Benedict XVI's UK Visit Is Long Overdue, Says Envoy

Interview With UK Ambassador to the Holy See

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By Jesús Colina



ROME, SEPT. 14, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Given that the oldest U.K. diplomatic friendship is with the papacy, Benedict XVI's state visit is long overdue, says a key figure in the upcoming event.

In the midst of the final preparations for the papal visit, which begins Thursday, Francis Campbell, U.K. ambassador to the Holy See, spoke with ZENIT about the expected impact of the event, which will be the first state visit of a Pope to the United Kingdom.

Campbell, born in 1970 in Northern Ireland, has served as private secretary of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and has been the U.K. representative before the Holy See since 2005.

In this interview with ZENIT, he analyzed the particular importance of this visit and why Benedict XVI has a special talent for reaching the British people.

ZENIT: Why is the Pope going to the United Kingdom?

Campbell: I think there are two broad reasons: one religious and one state or diplomatic.

The religious is primarily because he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a great figure in the English and universal Church. Cardinal Newman's contribution to Christian teaching is immense.

And on the state side, the United Kingdom has a very strong international relationship with the Holy See, which is focused on a wide range of issues, from international development to climate change.

One can see some in of the political traffic through here in the recent years that the United Kingdom attaches great importance to the relationship with the Holy See. In the last six years we've had five visits by prime ministers. I think probably only Washington or Brussels would have had as many visits from British prime ministers.

It is because the relationship focuses on so many issues of fundamental importance to us.

There are two ways to look at the Holy See. Some people restrict their view to a small city state in Europe. Yet our relations are not with the small city state, but with the Holy See. Our diplomatic relations are with that global presence that is the Holy See, which touches 17.5% of the world's population.

And then when you start from there you reach into many global areas such as international development, disarmament, climate change, conflict resolution and prevention.

ZENIT: The media in Great Britain has given space to criticism against the Pope, and in some areas of the United Kingdom there is a complex history of anti-Catholicism. Are you worried?

Campbell: No. I would make a distinction between those who criticize religion, including Catholicism, from a standpoint of genuine rational disagreement.

Religion must always be open to the critique of reason. Many can approach that critique from a wide variety of perspectives. Some might want to see a change in a particular religious teaching which they disagree with. Others may disagree with belief in God altogether.

There is a long tradition of humanism in the United Kingdom; disagreement with religion is not confined to the United Kingdom. The bulk of people who are critics are in that camp. But I would distinguish between those people who critique religion and the minority, who can show high levels of intolerance which denies the other -- in this case the person of faith -- an equal voice.

We have a tradition of protest -- there is a democratic tradition of people being able to protest and put forward their point of view -- but we also have a tradition of respect to allow the other to be heard.

I think this is one of the risks that journalists from outside Britain might think that those who shout the loudest are those they should listen to. It would be a mistake to extrapolate the loudest voices onto the wider population.

Sometimes people say Britain is a secular country. I would not say that it is a secular country. I would say it is a pluralist country. Over 70% of people in the last census identified themselves as Christians.

When people say we are a secular country, I think they need to look at the role of the queen, because the queen is the supreme governor of the Church of England.

Christianity runs through the fabric of the state, and the Church of England in England is the official state Church. In Scotland it's a different form of establishment, as the Church of Scotland.

And then you go down to a very practical illustration, which is that nearly a quarter of all British children go to faith schools, which are state schools. They are paid for by the state. They follow the ethos of a particular Church; 10% of all schools in Britain are Catholic schools. So we have one of the most favorable faith-based schooling systems in the world.

If a person, if a Christian, an Anglican, a Catholic or indeed someone of another faith wants to educate their child in that faith then they have the choice to educate their children in the ethos of the faith and within the state sector.

I think those arguments are quite strong and illustrate the point that the United Kingdom is a pluralist society where people of faith play an active part in the society and faith is valued by government and the wider society.

ZENIT: How is Benedict XVI's personal relationship with Great Britain?

Campbell: I was asked this question by the British press, and I think he is probably the Pope that in recent centuries is probably most knowledgeable about Britain, from a cultural point of view.

Why so? Because most of his predecessors came from a society where everyone was Catholic, whereas Pope Benedict is coming from a society where Catholics and Lutherans live side by side. Not only that, but he taught for most of his life in a university that had a theology faculty that was Lutheran and Catholic.

