Pope Benedict's much-debated visit in Britain began Thursday, and opened dramatically. The pope, in the words of The Guardian, "launch[ed] a blistering attack on 'atheist extremism' and 'aggressive secularism,'" talking of the "damage that 'the exclusion of God, religion, and virtue from public life' had done in the last century." The pope even went so far as to say that

The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times, when a 'dictatorship of relativism' threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man's nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. ... For this reason I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful [Catholics], in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith's wisdom and vision in the public forum.

In a nation already ambivalent about Benedict's presence, this message has gone over none too smoothly, particularly the part about "atheist extremism" being responsible for the evils of the twentieth century.

  • He Was Attacking 'the Nazis, not Richard Dawkins,' The Guardian's Andrew Brown reminds irate folks who he thinks "have jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion." He also attempts to unpack and even defend Benedict's line of reasoning, up to a point:

The atheist tyrannies of the 20th century did kill millions of people, many of them for their Christian beliefs. For Benedict, that is one of the main lessons of modern history. He seems never to have appreciated the horrors of Spanish-speaking and notionally Catholic fascisms in the same visceral way. ... For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn't go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. ... Where secularists see religion as a divisive force, and their own beliefs as the self-evident and true base on which a healthy society can be built, Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged. Human rights are not self-evident. What rights we have depend on what kind of people that we think we are, and that is exactly the kind of question which social change and multiculturalism sharpen.
  • Okay, but the Nazis Weren't Necessarily Atheists Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right questions Benedict's use of the phrase "a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society." Says Stuttaford: "The pope is not only a clever and highly-educated man, he is also someone who grew into adolescence under the Third Reich." That means he ought to know "that the Nazi attitude towards religion is a highly complex topic." Though churches were allowed "largely [as] a matter of cynical political calculation" and the movement was "profoundly anti-Christian ... Hitler himself does not appear to have been an atheist," and probably would have instituted "some form of neo-paganism" in Germany "rather than the nominal atheism of the Soviet or Communist Chinese states." Given that "none of this would be news to Benedict," Stuttaford seems to finds the pope's decision to link Nazism to atheism a bit suspect.
  • 'Remember Our Spiritual History' Isn't a Bad Message Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of Catholic Voices, weighs in at The Independent. Currently, he says, there's "a narrative that pits human rights against religion, freedom against faith, justice against the Church." The narrative is a "false" one, says Ivereigh, and Benedict's "reminding the nation of 'the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms,' citing William Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale, and Britain's sacrifice in standing against Nazism" is a valuable counterpoint:
In a diverse society the Catholic narrative, of course, is one among many, and cannot demand special privileges. ... [But] An authentically pluralist society allows for this diversity - and the state encourages and protects it, balancing the various rights involved. To take a recent example, Catholic adoption agencies should have the right not to consider same-sex couples as adoptive parents if they believe (because of what they understand to be God's vision for humanity) that the man-woman binary model is in the best interests of children.