Seeds of Faith and Reason sown by “a gentle scholar, swathed in white”.

It is always the same. Why were we surprised? I suppose it is a bit like the Olympics cycle, the World Cup cycle and all those other high profile recurring events which travel the world every few years. Prior to it all taking place the predictions are dire. This time it really is going to be a disaster – the stadiums are not ready, the security nightmare will scuttle it, the infrastructure of the chosen country will never cope with the crowds. But as always – well, I can’t remember  any predicted disaster which actually materialised – it works out well on the night. If disasters occur – like in Munich in 1972 – they are never predicted.

So what was the dire prediction this time? The Pope’s visit to Britain of course. For months we had been fed stories of impending disasters – poor planning, big security problems which were going to cripple the whole event, embarrassing protests by brigades of the New Atheism movement and the disaffected “faithful”. They were at it up until the very eve of the visit when the words of Cardinal Walter Kasper got lost in translation. He seemingly suggested that to land into Heathrow was to land into a place rendered third world by multiculturalism.

And what actually happened? Did it all go pear-shaped? Emphatically no. It was, in the words of a number of Vatican people, the best trip of the pontificate so far. Certainly, in the shorter term view it could hardly have been better. In the longer term view we can also say, at the very least, it is full of promise. As always with promises – or to be a bit evangelical about it, the sowing of seeds, – time has to pass to see what the effect will be. There is no question but that there was a very widespread sowing going on – tens of millions throughout the Anglophone world  are estimated to have watched and  heard what the Pope said over those days. And the response was palpably positive for all but the die-hard sceptics.

The Guardian, one of the most hostile organs prior to the visit was reduced to a grudging concession in the wake of the event. “The pontiff’s taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend ‘the Protestant reformed religion established by law’ is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope’s power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain’s high politics. Yet the rapprochement required today is not so much between Protestant and Catholic as between the religious and the rest, and Benedict leaves without denting that divide.” They probably hope so, but one feels that there can be something more than a dent in this if the necessary cultivation and harvesting is attended to. There are already reports of many lapsed Catholics coming to parishes and asking for baptism for their children. There are reports of enquiries from people who want to know more about the faith they saw witnessed to by those few hundred thousand attending events during the visit. Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ reflection on the visit gives some insight into this and what needs to be done now.

The New Atheists of course saw the whole thing as a big opportunity for them to spread their gospel. What happened? Firstly, their fellow-travellers were profoundly embarrassed by their antics and are probably now deserting them in droves. Their so-called rationality revealed itself to be the height of irrationality.  Ross Douthat in the New York Times observed that “All in all, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain over the weekend must have been a disappointment to his legions of detractors. Their bold promises notwithstanding, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens didn’t manage to clap the pope in irons and haul him off to jail. The protests against Benedict’s presence proved a sideshow to the visit, rather than the main event. And the threat (happily empty, it turned out) of an assassination plot provided a reminder of what real religious extremism looks like — as opposed to the gentle scholar, swathed in white, urging secular Britons to look with fresh eyes at their island’s ancient faith.” That image, as a counterfoil to the hate-filled rants which spewed from the motley crews on the protest platforms, spoke volumes to all men of good will.

Pullman Having His Cake and Eating It

The problem with Philip Pullman – well, one of them at any rate – is that he wants to have his cake and eat it. Pullman is the author of a series of children’s books which purport to expose what he sees the myths that make up our Christian faith. The first of these has now been filmed at an estimated cost of €120 million. “The Golden Compass” is probably showing at a cinema near you just now. Pullman wants to be an atheist who thinks that “God” is dead and who thinks that religion has brought nothing but suffering for the human race. However he now has a would-be blockbuster film for children to promote and the promise of a rich harvest of book sales on the back of it. If he doesn’t backtrack from his more militant stance and some of his stated intentions – “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post in 2001 – his Hollywood producers and his bank balance may suffer. Undoubtedly there are people out there who either think like him on the question of God and religion and there are probably more who don’t care one way or the other. They won’t mind bringing their children to what they see as a well-made film which is a bit of exciting fun and full of marvellous special effects. However, the market place has a lot more to offer if it is carefully manipulated and this marketplace has a large segment of families to whom the meaning and intention of Pullman are important: the nascent faith of their children is not something that they are going to be happy to put at risk for a bit of fun. The cohorts of Pullman’s legion are pulling up behind him in his defence. Shane Hegarty in the Irish Times took up the issue of Pullman’s critics. Mockery was the tactic used as he lined up the easy targets of those who talk about banning Pullman. He quoted Pullman’s own view of his critics – “oh it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world”. My goodness. That’s strong. What would he like to do with them? Lock them up, or worse? And this is the man who thinks C.S. Lewis “was dangerous”. Of course, the notion that anyone might suggest that what he writes is dangerous is laughable. It’s that cake again. The trouble with this camp is that they are not really interested in a debate which might help us arrive at the truth. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Good) , Pullman, et al, do their utmost to stifle debate by setting up easy targets, those they can label as “fundamentalists”. Dawkins and Hitchens take the extreme manifestations of belief and use them as evidence to condemn those who have already stipulated these manifestations as aberrations and heresies. Nicole Kidman, one of the stars of the film has even had to row in with a fluffy sort of defence. “I was raised a Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence” – whatever that means? “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.”  Poor  Nicole. She shouldn’t say things like that or we might think that “thinking” is not one of her strong points – or that she has not even bothered to read the script properly. In the film, as Mrs. Coulter, Ms. Kidman is the evil emissary of “the Magisterium.” Does she not know that the “magisterium” is the term which Catholics use to identify the teaching authority of the Church? In the end of the day we can’t allow this to be just a battle between those who believe in a world beyond this world and those who believe that this world is all there is – because science can’t take them any further. That makes it too easy for the non-believer since it gives him so many straw men to demolish. It has to be engaged on the level of the truth and the teaching of Christ and the Church he founded.  Apparently Pullman’s next book is going to address the question of whether “people can be helped by something that is palpably not true, is this better than denying the thing that is not true and not being helped.” While this doesn’t sound much like a bestseller it is clear that he has not the slightest interest in honestly asking whether or not something is true. He has already made up his mind and just wants to destroy the “nitwits” who think otherwise than himself.