Britain’s five-million strong Catholic community has a pretty thick skin when it comes to insults about their church and the Pope, so a leaked Foreign Office memo suggesting that Benedict XVI’s visit in September could feature a trip to an abortion clinic or the launch of a new brand of papal condoms (both, as the author knew, against Catholic teaching) has largely been shrugged off.
“I think it was a joke that has gone wrong,” says Jack Valero, British spokesman for the traditionalist Catholic group Opus Dei. Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham hoped the memo was “lighthearted”.
Benedict’s will be the first official journey to Britain by a Pope since the Reformation (John Paul II’s 1982 trip, in the shadow of the Falklands Conflict, was explicitly pastoral and not a state visit). One of the ghosts that his coming will finally lay to rest is the two and a half centuries of fines, exclusion from public office, imprisonment and execution that British Catholics suffered following the Reformation because of sticking to their beliefs. Restoration of their civic rights finally came in 1829, but as late as the 1950s state funding for Catholic schools was decried in some parts of Britain as “Rome on the rates”. Hence the thick skins.
More recent times have, however, seen the seamless integration of Catholics into the British state as, for example, MPs, judges, Cabinet ministers and even leaders of major political parties (though Tony Blair waited until leaving office to become Catholic). The result is that Catholics have long ago lost the ghetto mentality of my 1970s schooldays in Liverpool when I was prepared by my Christian Brother teachers with replies to the questions “Protestants” would inevitably put to me in an effort to destroy my faith.
With emancipation, Catholics have also developed a robust sense of humour about attacks on their church. So when what is now a largely secular and sceptical society sends up some of Catholicism’s more counter-cultural teachings – that its priests must be celibate, or that believers must wait until they marry to have sex – Catholics tend to laugh off the barbs. Indeed, survey after survey shows most church-goers find those same teachings if not exactly funny, then profoundly mistaken.
When the multi-award winning Channel 4 comedy series Father Ted was broadcast in late 1990s, featuring three disreputable priests in a fictional Irish presbytery, Catholics laughed as loud as anyone else, but one real-life priest did wonder aloud how British Muslims would have reacted if the same TV treatment was given to three imams.
The answer is that British Catholicism is a lot further down the road in its self-confidence and sense of belonging than other, more recently arrived, religious minorities, and hence is less easily offended – certainly not by the proposals of a wet-behind-the-ears civil servant in the Foreign Office. My first reaction on hearing about his suggestions? I laughed.