LONDON // Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide, arrives in Britain tomorrow for a visit overshadowed by controversy. The slew of stories of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests across the globe, plus antagonism between Rome and the protestant Church of England over issues such as female priests, have raised questions about the enthusiasm in Britain for the Pope's four-day visit.
In marked contrast to the adulation that greeted the previous papal visit to the UK in 1982, when Pope John Paul II attracted vast crowds, Pope Benedict will be met by protests, including a march through London organised by a loose-knit group angered by issues ranging from the clerical abuse of children to the £12 million (Dh68m) bill to British taxpayers for the trip. There have also been signs of apathy among Catholics. It emerged last week that the Catholic Church had to give away thousands of tickets to schoolchildren to fill the seats at a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, London, at the weekend. Thousands of places at masses to be celebrated in Glasgow and Birmingham have also not been taken up.
A YouGov poll conducted for ITV, to be broadcast tomorrow evening, will show that, among almost 1,700 British Roman Catholics questioned, 87 per cent felt the abuse scandals had permanently damaged the Church. Last weekend, a smaller poll of 500 Catholics conducted for the BBC found that 52 per cent admitted that their own personal faith in the Church had been shaken by the abuse disclosures. The ITV survey will also show that most British Roman Catholics disagree - often by a huge margin - with their Church's position on basic issues such as contraception, abortion, celibacy among priests and homosexuality.
Yet personal support for Pope Benedict, the leader of the world's largest Christian denomination, remains firm, with 72 per cent saying that he should stay in the post despite the concerns raised by the string of child abuse scandals, the most recent in Belgium. And there are few signs that the conservative Pope will let the liberal waverers influence him on what is only the second visit by a pope to England since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 16th century, and the first such trip to have the formal status of a state visit.
He is expected to criticise what he sees as the increasing secularisation of British society in a keynote speech on Saturday and accuse politicians who support policies such as stem-cell research and assisted suicide of living in a moral vacuum. Controversially, the Pope will also beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a leading intellectual and Church of England priest who converted to Catholicism in 1845. The beatification ceremony, one step towards sainthood in the Catholic Church, is scheduled for Sunday in Birmingham. Organisers of the ceremony have so far been unable to sell all the seats for the event.
The beatification of Newman comes less than a year after the Pope made it easier for parishes of the Church of England, also known as the Anglican church, to switch their allegiance en masse to Rome, particularly those parishes opposed to the ordination of female priests and the introduction of female bishops. Since then, the Catholic Church has been actively wooing traditional members of the Church of England.
Canon David Richardson, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican, told the Associated Press that he accepted that Newman's beatification could be perceived by some as a triumphalist provocation on the part of the Vatican. Still, he said he thought few Anglicans would see it as such, not least because so few rank-and-file Anglicans these days know who Newman was. A spokesman for the Vatican also denied that the beatification was intended as "a provocation" to the Church of England, pointing out that Newman was admired as much by Anglicans as Catholics.
Ironically, scholars regard Newman as just the sort of liberal British thinker whose views the Pope will do his best to oppose over the next four days. Support for the Pope's visit is emerging from an unexpected quarter: mainstream representatives of the UK's two million Muslims. The Guardian newspaper commented this week, alluding to the Pope's 2006 university address in Regensburg, Germany, when he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had condemned Islam as "evil and inhuman", that "oddly, Benedict may get the warmest reception from Muslims, whom he most famously offended."
Since then, the Pope has made assiduous efforts to mend fences with Islam. Kawsar Zaman, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, described this week's visit as "a brilliant opportunity for two of the biggest religions to come together", though he conceded that some British Muslims remained angry at the Pope's speech. Mona Siddiqui, a professor of Islamic studies at Glasgow University, who will be among the guests when Queen Elizabeth II receives the pontiff tomorrow in Edinburgh, said the visit was important because of the message that Pope Benedict will deliver to those who see him on TV and in person.
"They will want to hear what he has to say about the place of God and conscience in society but, more significantly, about Europe's Christian past and the question mark over its Christian future," Ms Siddiqui wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "Muslims have a huge stake in this conversation as Islam is the one faith that has been perceived as a threat to social and political cohesion," she wrote. The archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, who is leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, describes the papal visit as an event of "great cultural and historic resonance" that will offer Britons the opportunity to focus on the "Christian inheritance that lies at the heart of our culture and traditions".
Britons will get plenty of opportunity to focus on the Pope's visit if they turn on their TVs or radios. Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC and a devout Catholic, has drawn criticism from the Taxpayers' Alliance pressure group by ordering 250-plus staff to cover the Pope's arrival in Edinburgh and the remainder of the first day of the trip. Emma Boon, campaign manager of the alliance, said: "The BBC is constantly pleading poverty, but when you look at how they're actually spending licence-fee payers' money, it seems sometimes they don't want to show any restraint."