Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pope Benedict in England: Basic Things You Need To Know

So you just discovered that the Pope is in England. If you're Catholic and you're just tuning in, you're probably wondering about this because it's in all the news. If you're not a Catholic, you're probably also wondering why it's getting so much news coverage.

Here's just a little guide to give you some inside baseball. But first a clip of his arrival. . .


1. Popes Have Seldom Visited England

The only visit to England by a modern-day Pope was made by John Paul II in 1982. Yet even that was not billed as an "official" visit, as Britain's Prime Minister made clear in this very cordial video welcoming the Holy Father:


This might be surprising to some: why so few papal visits to England?

2. England's Tradition of Anti-Catholicism

The header above explains why few popes have taken a trip to England. Indeed, in the wake of the English Reformation many terrible crimes were committed against Catholics. These were documented by Eamon Duffy in his now famous scholarly treatment, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (1992), published by Yale University Press.

For obvious political reasons, as Duffy shows, from the very beginning of Henry's "reformation" the Catholic Church was n misrepresented and reviled. Historical revisionism concerning the pre-Reformation England Catholic Church continues even to this day--though Duffy's work did much to offer a more sensible analysis. To this day those deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudices have become part and parcel of English popular culture, as, for example, this recent anti-Catholic ad, demonstrates. Thankfully, it was pulled. However, make no mistake about it, the fact this ad was released just before the highly publicized papal visit is no coincidence.

Seriously: if you were pope, would you want to enter into this scene?

Well, I guess you would if you were Pope Benedict. In this morning's press conference, the Pope explained: "Where there is anti-Catholicism I will go forward with great courage and joy." [source].

Of course, the clergy sex abuse scandal has not helped in that regard. Yet expect the Pope to deal with that issue head on. I'll be posting more on that soon--stay tuned. . .

3. Anglican and Catholic Relations Today

The pope's visit comes at a unique time in Catholic-Anglican relations. In fact, despite the deep wounds to unity going back to the time of the Reformation we are now living in a period of unprecedented cooperation.

One notable sign of the advances made in the ecumenical movement was the recent appointment of Catholic theologian Aidan Nichols to the position of lecturer at Oxford University. His appointment marked a historic moment: as I explained at the time, it was the first time since the Reformation that a Catholic was given such a position at the famed institution.

Yet, make no mistake, the papal visit comes amidst controversy. As anyone following the news is aware of, there is tremendous debate within the Anglican Church right now. Controversies about the ordination of homosexual clergy and bishops has reached a fever pitch within Anglicanism, threatening to tear it apart. Indeed, frustrated with recent developments, a number of Anglicans have decided to re-examine the historical and biblical basis for the Anglican Church governance. This decision has in fact led a growing number of Anglican faithful to leave the Church of England and "swim the Tiber", i.e., become Catholic.

One of the difficulties Anglicans have had though in coming into the Catholic Church is that they are naturally attached to the particular Anglican liturgical traditions which have developed over time in England since the Reformation. Given their central place in prayer and worship, these are difficult to abandon.

And so in November of 2009 Pope Benedict made the extraordinary move of issuing a letter allowing Anglicans to essentially retain many of their distinctive traditions while coming into communion with Rome. The result: mass conversions to the Catholic Church.

As one might expect, the pope's move was not well-received in some Anglican circles. Anglican officials had hoped that the faithful would simply come to accept in time the more progressive developments in their church. Yet the pope's move has, in a sense, called the "bluff" of Anglican leaders who were insisting, "If you don't like these developments, you can leave." Of course, the problem for liberal Anglican leaders is basically this: more traditionally-minded members of their flock are precisely the ones most likely to attend regular services. Thus, the ordination of homosexual clergy, while perhaps likely to win applause from those who do not typically go to church, is in fact driving away the people who make the community possible.

On top of all this we might also mention the high profile conversion of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, to Catholicism. Blair, of course, is no social conservative, maintaining his pro-abortion stance even after crossing the denominational aisle. This is of course is hard to explain. One wonders how exactly he could make a profession of Catholic faith while holding to such a position. Nonetheless, by identifying himself as a Catholic Blair has in fact done something rather shocking and has caused a number of people to once again re-examine the Catholic Church.

In sum, the pope comes at a unique time in Catholic-Anglican relations.


4. John Henry Newman

So why is the Pope going now? The answer: to "beatify" John Henry Newman. "Beatification" is part of the process of "canonization", i.e., being made a "saint". He will thus be now known as "Blessed John Henry Newman".

Typically the pope does not travel to the home-country of a newly minted "blessed" to celebrate canonization. Suffice it to say, this is an extraordinary papal gesture.

Naturally, this raises the question: Who was John Henry Newman? What makes his beatification so important?

Well, here I cannot offer a complete overview. I'd encourage readers to check out the detailed article on his life and work over at NewAdvent.org. Suffice it to say, Newman, an English intellectual, was probably most famous for converting to Catholicism as an Anglican cleric. As an Anglican he led what came to be known as "the Oxford Movement," which emphasized, among other things, the importance of apostolic succession. Newman brought countless Anglicans into the Catholic Church with him. By highlighting Newman, the Pope is inviting people to, like sainted Church of England cleric, re-examine the Catholic Church for themselves.


5. "A Courageous Visit"

Here's how one theologian is describing the visit in a recent news story:
Theologian Pablo Blanco of the University of Navarre in Spain commented this week that Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United Kingdom is a “courageous visit” in which the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman “could be a sign of unity between Anglicans and Catholics.”

Blanco noted that as a German, the Pope is “visiting a country that has fought two wars against Germany in the 20th century In addition, ambiguity about the papacy is part of the genetic makeup of this nation.”

“Neither can we forget the scandal of pedophile priests or the discomfort caused by some Anglicans who have voiced their desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. All of these factors make this a courageous visit,” he said.

Blanco recalled that the main purpose of the apostolic journey is the beatification of Cardinal Newman, an Anglican intellectual who converted to Catholicism. This event could be “a sign of unity between Anglicans and Catholics, as Newman is a giant for both churches,” he stated.

Benedict XVI has underscored “the great contribution of Cardinal Newman: the primacy he gives to conscience. For him, there was no contradiction between obedience to doctrine and following one’s conscience. Perhaps that is why he was so controversial in his time,” Blanco explained.

Regarding Christianity in the life of the United Kingdom, the Spanish theologian said a recent poll shows that “67 percent of adults think British society should preserve its Christian culture, and only eight percent oppose this idea. This means that both Anglicans and Catholics intensely desire that England, Scotland and Wales maintain the Christian identity they have always had.”

Blanco, who will soon publish a new book titled, “Benedict XVI, The German Pope,” added, “The prestige of Catholics has grown in recent times in the United Kingdom, and the visit could strengthen the stability,” as well as the “open and cooperative image that Catholics today present.”

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