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Page last updated at 07:15 GMT, Thursday, 16 September 2010 08:15 UK
Benedict's big society

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent

Pope Benedict XVI acknowledges faithful as he arrives to lead the Angelus prayer at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo

Pope Benedict will be on something of a charm offensive during his visit to Britain, but his aims go far beyond symbolic stage-managed appearances.

The Pope will want to tackle what he sees as the dangers posed to British society by its rapid secularisation, and suggest that the freedoms it purports to bring are often illusory.

But rather than rail against specific laws, such as the Equality Act which is about to become law, he will suggest an alternative, middle way - between the unfettered market and the all-embracing state - one derived from Catholic social teaching.

During his visit to Britain, he will emerge as an ally for David Cameron in building the "big society", but will insist that if it is to work, the Church must no longer be excluded from the national debate.

Just as his successors have been for two 2,000 years, Pope Benedict is the guardian of Church orthodoxy.

Joseph Ratzinger's youth in Nazi Germany taught him that the Church had to be different to, and separate from, the rest of the world.

Joseph Ratzinger celebrating mass in 1952
The Pope's early experiences had a fundamental impact on his beliefs

He also learnt that it had to be rigidly united if it was to resist corruption by the outside world.

Father Ratzinger was initially a reformer, says Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University, but was appalled by the social unrest and student uprisings of the late 1960s.

"I think he had a sudden dread of what could happen when society begins to break down into anarchy," she says.

His theological position hardened and he began to see a need to re-establish authority and direct the Church away from the excesses of liberalism that, in his view, followed the Second Vatican Council.

The Pope has watched aghast as countries like Britain have become disconnected from what he sees as the permanent, Christian, values that gave them stability.

Now the threat of corruption appears to come not from totalitarianism, but from secularism and the "pick-and-mix" approach to morality he believes it fosters.

In 2005, Benedict told cardinals gathered to elect a new pope in Rome that this moral framework was also a form of bondage, "a dictatorship of relativism which doesn't recognise anything for certain".

And he will use his visit to Britain to further pursue this theme, questioning whether a secular society brings real freedom, or merely a free-for-all in which the strong are able to dictate the rules by which the weak will live.

Final Preparations Are Made At Bellahouston Park Ahead Of the Pope's Visit

The Pope believes that only universal values, such as those anchored in Christianity, can protect against this tyranny, says Philip Blond, of the think-tank ResPublica.

"He's saying, look, as human beings we need to uphold universals. If we don't, then what in fact happens is we just have vested interests arguing for their point of view, and the most powerful groups dominate.

"So actually rather than universality being a dreadful imposition... it is the only thing that upholds minorities, peace and goodness itself.

"What he wants to create is a universal order where everyone has a stake and everybody's life is equally valid."

Universal truth

But the Church feels it is being prevented from standing up for absolute, universal values, because it is has been progressively excluded from the national debate.

Benedict is expected to acknowledge that British institutions need to be secular, but will plead for religion not to be confined to a private realm.

In 2007, even the Pope protested as gay equality regulations were introduced, preventing Catholic adoption agencies in Britain from placing children only with heterosexual parents.

Catholicism, in terms of its economic analysis, is ahead of the curve
Philip Blond

Austen Ivereigh, of Catholic Voices, a group set up to represent the Church's view during the Pope's visit, regards that as a key moment in the loss of religious freedom.

"What Catholic bishops saw at that time is that they could no longer rely on the state," he explains.

"And it was clear that they had to fight for this. The Pope was saying 'fight'. He wasn't opposing equality or equality laws, but to fight for that freedom that is sometimes necessary to counterbalance, in some cases, the law.

"The Church needs to make its case for its place in the public square and regain that freedom. The Church can no longer rely on that relationship with the state and that freedom in the way it used to."

Catholic social teaching is fiercely critical of what it regards as the way the unfettered free market breaks up communities and leaves many people impoverished, and also of the way the state then intervenes with welfare that in turn makes people dependent.

Placards made by members of the Protest The Pope Campaign are preparied at The Humanist Society
Secular campaigners are set voice their anger against the Pope's message

Philip Blond, whose book Red Tory helped inspire David Cameron's Big Society, says he was inspired by Catholic ideas.

"What's interesting is that Catholicism, in terms of its economic analysis, is ahead of the curve. It talks about creating economic capacity, it talks about tradition... it talks about networks, it talks about free associations," he says.

"The origin of modern Catholic social teaching is really a critique of… a form of capitalism that basically enslaves people and a form of collectivism that enslaves people.

"If you're looking at European economies today that are following that [Catholic] route, they're doing far, far better than anybody else."

Pope Benedict will suggest that these countries are succeeding by encouraging the proliferation of voluntary community groups, and allowing them to grow strong.

In Britain, these include many church congregations which are already at work, pressing for safer streets, affordable housing, minimum wages and campaigning against the exploitation of migrants.

The Pope will tell his British audience that such groups could rebuild often dysfunctional communities, but only if a secular society allows churches the freedom to be themselves.

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