I think this is a Pope who is coming to Britain with a very strong knowledge of Protestantism. In Scotland we have Presbyterianism, John Knox, connections to Geneva, and in England we have the Church of England, which is a combination of the apostolic tradition and the reform tradition. He is already knowledgeable on these things because it's in his grammar. That's one dimension, which is that cultural hinterland.

The second dimension is this, and I use this very precisely. You are familiar with what he talks about when he says creative minorities. Now, do you know where he takes that from? Well if you read his writings -- read his book on Europe, and his writings on Europe. Really his writings on Europe are about the future of the West.

He chronicles the fascinating debate in the inter-war period between Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee was one of the great figures in 20th century British life. Toynbee has his volumes on the history of civilization and Benedict comes down on the side of Toynbee. Because the debate between Spengler and Toynbee is this: Spengler says, "The West, like every other civilization, will have its rise, its height and its decline."

Toynbee says "no." Toynbee says: "The West is different, because of Christianity. The West has Christianity and Christianity acts as a renewal, as a constant source of renewal. And Christianity is that creative minority at the heart of a civilization." Benedict has taken this. That's the argument he takes.

So here is someone who is well-read about this very decisive debate in which one of our most prominent 20th century thinkers was involved. This gives you the idea of someone who is very well-read into the British cultural experience as well.

The third thing, and perhaps the most important thing is this: One of the great priorities of Benedict's papacy and of his theology is the relationship between faith and reason and, in addition to that, the place of religion in the public square.

In France and in the United States he touched on this and he talked about the separation of Church and state, and why that is so, and why it is different in different places, why the Church and religion should have a voice, not a preferential voice but a voice that shouldn't be marginalized. And here he is, coming to Britain.

And if you look at three of the big figures of English Catholicism: Thomas Beckett, Thomas More and John Henry Newman, it's all reason and faith. It's very different from some of the big continental figures of Catholicism like John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, where it's much more mystical. These are people who are, in many respects, they are deciphering their conscience.

This is Benedict's intellectual home, in religious terms, because the enlightenment that is in the United States, that the United States has based its separation of Church and state on, is an enlightenment taken from England and Scotland. It's not the French enlightenment model.

So, for those three reasons I think that here is someone who is very familiar with the cultural underpinnings and the cultural undertones in the United Kingdom.

ZENIT: What is the real novelty in this visit of Benedict XVI?

Campbell: Some people seem to think that John Paul II's visit was easy compared to Benedict's.

John Paul II's visit, in 1982, was like walking on a diplomatic tightrope. It was one of the most challenging diplomatic visits that he had at that stage because he was coming to a country that was at war with a predominantly Catholic country. And it posed the Holy See big problems because of the Holy See’s neutrality. To visit a country that was at war, was a real challenge.

The second real challenge for John Paul II was the conflict in Northern Ireland. Religion was one of the issues. There were huge issues in the relationship between the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and the government in London. And that's just one dimension.

Benedict is walking into a different situation. He doesn't have those high diplomatic tightropes to walk, but the society is different and the two people are different. John Paul II appealed and communicated through actions; Benedict XVI appeals through words.

In many respects -- and I will come back to this point -- Benedict XVI is perhaps closer to the British experience because of that link back to faith and reason, to the intellectual engagement, and Newman is the exponent of that.

Also the make-up of the Catholic Church in Britain has changed over the last 28 years since John Paul II came. There are now one million more Catholics in Britain.

The Church has a greater degree of racial diversity. Immigrants have come from Asia, India, from sub-Saharan Africa, from Latin America, from continental Europe including Eastern Europe. The Church is just very different from what it was 28 years ago. I think that will have an effect as well.

People say that 28 years ago there were no protests. Well, there were protests -- perhaps a different type of protest, but they were there. But this time more of the protests are coming from some secular groups who object to a particular part of the Church's teachings.

The other dimension is we now live in a 24-hour media culture; 28 years ago that wasn't the case. And the visit will be very different.

But the Pope's visits to the United States were very different. People wondered in the United States: "How will he manage?" And his visit in the United States was really brilliant.

ZENIT: Are the British people going to be surprised by the Pope?

