Benedict in Britain


BOB ABERNETHY, host: Another historic event for Pope Benedict XVI this week— his four-day trip (September 16-19) to the United Kingdom, the first official state visit there by any pope. King Henry VIII broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church almost 500 years ago. As Kim Lawton reports, Benedict’s trip has not been without controversy.

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Pope Benedict went to the UK at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the official head of the Church of England. The only other pope to visit Britain was John Paul II, who made what was billed a pastoral pilgrimage in 1982. John Paul was greeted with an outpouring of affection, but Benedict has faced tensions and even outright protest. One major issue is outrage over the clergy sex abuse crisis still swirling across many parts of Europe.

At the beginning of the trip, Benedict admitted the church was “not sufficiently vigilant, quick and decisive to take the necessary measures” to combat the crisis. Another difficult issue is relations between Roman Catholics and the Anglican Communion, whose spiritual head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is based in Britain. Last October, the Vatican made it easier for disaffected Anglicans to become Catholics. A highlight of Benedict’s trip is the beatification of the nineteenth-century scholar and writer Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism.

But perhaps the biggest challenge has been making the case for faith in a nation known for its growing secularism. Throughout the trip, Benedict called for a return to the traditional values and cultural expressions of Christianity.

ABERNETHY: And Kim, this trip to Britain is part of the pope’s overall effort to try to roll back the trend of secularism all over Europe—no easy task.

LAWTON: It’s a big task and one that he’s very concerned about—he has been throughout his papacy. He just created a new department in the Vatican to focus on doing that, and in many ways Britain was a real test case or a real case study about this growing secularism. There was some new polling released with the visit that showed that 60 percent of British people say they never go to church. Forty-two percent say they don’t belong to any religion, and almost 20 percent said they’re sure there is no God. So that was a big task for him, to try to make a case that Christianity and faith are good for society. Now his message that he wanted to transmit faced a lot of challenges, one of which was the sex abuse crisis, and a lot of people were saying maybe his moral authority to make the case for religion being a cause for good was in some way compromised by the sex abuse scandal.

ABERNETHY: And also there’s some fence-mending with the Anglican Communion, isn’t there?

LAWTON: Well, practically since the time of Henry VIII there’s been talk of trying to get Anglicans and Catholics, these two big bodies of Christians, back together, and there are a lot of big issues, and the turmoil within the Anglican Communion over issues like homosexuality has only generated more tension, and so that remains a very big issue for those two Christian groups.

ABERNETHY: Kim, many thanks.