IN World War II, Great Britain survived an atheistic assault from outside the country. Today’s “Battle of Britain” comes from an atheistic assault inside it. British culture is crumpling under the growing weight of a fervent secularism that appears religious and an exhausted state religion that appears secular. The once-claimed sturdy Anglican bridge between Christianity and the modern world has largely collapsed, leaving those thrashing around down below it to swim from the Thames to the Tiber or drown.
The Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, to be sure, has her own problems, but, as Pope Benedict’s historic September visit to Britain suggested, the country’s future could end up looking like its distant Catholic past. Pope Benedict stepped into the battle for that future not as a triumphant warrior but as a humble witness to the truth and grace contained in Christ’s Church.
The tone of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain was set even before he got there. Asked by a reporter on the flight over what he could do to make Catholicism appear more “attractive” and “credible” to secularists and atheists in Britain, the Pope responded by challenging the premise of the question. He noted that a Catholicism which thought in those superficial terms would become just one more dangerous ideology and power grab in a world that needs fidelity to Christ:
One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ. And in the measure in which the Church is not for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wishes to have power, but simply is herself the voice of Another, she becomes truly transparent to the great figure of Jesus Christ and the great truths that he has brought to humanity…
It is for this reason, he continued, that the Church’s outreach to Anglicans and non-Catholics is not the competitive poaching of a man-made organization but the apostolic work of a divine one:
If Anglicans and Catholics see that both are not there for themselves, but are rather instruments of Christ, “friends of the Bridegroom,” as Saint John says; if both follow together the priority of Christ and not themselves, they draw closer together, because the priority of Christ brings them together, they are no longer in competition, each one seeking greater numbers, but are united in commitment to the truth of Christ who comes into this world, and so they find themselves also placed reciprocally in a true and fruitful ecumenism.
Ironically, the direct but civil Pope Benedict appeared to win over many non-Catholics in Britain while the self-consciously irenic Cardinal Walter Kasper proved too divisive to come. The former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity stayed behind after saying that flying into increasingly ethnic Britain makes him feel like he is entering a “Third World country.” Yet in a way Kasper’s “gaffe” was accidentally prophetic: British police arrested, though later released, six men of North African descent thought to be planning an attack on the Holy Father—a sobering reminder during the papal visit that the confusion of modern British life is due not just to wan and corrupted Christianity but also to the creeping Islamization aided by atheism that could take its place.
At a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict recalled “how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.” Benedict added that as “we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion, and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny.’”
The Holy Father returned to this theme of the battle of Britain several times over the course of his visit, gently impressing upon the British elite that the moral relativism and de facto atheism which they invoke in the name of democracy only imperils it. Standing not far from the spot in Westminster Hall where Thomas More was condemned to death, Pope Benedict made the unpopular point that democracy can turn tyrannical too, unless it rests on truths not subject to democratic vote, truths which reason apprehends and revelation reinforces.
Whether the English can win that battle against the 21st-century tyranny of the “dictatorship of relativism” remains in doubt, but the Holy Father through his speeches has certainly left behind in Britain a powerful light with which to dispel atheism’s darkness.
George Neumayr is editor of CWR.
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