Well! It's been a week of celebrations for Pope Benedict: he was 82 on Thursday and today is his fourth anniversary as Pontiff. Not everyone's celebrating. Our first Big Question is: "Is this Pope a liability?"The show kicked off unambiguously; very first comment was from Sir Stephen Wall, former diplomat, Private Secretary to John Major, and EU Advisor to Tony Blair. From June 2004 to June 2005 he was Principal Advisor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor.
Campbell: Sir Stephen Wall, is this Pope a liability?Sir Stephen also referred to the Holy Father's comments to the Roman Curia last December in which he said that the rain forests deserved our protection but that man does not deserve it less, that it is not an outdated metaphysics to speak of the nature of the human being as man and woman and that we should respect the natural order.
Sir Stephen: Yes, I think he is.
Sir Stephen said that the Holy Father's comments appeared to suggest that homosexuality was a bigger threat to the world than climate change and that they looked "plain loopy." Campbell said sardonically "I get the impression you've lapsed" to which Sir Stephen replied that he had, recently. In December 2007 Sir Stephen wrote an article called "Render Unto Caesar" in which he defended a Catholic politician who "chose to exercise his own conscience and political judgement on the issue of abortion", attacked the Church's teaching on IVF (in this case for homosexual couples), and questioned the Church's opposition to adoption by gay couples. He said:
The Church portrays itself as the victim of an aggressive secularism. It looks to me, rather, as if the Church is itself in danger of adopting an aggressive fundamentalism and that the secular societies it excoriates demonstrate a tolerance that is often closer to the ideal of Christian charity.and concluded with stuff about the window of fresh air from Vatican II being prised open again. The article was published in..., let me think..., uhm..., where was it now..., errm..., Oh yes! - The Tablet.
On the main panel, there was also Christina Rees, member of the General Synod of the Church of England and Chair of WATCH (Women and the Church) which campaigns for women bishops. She said that the Pope was an intelligent man and that he had knowingly offended huge groups of people, adding that Jesus Christ stood for love, compassion and forgiveness and,
I do not see this Pope walking in the steps of a humble, forgiving, compassionate leader.She must liven things up at her local "Churches Together" meetings!
In the audience, one featured guest was a lesbian christian gay rights campaigner who said of the Holy Father
"He causes immense amounts of pain and in some instances unfortunately death."In the course of her comments about the oppression of women, she seemed not to understand that the transition from women being property to the institution of christian marriage a) came out of traditional christian moral teaching and b) rather fatally undermined both her principles and her professed lifestyle.
As usual with such programmes, the prejudices of the black legend as well as recent examples of media-hyped outrage were thrown around promiscuously at various intervals (conquistadors, Galileo, Bishop Williamson, Good Friday prayer, etc. although I was sorry that nobody found an opportunity to mention the Spanish Inquisition.)
In this arena, James Preece put up a good show. Patrick Dixon, "Management Guru" had raised the question about a Catholic married couple, one of whom was infected with HIV: "How are they supposed to conduct themselves unless they are able to use a condom."
James (introduced as "Catholic blogger") asked whether promoting the safety of a gun with only one bullet in the chamber was a better approach than not using the gun at all - the campaigner told him he was "talking absolute nonsense" and James managed to get his voice heard over the hubbub to say "So you're saying from a medical point of view it's impossible not to have sex?" Later, during a particularly infuriating series of allegations about Pope Benedict and what he had "said about the Jews" James managed to ask pertinently "What has the Pope said about the Jews?" to which the feeble response was that it is "how he comes across". Towards the end, he also got in to speak about sacrifice as the language of love, and how the Pope is willing to be as unpopular as Christ.
Peter Jennings also got some good points across, and Conservative MP David Davis made a few more moderate noises but by and large the programme was an onslaught on Pope Benedict, given the flimsiest possible appearance of "balance" by a heavily outnumbered Catholic presence in the audience.
Sir Stephen was given the last word. After he said that in his view the secular society shows more christian charity than the Pope (a line that earned him enthusiastic studio applause) he was dolled up an easy final question:
Campbell: When he's having breakfast on his gold-rimmed plates with the personal seal on in his rooms, and in the afternoon apparently he spends a long time reading academic tomes, what do you think he should be thinking hard about right now?It is rather ironic that much hot air was given in the programme to the notion that the Pope has "bad advisors" when some of the most vehement anti-papal rhetoric came from a former Principal Advisor to the Archbishop of Westminster. I'm sure we all piously hope that the choice of an advisor like this can be avoided in the future.
Sir Stephen: I think he should be thinking hard, particularly in the Western world, why is it that the Catholic Church is losing supporters, why is it losing men and women, and why shouldn't it in those circumstances examine some of the things it talks about and actually see whether after all, they are right? It's no good simply saying this is the man who is the successor of St Peter; he's a man who is elected by a bunch of Cardinals.
There was also a new tactic employed, that of contrasting Pope Benedict with Pope John Paul II. Several times Pope John Paul was referred to positively - as a respected figure, a holy man - unlike Pope Benedict, presumably. Therefore let me offer a brief reminder of some of the coverage of Pope John Paul's death:
Not in my name (by Polly Toynbee)
"How dare Tony Blair genuflect on our behalf before the corpse of a man whose edicts killed millions?"
The Pope has blood on his hands (by Terry Eagleton)
"The Pope did great damage to the church, and to countless Catholics."
Well done to James, "Catholic Blogger" for going into this bear pit. Go over to his blog entry and put in some comments on his post The Big Questions.
See also: My heart was Restless: A Catholic blogger defends the Faith