In the last week the UK has had a very powerful, important and controversial visitor; The Pope is making his long awaited state visit. This visit has caused outrage among many non-Catholics ever since it’s announcement in April. The most outspoken and widely reported press campaign against the pope came from our old friends Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen who, with the typical diplomacy of a sedge hammer wielded by a maniac, threatened to have the pope arrested and charged for crimes against humanity. Unsurprisingly these threats turned out to be hot air, but there remained a large group of people who protested the Pope’s visit this week, claiming that he had no right to a state visit to the UK.
You might already know that I’m not the biggest fan of organised religion and indeed I think the world would be a better place without some of the dogmatic, ignorant and frankly irrational views of some of the world’s more extreme religious groups – and yes I count the traditional Catholicism that the pope represents in that group. However whether we like it or not the pope is the leader of one of the world’s largest religions, and one which hold considerable clout in the UK. He is also the Head of State of the Vatican City – his country may be small, but it is still a country. He has every right to a state visit just as any other state leader has, as indeed does any other major world religious leader.
Just because the pope has visited the UK, does not mean that the British Government stands behind all of the pope’s views – many of which display an almost painful irrationality and backwardness. Traditional Catholicism is a horrifyingly dogmatic and intolerant religion which has done much to damage international relations and has held back progress in some of the poorest and most hunger stricken parts of the world. The UK government should in no way support or endorse many of the pope’s policies. This is not to say however that he should not be allowed to make a state visit to our country and be allowed to voice and propagate views with which most reasonable people will see to be utterly absurd.
We might object entirely to what the pope has to say, indeed we should, but that does not remove his right to say it. As a head of state and the leader of a major world religion he has every right to a state visit and to meet with important British politicians. To deny him such is to be as intolerant as the views that he propagates. Tolerance of those who are also tolerant is easy – there’s no reason not to accept accepting people into society – it is tolerance of the intolerant this is far harder because we know their views are abhorrent. However in the same way as legalising something does not make it moral, tolerating someone does not mean agreeing with them.
Just as the pope has every right to a state visit, we have every right to tell him that we believe his views to be abhorrent, irrational and deeply damaging. Rather than protesting that the pope has no right to come to our country on a state visit like petulant children who can’t stand the thought of people with whom we disagree being in the same room as us, we should act like mature, responsible, intelligent human beings and tell the pope by whatever means possibly – and, the UK being a democratic country, there are plenty of them – that we disagree with his views. I very much doubt that the pope will be moved to completely change his views on fundamental issues, but at least we will be able to hold our heads high and say that we tried and did so in the best way possible.
In fairness to this protests it is principally trying to do just that; demonstrate to the pope that we disagree with him on fundamental issues, however it is unfortunate that, as is so often the case, intolerance of the intolerant crept into the protests and made it too much about whether the pope should even be allowed on a state visit to the UK and too little about why his views are so unpleasant. As is often the case, the intention was good, but the execution sadly failed because it is far too easy to be unpleasant, intolerant and unfair and far too hard in the face of the same unpleasantness, intolerance and unfairness to be civil, tolerant and just.