments.
How that choice is made will depend a great deal on the quality of bishops that Benedict XVI appoints in the United Kingdom in the immediate future. As one lucid observer put it in the aftermath of the papal visit, “The British hierarchy didn’t do much wrong on this visit, but they did contain their enthusiasm until the secular press declared it a success, and then they joined in.” Five days after Benedict left, Archbishop Nichols of Westminster reflected on the visit in an article in L’Osservatore Romano and suggested that the thread uniting the pope’s various talks was that “faith in God plays an important role in modern pluralist societies.” That role should be played, the archbishop continued, with sensitivity, openness, and courtesy. All of this, he concluded, amounted to a “new agenda” for the Church in Great Britain.
Unobjectionable if not inspired, one might say. But Archbishop Nichols’ summary did seem to underplay several of the points that Benedict stressed in Britain. The first was the imperative of seeking holiness in truth, and speaking the truth in love. Then, and only then, will the Church’s place at the table of public conversation mean anything. As the pope noted in a pointed comment at a press conference on his plane en route to Britain: “A Church that seeks above all to be attractive is already on the wrong path.” In other words, a Church that takes the edge off the truth it bears will be unattractive evangelically and useless publicly.
And there was that business about cheap grace and costly grace, at the nocturnal vigil before Newman’s beatification: Will the “new agenda” of the British hierarchy include a call to bear the costs of a “passion for truth, intellectual honesty, and genuine conversion”?
That, one might suggest, is the only appropriate strategy in addressing the spiritual hollowness of the Britain Tony Blair left behind—a Britain whose current cultural crisis is less understood by its former prime minister than by the German pope who thanked the people of the United Kingdom for winning the Battle of Britain.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (Doubleday).
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