Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Saturday, 25 September 2010 11:45 UK

How the Pope's UK visit defied expectations

By Allan Little
BBC News

As Pope Benedict was preparing to visit Britain there was uncertainty about how he would be received, but the BBC's Allan Little says he managed to focus attention on deep theological questions.

Bishop of Motherwell Joseph Devine
Bishop of Motherwell Joseph Devine has been critical of gay campaigners

The diocese of Motherwell is rooted, like Scottish Catholicism itself, in the industrial heartland of the country - west-central Scotland - which once supplied much of the world with ships, coal, steel and motor vehicles.

Catholicism in Scotland is a strongly working-class faith and proudly so - most of its adherents descending from the Irish immigrants who flocked into Scotland in the late 19th Century, seeking work in the booming new industries of late Victorian Clydeside.

The Bishop of Motherwell, the pugnacious, no-nonsense, straight-talking Joseph Devine, speaks a fast, colourful, eloquent English in his broad Glasgow brogue.

He is active on the frontline in the war against secularisation in the West and shares Pope Benedict's foreboding about what the Church sees as a new and aggressive neo-atheism in society.

Historically the Catholics of Scotland have been loyal Labour voters. But the Catholic Church in Scotland fell out with the last Labour government, and acrimoniously.

If that huge Catholic vote were to jump ship it would threaten the future of the United Kingdom

Labour legislated on gay equality. All over Britain now, gay couples can enter into civil partnerships that are not far short of marriage. They also adopt children.

"Don't get me wrong," says Bishop Devine. "I admire the gays and lesbians. They're small in number. But they're well-organised.

"They've persuaded our legislators that the supreme moral values of the day are freedom and equality. Well they're not.

"The supreme moral values are truth and goodness, and if you forget that, you end up with the mess we're in today."

"Why," I ask, "can a loving relationship between two people of the same sex not be true and good?"

"Because it's not creative," he answers without a flicker of hesitation.

"It might be personally fulfilling but it's never going to be creative."

There are 850,000 baptised Catholics in Scotland. That is a very powerful block vote in a total population of five million.

Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) - which wants Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom - are fairly evenly balanced in public support.

"The Catholic vote is still loyally Labour," the well-known Scottish historian Tom Devine tells me.

"But that loyalty is fraying at the edges."

If that huge Catholic, solidly Labour vote were to jump ship - even in part - to the SNP, it would change the voting equation altogether and threaten the future of the United Kingdom itself.

Into this historical context swept Pope Benedict last week.

Enormous gulf

Before he arrived, the Bishop of Motherwell was preparing public opinion for a disappointment.

Pope Benedict XVI conducts Mass at Bellahouston Park on September 16, 2010 in Glasgow
About 70,000 people attended Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow

"Benedict is not John Paul II," he said. "Don't expect him to make a great impact. He's a gentle man, a listener.

"There's a danger that the whole visit will be anti-climactic."

He need not have worried.

The weather smiled on Bellahouston Park in Glasgow.

The faithful came in their tens of thousands - those who have stuck with their tribal loyalty despite child abuse scandals, despite everything.

And so it was in England.

At Lambeth Palace in London, the head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, greeted Pope Benedict with a personal warmth that, for a moment, disguised the enormous gulf that separates the two Christian traditions they lead.

Lambeth Palace was once the home of Catholic Archbishops of Canterbury.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams greets Pope Benedict XVI at Lambeth Palace
Can the rift between the two Churches be mended?

It is nearly 500 years since England broke with Rome, and 50 years this year since the two Churches began a dialogue aimed at bringing English Christians back into full Communion with the Catholic Church.

At Westminster Abbey there was a shared ecumenical service - the dream of Christian unity in ritual form.

But Canterbury and Rome are miles apart.

Canterbury has married priests, women priests - Benedict even found himself shaking hands with one.

In America, the Anglicans have at least one homosexual bishop.

There is no path back to Rome for a Church that has embraced the modern world in such a way.

And so the Pope went to Cofton Park in Birmingham for a service of singular contemporary resonance: The beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman - one of the greatest theological minds of the 19th Century.

Covert invitation?

Beatification is the last but one step on the journey to full Catholic sainthood.

Newman was a Church of England clergyman. His conversion to Catholicism rocked the English establishment of the day.

Cardinal John Henry Newman
Newman's conversion to Catholicism was controversial

The Pope did not say so explicitly. But there seemed to many of us there a clear implication.

Was the beatification of Newman a covert invitation to theological and moral conservatives in the Church of England?

An invitation to them to resist what the Catholic Church sees as the secularising tide that has so changed their own church, and to walk Newman's path to Rome?

Benedict came to Scotland and England to stand firm against the liberalising world.

There was, before he came, anxiety, even pessimism in the Church about whether he would make much of a splash.

It is said that on his plane on the way back to Rome there was an atmosphere of quiet, satisfied jubilation.

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