Controversy around Britain's first papal state visit deepens

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 16, 2010

LONDON - The first state visit by a pope to Britain, a country that unceremoniously broke with the Vatican over Henry VIII's divorce in the 16th century, seemed doomed to controversy from the start. Months before Pope Benedict XVI's scheduled arrival Thursday, a memo making the rounds at the British Foreign Office suggested that he be invited to preside over a same-sex marriage and visit an abortion clinic while in town.

The young diplomats responsible were reprimanded, but the note's mixture of comedy and outrage aptly captures the mood of many Britons as the pope begins a four-day tour here. By visiting this heavily secular nation, Benedict is, to quote the Guardian newspaper, "entering the lions' den."

Various groups - including the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests - have banded together into an alliance dubbed "Protest the Pope" and are set to march Saturday through the streets of London as the German-born pontiff hosts a vigil in Hyde Park. A number of Britons, some with deeply held suspicions of Vatican motives, are also smarting from a campaign launched by Benedict to woo dissident Anglicans angry over the ordination of gay and female clerics. Still more are furious over the $30 million price tag for the trip, largely funded by British taxpayers as is customary for state visits.

On Wednesday, the controversy surrounding the pope's visit deepened when Cardinal Walter Kasper, a senior Vatican aide, pulled out of the trip after a German magazine quoted him as saying that landing at London's Heathrow Airport was like arriving in a "third world country" and that Britain is plagued by a "new and aggressive atheism." Officially, the Vatican said Kasper withdrew from the trip because of a flare-up of gout.

For Benedict, his British trip marks a broader campaign to raise the profile of religion in increasingly secular Europe, as well as to ease outrage over the string of sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests that continue to rock the region from Ireland to Austria. He also appears to be doing something his critics have said he has thus far been reluctant to do: mend fences.

In what is set to be a historic highlight of the trip, Benedict will pray with the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, at Westminster Abbey on Friday. On Sunday, he goes to Birmingham to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who began his calling as an Anglican before being ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Rome in 1847.

The Vatican is dismissing the planned protests. "It is not surprising because these [protests] have happened before," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters in Rome this week. But, he added, in Britain, the issue of protests is "a broader one because in the United Kingdom there are atheist groups, some of them anti-papal in nature, but also this forms part of a plural society like the British one."

The fact that British taxpayers are helping pay for the visit has clouded the issue, said Declan McCarthy, 31, a Catholic who lives in London. "The pope is the pope, and what he does is visit countries where there are Catholics," he said, adding that is especially important in countries where they are a minority.

Benedict, however, appears to be facing an uphill battle to restore the church's battered image in Britain and beyond. This week, for instance, the Catholic Church in Belgium is being taken to task again for its weak response to sex abuse allegations, and a fresh report surfaced in Britain showing that half of the Catholic clergy jailed for pedophilia remain in the priesthood, with many still receiving financial support.

Though many of the faithful have flown in from Ireland and points farther afield for the papal visit, observers say Benedict is unlikely to enjoy the same outpouring of affection that Pope John Paul II received in 1982. Though that trip - the first ever by a pope to Britain - lacked the full pomp of an official state visit, huge numbers, nevertheless, turned out to greet that very popular pope. He earned kudos despite his denunciation of the then-raging Falkland Islands war with Argentina.

This time, organizers are already scaling back turnout estimates for Benedict, who has become a lighting rod among social liberals because of his strict conservative line. With only a few hours to go before he lands, none of his major public events - including the Hyde Park Mass - appeared set to fill to capacity. One poll conducted for the Guardian showed that only 14 percent strongly backed the pope's visit, with a majority of 57 percent angered over the cost of the trip.

"We are not anti-Catholic, just anti-Benedict," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, one of the groups leading the protests this week in London. "Even polls among Britain's 6 million Catholics show they do not support his stance on contraceptives or homosexuality. This pope is quite clearly out of step, and there are a lot of people in Britain who have a beef with him."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company