Campbell: I think the surprise will be that they will see the Pope for themselves; they will hear him for themselves, unfiltered.

Some of the things that are alleged the Pope has said -- he hasn't said. There are some myths about what the Pope teaches, that he attacked our equality legislation as it was going through parliament. He didn't. He made reference in his address to the English bishops about his regret at certain things that had happened -- in the past tense. He was responding to points the bishops had made to him. He was not referring to the passage of current legislation. He didn't interfere in the parliamentary process.

Equally, some people have manipulated some of his speeches in the past, to say that he referred to X, Y and Z, when he didn't.

I think people will find a warm, intelligent figure who is coming on a historic visit that has many examples of rapprochement.

For me personally, the most poignant moment will be at 5 p.m. on Friday when he speaks in Westminster Hall, on the very spot where Thomas More was condemned to death.

That shows you how far we have come as a country, because I don't think that would have been possible 28 years ago. I think it would still have been difficult. And I think when people hear him, I think the British people will see someone who is not complacent about their future. He's not disengaged. He's highly engaged.

And that stems from his childhood. Here's a Pope who in his childhood saw first-hand the risks of a totalitarian regime, and for him religion and Catholicism and Christianity is a check against totalitarianism.

In many respects his life is a practical illustration of the relationship between faith and reason because reason unchecked will run into totalitarianism. But equally, a faith unchecked by reason ultimately risks becoming extreme and irrational. And it's that interplay between the two I think he will connect and he will engage and he will take people with him because it's about the word, it's about hearing that word and actually absorbing it. I think he will find an embrace.

ZENIT: Could Cardinal Newman's beatification be a sign of unity between Catholics and Anglicans?

Campbell: It's very interesting you ask: "Could he be a figure of unity?" I think you're asking a question which is very important.

A substantial amount of Newman's work dates from the time when he was an Anglican, and he is both Anglican and Catholic. He founded the Oxford Movement. The Oxford Movement still has an effect and was a strong voice within Anglicanism in relation to recalibrating Anglicanism's apostolic tradition.

Newman spent a substantial part of his life in the Anglican Church. He is not a force for division.

His teachings on conscience are something applicable to all Christians, indeed all faiths and people of good will. So here is someone who is a formidable Christian thinker. First and foremost a Christian thinker, before we start subdividing him.

I think Benedict has an interest in him because he is a post-enlightenment thinker and he is healing the rupture between faith and reason caused by the French enlightenment. Here's a figure coming along that's actually healing that rupture.

So in that sense, he is a figure, not just for the Catholic Church but for the rest of Christianity and indeed for people of faith.

ZENIT: What are you going to tell the Pope when he is in your country?

Campbell: I will probably say: "Benvenuto."

I will probably ask myself: "Should I speak to him in Italian or should I speak to him in English?" It may be better to speak to him in English because he will be speaking English for the next four days.

I'm delighted he is coming. I really am delighted that he's paying a visit.

It's important in so many ways. But I think there's one primary reason. It's that this is our oldest diplomatic relationship. The crown first sent an ambassador in 1479. The very first time the crown sent an ambassador overseas, it was here, in Rome. And over those centuries, it survived the reformation, it survived mistrust and disputes.

The queen has been here, many times -- most recently in 2000. But she first came here in 1951 as Princess Elizabeth before she became queen. She's come during nearly every pontificate since then and it is right now that we can repay the welcome we have received over the years.

The highest honor that the queen can give to the Pope is a state visit and for our oldest friend, our oldest diplomatic friendship in the world, some people would say "it's long overdue."

I'm delighted that Benedict has accepted the invitation because diplomacy is about friendship and the connections between the crown and the Papacy cannot be overestimated. The Stuart Royal family are buried in the crypt of Saint Peter's The connections between the crown and the Papacy go all the way back.

When the queen heard the Pope was going to come to the United Kingdom, that he had accepted the invitation, she wrote a letter, formally inviting him to come, and he graciously accepted the invitation. And the fact that next Thursday he will go to Edinburgh -- that is very rare for us to start a state visit in Edinburgh -- he will see the queen in Edinburgh.

He is 83 years of age; she is 84 years of age. They have a lifetime of experience and many similar experiences. I think that meeting will be unique.