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Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI will become only the second pope to visit BritainImage: AP

Catholics in Britain

September 16, 2010

Around one in ten people in Britain are Catholic, and despite centuries of persecution, Catholics have reached the highest offices in the land. But the status of the 5.9 million British Catholics is a mixed picture.


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a recent high-profile convert to Catholicism. However, Catholics are still barred from the British throne by an Act of Settlement passed in 1701.

This archaic legislation is a hangover from centuries of struggle for Catholics in Britain. Ever since Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534 after Pope Clement II refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Christianity in Britain has followed a unique path. Catholic worship was only legalized in 1791.

Henry VIII
King Henry VIII separated England from the Vatican in 1534.Image: dpa

Historically the pope has been an important figure for British Catholics, who had a tendency to look towards Rome as a result of centuries of persecution. Nowadays, however, many British Catholics do not closely follow Vatican teaching. Andrew Brown, editor of the belief section of The Guardian website, calls the relationship that modern British Catholics have to the pope and the Vatican "semi-detached."

Mixed attitudes to the pope

"This isn't really a tremendously popular pope," Brown told Deutsche Welle. "And as for the Vatican, that is regarded with some suspicion."

But Father Michael McAndrew, a Catholic priest in the diocese of Clifton in the West of England is confident that whatever British Catholics may think about the man personally, they will welcome Pope Benedict when he visits Britain.

"[The pope] is going to be a voice of reason and calm and simplicity and holiness when he comes," Father McAndrew said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "The British people are very open-minded and broad-minded. We're a community that welcomes all sorts of people from all over the world to our midst and I think they will do so for the pope."

Anna Arco, chief feature writer for The Catholic Herald agrees with Father McAndrew.

"I think that many [British Catholics] hope the pope's visit will have a positive impact in terms of revitalizing the Catholic community which feels somewhat beleaguered and providing it with a rallying point."

The church mishandled sex abuse allegations

The Pope's visit to Britain comes amid a wave of bad publicity for the Catholic Church, notably over sex abuse scandals. Father McAndrew is quick to admit that the way the issue was handled by the wider Catholic Church has had a detrimental effect:

"I think the reputation of the church has been damaged by the sex abuse scandals. Speaking as a Catholic priest I'm horrified by what's happened… I think we have handled it very badly, we just have to hands-up say that."

Pope Benedict with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury
The pope invited closer relations with Anglicans in 2009Image: AP

In a poll conducted by the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, 55 percent of Catholics thought that the sex abuse issue had been badly handled by the church. Anna Arco is surprised that so few British Catholics have had their faith shaken by the scandal:

"It may have to do with the fact that in England and Wales the bishops have acted fairly decisively where cases of abuse have come to light," Arco said. "They commissioned two independent reviews and have some of the most stringent system of checks for people working in the church."

Dwindling congregations, and an ageing priesthood

The last seminary in Scotland closed last year, just one of the signs that the number of men being ordained as priests is falling steadily. The numbers attending church has also collapsed in recent years, although it has been bolstered by an influx of Catholics from Poland and elsewhere. There are between one and four million Catholics in Britain who attend church fairly regularly.

Tony Blair
Former prime minister Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office.Image: AP

However, Andrew Brown believes the church's teaching isn't keeping pace with modern ways of thinking in Britain and the west:

"In this country there was a very great deal of damage done to the institutional loyalty to the Church by the (…) ban on artificial contraception, because most Catholics have simply ignored it here as elsewhere in the Western world. And it's caused a great deal of double-talk among the hierarchy, because the priests know perfectly well that their congregations think it's ludicrous."

Figures published by The Telegraph newspaper show that only 4 percent of British Catholics agreed that artificial forms of contraception should not be used and 71 percent thought that condoms should be used more often in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Father McAndrew says that it is important that Catholics make up their own minds about the issues affecting the church.

"Catholics are not an indoctrinated people as some people think,” Father McAndrew said. “I think we're taught to think for ourselves, and in reaction to the problems in the Church people have got their own views. They listen carefully to what the Pope is going to say, and they listen carefully to what the bishops say."

Catholics in Britain may have once held the authority of the pope in greater esteem. But with the acclimatization of British Catholics into society, such attitudes have become less entrenched.

Author: Joanna Impey
Editor: Rob Turner

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