Pope takes on ‘aggressive atheism’ in first speech

16 September 2010

by Ed Thornton

POPE BENEDICT XVI began his four-day visit to Scotland and England on Thursday with a plea to the British to remember their Christian heritage. The speech also included a robust attack on “aggressive secularism”.

Responding to the Queen’s welcome at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, the Pope said: “May all Britons continue to live by the values of honesty, respect and fair-mindedness that have won them the esteem and admiration of many.

“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.  In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.

“Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.”

The Pope celebrated great British Christians, naming William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, Florence Nightingale, and John Henry Newman. “These, and many people like them, were inspired by a deep faith born and nurtured in these islands.”

And he tackled head-on the awkwardness of his own German origins: “Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.  As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Edinburgh to greet the Pope on his arrival. There will be a more fulsome greeting in London today, when the Pope travels to Lambeth Palace.  

After celebrating a private mass in the chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature, in Wimbledon, early this morning, the Pope will visit St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, where he will pray in the college’s chapel with representatives of religious congregations. He will then join schoolchildren and students in the college’s sports arena to in­augurate the John Paul II Institute for Sport.   

The “fraternal visit” to Dr Williams takes place this afternoon, when the Pope will travel to Lambeth Palace. Both he and the Archbishop of Canterbury will give speeches to the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in attendance. 

Pope Benedict will leave Lambeth Palace in his Popemobile, cross Lambeth Bridge, and travel up Millbank to the Palace of Westminster, where he will address politicians and “leaders of civil society” in Westminster Hall.   

At a press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Tuesday, the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, said he expected the Pope’s speech would “pay tribute to the richness of the traditions in this country, many of which are embodied in Westminster Hall”. He is also likely to “explore the role of religious faith in democratic societies”.  

From Westminster Hall, the Pope is scheduled to cross Parliament Square to Westminster Abbey for a celeb­ration of evening prayer, at which both he and Dr Williams will speak. The programme allows the Pope time to pause at the spot where Thomas More was sentenced to death, in 1535, for refusing to accept the royal supremacy. Then, along with Dr Williams, he will pray at the tomb of Edward the Confessor.  

Tomorrow morning, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and the Leader of the Opposition, Harriet Harman, will make separate courtesy calls to the Pope at Archbishop’s House in Westminster. Archbishop Nichols said that the recent death of Mr Cameron’s father would be “uppermost in the Pope’s mind. . . He will be praying for the family at their time of grief.”  

The Pope is then scheduled to celebrate mass at Westminster Cathedral, where he will greet an expected 2500 young people in the cathedral’s piazza. After a visit to St Peter’s Residence for Older People, Vauxhall, the Pope will attend a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, on the eve of the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, to which nearly 80,000 are expected.  


On Sunday, the final day of the visit, Pope Benedict will depart from London by helicopter for Birmingham, where he will beatify Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park.   

The beatification ceremony will be followed by a private visit to the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Edgbaston, founded by Cardinal Newman, and a meeting at the chapel of Oscott College with the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Scotland, and Wales. There will be a short departure ceremony at Birmingham International Airport, from where the Pope will fly back to Rome early on Sunday evening.  

Responding to predictions of poor attendance, Archbishop Nichols said he expected more than 50,000 people to attend the beatification. “The Catholic tradition is one of very profound loyalty to the person of the Holy Father,” he said. “I am quite sure that Catholics are looking forward to the visit very much indeed, and Catholics know what it is to show their support for Pope Benedict.”

He regretted, however, that the increased security for the visit would make it difficult for Roman Catholics to decide spontaneously to attend events. Participants were able to attend the public events only in a parish group, each of which would have a “pilgrim leader” who could vouch for them. A “pilgrim pass” is required to gain admission, and at all pastoral events parish groups have been advised to arrive several hours before the Pope appears.  

Protests continued in the run-up to the papal visit this week, fuelled by new revelations of child abuse in Roman Catholic churches in Belgium, and a report suggesting that more than half of the clergy jailed for child abuse in England and Wales were still in the priesthood.  

A group of public figures, among them Stephen Fry, A. C. Grayling, Philip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett, wrote a letter to The Guardian, published on Wednesday, saying: “Pope Ratzinger should not be given the honour of a state visit to this country.” Among the complaints was that, as a state leader, the Pope had op­posed the distribution of condoms in poor countries affected by HIV/ AIDS, promoted “segregated education”, and opposed equal rights for gay people.   

“We reject the masquerading of the Holy See as a state, and the Pope as a head of state, as merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican.”   

A protest organised by the Protest the Pope Campaign, a coalition that includes Peter Tatchell, the human-rights activist, and the British Humanist Association, is scheduled to take place on Saturday afternoon, assembling in Hyde Park Corner and ending with a rally opposite Downing Street.   


Mr Tatchell said that the campaign was calling on the Government to dissociate itself from the Pope’s position on issues such as women’s rights, sex equality, and stem-cell research. “On these and many other issues, Benedict is out of step with the majority of British people, including many Catholics.”   

Mr Tatchell also objected that parts of the papal visit were being funded by the taxpayer. “The British Government doesn’t fund visits by the Grand Mufti of Mecca or the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Why should the Pope get privileged financial support?”  

At the press conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this week, Lord Patten, the Prime Minister’s representative for the papal visit, said that it would “cost less than half the cost of the one-day G20 meeting last year”. The contribution Roman Catholic organisations made to society in the form of “education, welfare, and networks of care” meant the “modest expenditure” on the papal visit “should be regarded as prudent”, he said.   

Asked about the news that a delegation from the Free Presbyterian Church, including the Revd Ian Paisley, was due to travel to Scotland to protest at the Pope’s visit, Lord Patten remarked: “Some things never change. . . [Mr Paisley’s] presence will provide a certain symmetry to these events. He was an active onlooker in 1982” during Pope John Paul II’s visit.  

In contrast, the papal visit has been welcomed by the majority of Christian denominations and groups in the UK. Representatives of all the member Churches of Churches Together in England will join the Pope for evening prayer in Westminster Abbey. A statement on Monday hoped that the Church would be “renewed in its witness to the unity and hope which is Christ’s will for all people”.   

A statement released by the Evangelical Alliance this week said: “Christians of all denominations should wholeheartedly welcome this week’s papal visit if they want to protect their right to freely practise their faith in the wake of growing hostility from a small number of influential people promoting a secular agenda.”

See also: reserved welcome in the Midlands; priestly celibacy debate

Follow the Pope’s visit here on the Church Times website. First-hand accounts from Scotland, London, and Birming­ham will appear on the Church Times Blog. Reports so far include:

Follow the Pope’s visit here on the Church Times website. First-hand accounts from Scotland, London, and Birming­ham will appear on the Church Times Blog. Reports so far include:

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)