Fiddling While Christianity Burns

Pope Benedict is hitting all the wrong notes in his trip to the United Kingdom.

Ireland, where the Roman Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal has been the most appalling—hundreds of children molested over decades—is a short plane ride from England. And in Ireland, where since the days of St. Patrick, the Catholic Church has been the center of family and community life, weekly church attendance has declined to about 40 percent. Yet on his first visit to the English-speaking countries of Europe, Pope Benedict XVI chose to touch down in Scotland. There, he met with Queen Elizabeth and attended a mass featuring the vocal stylings of Susan Boyle, the phenom from the British version of American Idol.

To be fair, this was planned and billed as a trip to the United Kingdom, not to Ireland. Its ostensible purpose is twofold: to maintain the sometimes wobbly bridges between Catholics and Anglicans, and to preside over the beatification of the English Cardinal John Henry Newman (a convert from Anglicanism). But another religious leader might look at a map, consider the grievances of the Irish people (or heck, the Belgians for that matter) against the church, and see an opportunity for reconciliation—a dramatic gesture of the kind his predecessor John Paul II might have made. But this pope, as I have arguedagain and again is not another religious leader. On the sex scandals, he has been consistently tone deaf.

Benedict has another opportunity to demonstrate his gifts as a pastor and diplomat when he meets with the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on Friday. Ecumenical relations have been strained for centuries in England, of course, but most recently since the pope announced that he would welcome disenchanted Anglican priests, even the married ones, into the Roman church. (Williams struck back Thursday by announcing that the next meeting of Anglican primates would take place in January 2011—in Ireland, that fading Catholic stronghold.)

In an e-mail, N. T. Wright, the preeminent New Testament historian and former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, said he hoped the two men would take the opportunity to discuss ways to reinvigorate Christianity in the west. “I think the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope might well discuss the major challenge all churches in the west face,” he wrote, “freshly stating and living the gospel in a confused postmodern world with a deep hunger for spirituality but a deep suspicion of the church.” The archbishop, he adds, has already spoken eloquently in a speech last year on the possibilities for interdenominational cooperation. Its main thrust, says Wright, was, we agree about so much, might it be possible to live together with our remaining differences?

But Paul Elie, a book editor and writer who has covered both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, worries that behind closed doors, the two religious leaders will get hung up on church politics and doctrinal details having to do with who does and doesn’t have the right to receive the sacred orders of the priesthood. “The sad fact is that Benedict is going to say, ‘Your female priests are giving me a problem,’ and Williams is going to say, ‘Your pedophile priests are giving me a problem.’ ” In Britain, more than a third of people call themselves atheist or agnostic, and the number of people who call themselves “Christian” has, since the 1980s, been in steep decline. To focus on arcane matters of doctrine would be to fiddle while Christianity burns.