Pope Benedict’s Scylla and Charybdis in Britain: the Media and His Own Bishops

So, hands up everyone who thought the papal visit to Britain, set for September 16, was going to be a smash success; a revelation of the orderliness, devotion and unity of British Catholicism, and of the dedication of the secular media to cool, even-handed objectivity.

Anyone? … Bueller?

Watching the cringeworthy festival of pre-visit idiocy bursting out of Britain, both secular and ecclesiastical, has been a lesson for many in just how deeply the elite British institution hates and fears the traditional Christian mores and the world’s last unequivocal upholder of them – the Catholic Church. The media, to no one’s surprise, has let out all the stops and has abandoned even its normal thin pretense of objectivity, while the local Church has responded with a ringing silence, if not open agreement, to the increasingly personal attacks on Benedict XVI and his goals.

A small sample will illustrate. The Independent, a publication not widely praised for its total devotion to factual accuracy in religious matters, today ran the headline “Pope chooses rap song as soundtrack for his UK visit.” The pope, writes Jerome Taylor, the paper’s religious affairs correspondent, is “a liturgical traditionalist who is known to favour the Latin mass with all its ancient trimmings. But when it comes to finding a song that will appeal to young worshippers, the Pope has opted for rap.”

This is demonstrated to be a lie in the next sentence, in which Taylor comes clean, saying, “The committee overseeing Pope Benedict’s itinerary in Britain next week announced today that they have chosen a hip-hop track to be the official ‘youth anthem’ for his three day visit.” So it was not, in fact, the pope – who has had almost no personal say in the arrangements in Britain – who is betraying his own deeply-held aesthetic sensibilities, but the organizing committee in Westminster who have an axe to grind against Benedict’s reforms in liturgy and doctrine.

Here is a nutshell example of the Scylla and Charybdis Benedict must navigate between in Britain: a brazenly mendacious and viciously anti-Catholic British secular media on one side, and on the other, obstructionist “Magic Circle” Church officials who will cling, to their last breath, to the now-institutionalized liturgical and social revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.

A formal tenet of the worldview of these greying ecclesiastical hipsters is that “the youth” will not be interested in religion unless it is accompanied by the heavily amplified “latest sound.” This, despite the evidence of young people around the world flocking to the traditional Latin Mass, breaking down the doors of classes in Gregorian chant and polyphony and besieging seminaries and convents where these cultural treasures are preserved. Meanwhile, the British secular media will do anything, including make things up, to make Benedict look like a hypocrite.

Both sides, which in peacetime amuse themselves by sniping at each other, have joined, according to their respective talents, to derail the first formal state visit by a Roman Pontiff to Britain. A historic moment it will be, certainly.

Some small efforts are being made – not by the bishops – to form a united Catholic response to these kinds of attacks, but their effectiveness is likely to be negligible. In a surprisingly candid admission, a piece in the Guardian says the deck is already stacked against such efforts. Paul Donovan wrote, “The media may not want to hear” from such groups. “It is good copy to get the most outrageous Catholic voices who can be found on issues such as abortion, civil partnerships and child abuse.”

“Many in the media are not interested in a rational voice from the Catholic church – it’s not good box office.”


Since August, we have had a set of “documentary” hit pieces against religious belief from the independent television station Channel 4 featuring Richard Dawkins. In the programs, titled “Enemies of Reason,” and “Faith School Menace?” Dawkins, with his usual devotion to careful distinctions, has lumped all “religion” together, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and thrown in New Age beliefs with “Spiritualism,” the pursuit of séances and spooks. Unsurprisingly, all is judged to be nonsense at best, and a grave threat to the well-being of children and society at worst.

But aside from the obvious external attacks, Benedict will be facing even greater problems inside.

The Guardian has asked: “Is Pope Benedict’s media team up to the challenge?” It’s a good question. The Holy See Press Office, run by the invincible Fr. Frederico Lombardi, has not had the greatest track record of smooth responses, even to the direct questions even of those relatively unhostile members of the press who are allowed to accompany the pope on his trips abroad. How can we forget Father’s glacially cool response to the assertion by a media type that the young Joseph Ratzinger had once been pressed into membership in the Hitler Youth? Is a man given to such histrionics ready to defend the pope from the onslaught of the slavering British media?

In the lead-up to the visit, the Bishops of England and Wales have been accused, in part by their own priests, of doing nearly nothing to defend or promote Benedict and his program to the faithful, apart from asking for money. Back in June, Fr. Ray Blake, a parish priest in Brighton and the second most popular priestly blogger in Britain, said, after sending around collection envelopes: “That is all we have heard from Eccleston Square.”

“The exam season is underway, so there will be little possibility of much preparation or catechesis in our schools. The holiday season is beginning, so people are already starting to go away on holiday, parishes are winding down. The high point of the visit is the beatification of [John Henry Cardinal] Newman, so far nothing has been issued to encourage an English cultus or even knowledge of the great theologian.”

“The rest has been left to Tatchell, Dawkins and Hitchens…”

The depressing thing, the really disappointing thing, is the sheer childishness of it all. While he is striving to restore moral sanity, and the Christian culture of Western Europe; while he is facing down threats – and his priests, bishops and nuns being murdered – in the Islamic world for suggesting that reason ought to be the guiding principle of religious and secular culture; while he is battling his own bishops on the continent to stop homosexuals and other unstable characters being let into the priesthood; and while more revelations of institutionalized homosexual abuse come to light, Benedict has been left to fight alone.

John Smeaton, a devout Catholic and the head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said in a phone call today that he has striven to break through the tangle of PR talk coming from the official administration and alert the competent grown-ups in Rome about the true situation of Britain.

At least one of these grown-ups is listening. In response to the plans for the papal liturgies, Monsignor Guido Marini, Papal Master of Ceremonies, has at least set a limit on the usual “progressivist” fare of dancing girls and pop musicians. Marini told Scotland’s Herald newspaper that Pope Benedict will celebrate the major parts of all his Masses in Latin, “to emphasise the universality of the faith and the continuity of the Church.”

But Smeaton was referring more specifically to a statement from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster. Now rumored to be in the running for a red hat in November, Nichols said through a spokesman last week that he is not in agreement with comments by one of his officials, Edmund Adamus, that Britain is the “geopolitical epicentre of the Culture of Death.”

Even more outrageously, Nichols’s colleague, Bishop Keiran Conry of Arundel and Brighton, told the Guardian, “Pope Benedict is coming to a country where Catholicism is unusually stable, cohesive and vibrant enough in the current overall context of decline of interest in the church in Western Europe.” Pope Benedict, he said, “may well be relieved to be coming to a place where, unlike some of his other recent trips, there are no big problems for him to sort out.”

Smeaton said, “If the pope were listening to Archbishop Nichols, if he were to believe a word of what Nichols said, there would be no point in his coming.

“It is essential that the pope is made aware” that what Nichols and other members of the British hierarchy have said about Britain is totally untrue.”

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