Editorial - Welcome, Benedict. A lot of us aren't fans, but we're always up for a kick-around

17th September 2010 at 01:00

We've had less contentious guests. The Pope arrived in Britain yesterday to a lot of noise: Ian Paisley was due to heckle and Susan Boyle to sing. But polls suggested that three-quarters of the population would ignore his visit and that he was less well known than Fabio Capello. On the other hand, he outscored the Archbishop of Canterbury in the recognition stakes, which isn't bad considering the opposing team has had possession of the ball for almost 500 years.

Catholic schools are understandably excited by Benedict XVI's visit. But Catholics as a whole seem anxious. Almost 60 per cent of them thought their church wasn't "generally valued" in British society, according to a BBC poll. This is despite their large footprint in education - 10 per cent of all schools in the UK are Catholic and they generally enjoy a good reputation. While their overall performance can be exaggerated, so is their alleged exclusivity - the proportion of pupils on free school meals mirrors the national average; they exclude marginally fewer pupils and educate proportionally more from ethnic minorities.

Many parents say they prefer Catholic education because they want their children to benefit from a Christian ethos. The Pope believes the whole country could benefit from the same thing. The Vatican hopes Benedict's visit will kick-start a revival of spiritual values in a country it thinks has lost them. Some clergy compare his mission to that of St Augustine's to the pagan Britons in the 6th century, which is a tad harsh - St Augustine had it easy. Then the natives were receptive. Today, according to yet another poll, 70 per cent disagree with the Pope's position on homosexuality, 72 per cent on women priests, 73 per cent on abortion, 79 per cent on contraception, and a whopping 83 per cent think the church has been "dishonest" over the abuse of children in its care. Mass conversions seem as likely as a welcome hug from Dr Paisley.

The Vatican isn't fazed. "We think in centuries," said one cleric, which no one disputes, though there might be some disagreement about which century we all think we're on at the moment. But while the church's patience isn't in doubt, its claim to moral superiority is. Its problem isn't so much atheists like Richard Dawkins exploding "creation myths", but average punters deciding that the "wasteland of secularism" isn't as denuded of values as the Pope imagines and can seem far more generous, tolerant and, well, moral, than his church. It isn't so much the "God" battle as the "good" battle, with the visitors trailing three nil at half time.

That said, complacent secular societies surely only benefit from robust challenges to their assumptions. Contrary to reports in The Guardian, the devil doesn't have all the best tunes. Principled argument never did anyone any harm. So in that spirit: Welcome, Benedict - and do feel free to take a complimentary bathrobe when you leave.


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