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Sunday 19 September 2010

German shepherd softens bark of self-appointed watchdogs

Pope-mania in Britain has triumphed over the rhetoric of aggressive secularism, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I'VE always rather liked Cardinal Ratzinger, and indeed rooted for him to be pope, and as Pope Benedict XVI, he has seemed to me to be an intelligent, thoughtful man doing his best in a nest of Vatican careerists, obscurantists and vipers. But it was the sneering, bullying secularists that made me want his visit to Britain to be a big success.

Led by Stephen Fry, Top Sneerer, and Richard Dawkins, Top Bully, their shrill bigotry makes me embarrassed to be an atheist. Their fellow in anti-papal protests, the gay activist Peter Tatchell, wrote and presented on Channel 4 The Trouble with the Pope -- an absurdly biased documentary, which exhibited a startling ignorance of even the basics of Roman Catholicism.

Speaking of bigotry, our little island made its contribution last week. The politicians lined up to meet the Pope in Scotland did not include the Northern Ireland first and deputy first ministers. Peter Robinson wasn't going to be seen with the Pope and Martin McGuinness wasn't going to be seen with the queen. Paisley turned up to protest for old time's sake and to get a bit of attention.

I had low expectations of the visit. The Catholic hierarchy in Britain is mealy-mouthed and uninspiring, and the organisation of the visit was so shambolic that Catholics were in despair, tickets were going unsold and the fear was that the visit would be met with a yawn. But as I write on Saturday afternoon, the general view is that it has been a triumph. And the credit goes to the Pope.

The English bishops hate controversy, and were terrified that he might say something that would offend, but Benedict believes in plain speaking and in taking on what he regards as the evils of the age. He came on a crusade against militant secularism and moral relativism and his speeches were his own. And he proved to be more in tune with the general public than the religious and political establishment -- who want a pope who thinks like a leader writer on Guardian or The Irish Times.

Insofar as they cared at all, the British public had not bought the line that Pope Benedict was some kind of homophobic Nazi paedophile. It's not lost on your average Joe that the left regard Christianity as fair game while largely giving Islam a free pass. They might regard the Pope as being old-fashioned on such matters as women priests and civil ceremonies, but they are also aware that no one seems to be making much fuss about Islamic radicals treating women as serfs and calling for gays to be thrown off cliffs. Child abuse, though, was well-embedded in the national consciousness as a nasty Catholic scandal.

The Pope had a few lucky breaks, including good weather and a dull period for news, so, crucially, observing tens of thousands of cheering crowds in Scotland, the tabloids decided to make him a lovable celeb.

The Sun covered the "Papa Ratzi UK tour 2010", with the news that the pope wore "funky red shoes" and the Daily Mirror named him "Pope Idol", while the Daily Star claimed that Britain was in the grip of "Pope-mania". His modest, gentle, shy persona and soft Bavarian accent is proving unexpectedly endearing on television

and except in liberal circles, there was enthusiasm for his call to the people of the UK to maintain respect for traditional values and to remember "how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society."

While the religious ceremonies have been magnificent in their pomp and circumstance, it is the speeches that have filled a void in British public discourse.

To public representatives in Westminster Hall, in front of many of those he would regard as responsible, he unequivocally condemned "the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity".

He has a lot of the metropolitan elite spluttering at this passage: "If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident."

That's spot-on, Your Holiness. You've got a vital argument going.

The eloquence of the apology over child abuse yesterday morning in Westminster Cathedral has taken a major plank out of the opposition's platform.

And while I don't know how much of his speech to the thousands of young people outside Westminster Cathedral they took in, they like him and they are taking on what has become the catch-phrase of the visit: "Heart speaks unto heart" (a translation of 'Cor ad Cor Loquitur', the Latin motto chosen by John Henry Newman -- whom the pope beatifies today -- when he was made a cardinal.) One placard read: "We love our German Shepherd".

Nyaa nyaa nyaa, Fry, Dawkins and Tatchell.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards