The fuss over Pope Benedict's visit to Britain was a blessing for Catholicism.

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Sept. 20 2010 8:45 PM

A Commercial for Religious Freedom

The fuss over Pope Benedict's visit to Britain was a blessing for Catholicism.

ope Benedict XVI introduces British Prime Minister David Cameron to members of the clergy. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI introduces British Prime Minister David Cameron to members of the clergy.

LONDON—"In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him." Thus did Claire Rayner, a British journalist, novelist, former advice columnist, and professional campaigner-for-worthy-causes greet news of the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom.

Others were more welcoming. Because this was the first papal state visit to Britain, Benedict had a friendly chat with the queen, shook hands with the prime minister, and prayed with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He said mass in Hyde Park and beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century convert from Anglicanism. It was the first beatification to take place in England.

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Yet Rayner's reaction to him was, at least in some circles, more typical. One prominent left-wing pundit lumped the pope together with the Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Quran. Another accused Benedict of manipulating Newman to "serve his own autocratic, homophobic leadership." Others called for protests—against pedophilic priests, against sexual discrimination, against religion itself. The phrase "aging theocrat" was bandied about quite a bit.

So vicious were the attacks in the run-up to the visit, in fact, that there was talk of cancellation. One Vatican official grumbled publicly about the "aggressive new atheism" in Britain, a country where all religions except Christianity are protected. Whatever your view of the pope, you can see his point: It is certainly hard to imagine liberal British pundits using words like disgusting and repellent about a prominent foreign Jewish or Muslim religious leader, particularly one who was to have tea with the queen and whose visit was intended to honor an Englishman. He wasn't there to instigate violence or terrorism, after all. (Though some of his opponents seemed to be making a case for assassination: What did Rayner mean when she said we should "get rid of him"?)

On the other hand, it is even harder to imagine many other foreign religious leaders receiving so much air time, or having their views so expertly dissected. Because the pope was attacked so furiously, his defenders were given acres of newspaper space—if nothing else, the British press knows that a two-way controversy is always more interesting—and multiple slots on talk shows. Some environmentalists discovered Benedict's little-known views on global warming. (He's worried about it.) Some atheists decried the "intolerance" of other atheists. Accounts of Cardinal Newman's life and teachings appeared everywhere.

Competitive politics also played a role: Since the nastiest attacks on the pope came from the left, the Conservative Party became interested in the case for the defense. A Cabinet minister called a Catholic journalist of my acquaintance and asked to be taken point-by-point through the Humanae Vitae, a previous pope's encyclical on birth control. The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, publicly thanked the pope for making Britain "sit up and think" and said it had been "an incredibly moving four days for our country."

All in all, it was a huge success. But had he been treated politely from the start, I suspect the pope would have come and gone and left no trace. The vast majority of Britons are not Catholic, and they would have tuned out deferential accounts of his sermons. The press would have relegated the whole thing to the religion section. Perhaps the faithful would still have come to Mass, though maybe not so many. In the end, around 500,000 people probably saw him during his visit, which is quite a lot in a country composed largely of pagans and Protestants.

And thus did Benedict's visit to Britain turn into an advertisement for religious freedom—both the freedom to abhor religion and the freedom to practice it. Much to everyone's surprise, including the Vatican's, raucous discussion of Catholicism turned out to be good for Catholicism—and interesting for atheists, too. The true aging theocrats—in Saudi Arabia, in Iran—should take note.

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