Text: Fr Christopher Jamison at Papal Visit debate

Fr Christopher Jamison

Fr Christopher Jamison


Speech by Fr Christopher Jamison opposing the motion
Conway Hall, London                         1st September 2010

(The speech was delivered from notes derived from this text and so this is not a transcript of what was said.)  

 In his proposing speech, AC Grayling made a closing off hand comment about Pope Benedict XV, Fr Jamison replied:

'Pope Benedict XV was the only European leader in WW1 who consistently worked to end the war, making numerous peace initiatives, being ridiculed by both sides for doing so. This was an example of the papacy’s contribution to the common good'.


Thank you to the London Humanist Group for your invitation to Catholic Voices to speak here this evening. We are here to appeal to the pluralist and humane values for which Britain is famous, values that as British people we share with you. To oppose this motion does not require you to believe in God or to agree with the Catholic Church or to love Pope Benedict; our aim this evening is only to demonstrate that the State Visit of the Pope is an event that all people who believe in reason, dialogue, and the common good of Britain can, and should, support.

A State Visit is an invitation by the Queen and the government to address the nation. In 1980, QE carried out a State Visit to the Holy See and so a reciprocal State Visit by the Pope is long overdue. The British Government has invited the Pope to the UK and its reasons for doing so are reasons of state. Those reasons of state are not getting the airing they should. The Holy See was the world’s first United Nations, bringing together different peoples in the common cause of humanity stretching back over a thousand years, recognised in international law not as a nation but as a sovereign entity. The Holy See predates the Vatican City State by centuries and Britain restored diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1914, before the tiny Vatican state was created. The Holy See is the Church’s global presence, working with governments and local churches to create a better world. 178 nations have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Church is a trusted partner, serving the societies in which it is present through its schools, parishes, charities, and its global networks.  

In recent years, government ministers have visited the British embassy to the Holy See more frequently than the majority of British embassies around the world, with two prime ministerial visits. The UK government has come to see the significant role that the Church can play in supporting the achievement of the Millennial Development goals by 2015 and to providing the vital moral support needed if the world is to address climate change. Our government knows the importance of this diplomatic connection to the Catholic Church.

The proposers of this motion have only one fundamental argument for not welcoming the State visit of the Pope. Namely, that the Catholic Church is so opposed to British liberal democratic values that the State should not be welcoming the Head of that church and the taxpayer should not be paying half the costs. We insist that those same values are precisely why we should welcome a state visit by the Pope. What is at issue this evening is not whether Britain will or will not be a secular society; the visit of the Pope does not threaten that. He is arriving on an Alitalia jet not at the head of a Spanish Armada. He is here to address parliament not to blow it up. What is at issue this evening is what kind of secular society Britain will be in the 21st century. Will it be the kind of closed secular society that insists that only one set of values is given a formal platform, a secularist ideology that excludes other opinions and ultimately destroys liberal openness, or will it be an open secular society that welcomes diverse opinions onto the public platform, including religious opinions. We stand for a public square filled with diverse values – of different faiths and none.

Dr Ivereigh will deal with the misunderstandings of the Church’s policies that the proposition has offered but let me offer one general point about the Church’s failings. We do not measure the worth of an institution by its failings. Nor do we measure the value of the Catholic Church by its failings. As a Head Teacher, I had to work with other Heads of many schools to implement the 1989 Children Act and what it revealed was failings in our schools, failings in the protection of children and failings which continue in Britain today in spite of over 20 years of child protection measures.  We rightly condemn the failings of those who run institutions and we applaud those who expose such failings, but we do not assess any institution solely by its failings, but by its values and its actions, and its capacity to deal with those failings in the light of its values.

So how can we assess the Catholic Church as an institution? What do we see? We see the world’s largest contributor to civil society. The church promotes love, hope and the common good across the globe. I choose those three values not only because they are self-evidently humanist values but also because they are the topics of the three open letters to the church that Pope Benedict has written since his election. Love, hope and the common good: that is this Pope’s teaching. And that is the true humanism of the Catholic Church that we commend to you this evening. The Catholic Church insists that the common good is a rationally observable reality that can be worked at with others who do not have religious faith. With 17.5% of the world’s population totalling over 1 billion people, the Catholic Church makes an extraordinary global contribution to people’s well-being. The church has 40,000 health care facilities around the world, providing one quarter of all HIV care in Africa. In education, the Church educates 12 million school children in sub-Saharan Africa alone. The Catholic Church’s aid agencies such as Cafod together constitute the largest international development network after the UN. This is an organisation worthy of the respect of humanists. This is an organisation that the UK government recognises as a worthy partner in achieving the global development goals that Britain seeks. The Catholic Church is not simply a religious organisation comparable to any local religious group. It is a global contributor to human well being on a unique scale.

The 20th century was the secularising century in which European states moved from being religious to secular states. Good things came of it: democracy, pluralism and tolerance. But those were hard lessons which only decades of totalitarianism and world war – the graveyard of secular ideologies – could teach. The hardest truth for secular humanists to accept is that the 21st century is already the religious century. The nineteenth-century idea that of the Economist entitled a recent book: God is Back.  The  Catholic Church is a reasonable and humane partner that can work with and all people of goodwill; in its social teaching it lays out a vision of all people of all faiths and none to work together for the common good. 

The question facing Britain is: will people be so afraid of all religion that they deny any religion a platform in the public square or will we learn to include religious communities, encouraging them to contribute uncomfortable views? The Pope will say things that not all agree with but his message may also strike a chord with many people. What is there to fear from a man who has no army and no state, who will speak words from Europe’s oldest religious tradition and the world’s largest religious community? Secular Britain has nothing to fear other than the closing of its mind to all religious opinions. Protest the Pope claims to have a difficulty only with the state nature of this visit; that they do not object to the Pope coming to speak. But what they mean is that Pope should only be able to come to speak to other Catholics. In opposing the state nature of this visit, they reveal their true aim to keep the Catholic voice out of the public life of this country.

So we simply ask you this evening to exercise reason over sentiment and to accept that you disagree with many leaders who visit Britain. The State visit of the Pope is worthy of support for two reasons: firstly, it is a step in creating an open secular society that welcomes diverse voices in the public square, a step towards making the 21st century a time of open and not closed liberalism. Secondly, the Church as the world’s largest contributor to civil society is committed to love, hope and the common good; to strengthen the UK’s connections with such an organisation is a benefit to the UK and to the world. The Papal visit is a historic event in the life of Britain and worthy of the support of all our citizens.

See also today's Catholic Voices vs Protest the Pope debate www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16655

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