Taking the latter first. I found many of the banners and chants at the ‘Protest the pope’ demonstrations distasteful and gratuitously offensive. In addition, I got the impression that many of the protestors started from a position of visceral anti-Catholicism, and then made a grab at any issue that lent support to their hatred. It was certainly odd to see liberal humanists making common cause with fundamentalist Protestants and Paisleyites.
Since there is no conclusive evidence that the current pontiff covered up priestly abuse, the whole ‘arrest the pope’ charade was pointless. The issue with which I had most sympathy was the church’s attitude to homosexuality, but that would have been more effective without the tasteless banners. And I couldn’t for the life of me see what Richard Dawkins and his band of atheists were doing at the protest. By all means disagree intellectually with Christians about the existence or otherwise of God, but don’t deny them their right to celebrate their faith. And that was my other objection to the protestors: they seemed like intolerant party-poopers whose aim was really to stop those they disagreed with from expressing their beliefs in peace.
Turning to the pope himself, obviously some of his comments about ‘aggressive secularism’ were unfortunate, to say the least, and the ‘atheism leads to Nazism’ quote was an unnecessary gift to his critics – and the headline-seeking news media. But if you listen to, or read, his complete speeches and homilies – whether at Holyrood, Bellahouston or Westminster Hall – they were rather more measured and thoughtful than you’d think, and much of what was quoted has been taken out of context.
Having said that, there are some things I wish the pope had said, but didn't, and if it’s not too presumptuous or disrespectful, I’d like to suggest a few of them here. For example, here’s what he might have said to his Catholic and Christian listeners:
My brothers and sisters, some of you seem unduly exercised by the outbursts and antics of various secularists and atheists in your land. I have heard your representatives talk repeatedly of ‘aggressive’ secularism, and of a ‘new’ or ‘militant’ atheism. But there is nothing new about hostility to the faith, and using such language makes it look as though you are trying to dismiss their criticisms without responding to them. The Church flourishes when it encounters healthy opposition: conversely, lack of criticism makes us lazy and complacent. So welcome these challenges, and be confident in your response to them. And before you criticise the 'aggression' of your atheist brothers and sisters, consider whether you too have ever been aggressive or intolerant of dissent in your own Christian faith.
Try, also, once in a while, to see things from your opponents' point of view. Ask yourself: why might atheism and secularism being enjoying a revival just now? Might it be because unbelievers have legitimate fears, following various terrorist outrages and death threats against writers and artists in the name of religion, about the growth of an aggressive religious fundamentalism that threatens their basic freedoms? You may protest that these threats do not come, in the main, from Christians: but how often have you rushed to 'understand' the actions of those who bomb, riot and burn when they feel religious 'offence', rather than standing up, alongside your secular fellow citizens, for the human values that you both share?
Then again, I have heard some of you talk of persecution and of your faith being banished from the public square. Frankly, I am astonished - 'gobsmacked' is I believe the appropriate word in your language - when I hear such talk. Here I am, in a country where the upper chamber of your parliament includes Christian bishops as of right, where your church schools are partly funded by the taxes of unbelievers, where your services and sermons have guaranteed slots on television and radio, and where your politicians make regular obeisance to 'faith communities' and 'faith leaders'. How Christians in some other lands - Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea - might wish for such 'persecution'! I endorse what my brother Christian, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently: Christians in the west should stop whining and campaign instead for believers who are truly persecuted elsewhere in the world. I seem to remember that Our Lord warned us to expect persecution, and went so far as to say that we would be blessed if men despised and rejected us. Can you imagine the martyrs of the faith asking for special privileges from the state, as some of you have done? In other words: dial it down a bit, my brothers and sisters, or as your own young people might say: just chill, OK?
And this is what I wish the pope had said to Britain's majority of non-believers:
My brothers and sisters beyond the Church, there is much that divides us, but as a guest in your land, I would not presume to lecture you. Instead, I want to emphasise today what we share in common - I as a Christian, you as atheists, agnostics, humanists and members of other faiths. I want to acknowledge the great good that you have done, and continue to do, and what your fellow non-believers have achieved over the centuries for the good of humanity. On this visit I have already praised the great Christian philanthropists of this land, such as Wilberforce and Nightingale, but it would be wrong of me to overlook the good work done by the secular heroes of your country, who have done so much to advance human dignity and equality. And yes, in humility I acknowledge that humanists have often led the way, for example in advancing the rights of women and minorities, in promoting freedom of thought and expression, in care for the environment, where we in the Church have followed belatedly and yes, have sometimes blocked the way. We need to learn from you, as much as you from us.
And although I have often criticised the secularisation of society, today I want to acknowledge the value of a true secularism, of a separation of church and state which guarantees freedom to believe, or not believe. For it is only in such an atmosphere of freedom that true faith, freely chosen faith, can flourish. My fellow Christians in other parts of the world, in countries where they are in the minority, know the value of such a secularism. And I want to humbly acknowledge the failures of my own Church in the past, our willingness to support authoritarian and oppressive regimes, whether in Spain or Latin America - regimes which some of you rightly campaigned against - simply because they bore the name 'Catholic', while they suppressed the basic human freedoms which humanists, whether secular or Christian, should hold dear.
Where we differ, of course, is that I, as a Christian, while holding that liberty of conscience and freedom of expression are fundamental and the precondition for a fully human life, believe that they are not sufficient. As Christians, we believe that secular humanism is not enough, that it cannot provide answers to the fundamental questions about our existence, its purpose and that of the universe. On this we must agree to differ, and indeed to continue to converse and to listen to each other. But let me end on a positive note, by thanking you, my secular humanist brothers and sisters, for reminding us believers of the great value of human freedom, and of the equality and dignity of all human beings, whatever their race, gender or lifestyle. I look forward, while I am here in your country, to a dialogue marked by agreement on what we have in common, and where we disagree, by respect for each other's opinions.Here endeth the lesson.