At some point soon, when the Pope recovers from his recent fall, he is due to come on a state visit to the UK.
I've been exchanging emails with a constituent who's not at all happy about this, given the Pontiff's stance on contraception, abortion and the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission, and in particular its impact on countries in the developing world. He does not think the UK government should be supporting such a man, nor the UK tapayer stumping up for the cost of such a visit. (I checked it out, and yes, we do pay the costs when a Head of State visits us, and vice versa when the Queen goes abroad).
I can see his point (the constituent's, that is). I think the Pope's views on these issues are wrong, even dangerous. But I don't think that means we should stop the State visit. (Actually my constituent has been arguing that he doesn't have a problem with the Pope's visit, but simply doesn't think we should be paying for it. But I don't think you can have a Head of State visiting this country without giving him the Head of State treatment). My constituent thought I was chickening out, not daring to criticise the Government's take on this, putting career before principle. But that was unfair. Even though I agreed with his analysis of the rights and wrongs of the Pope's views (OK, the wrongs) I simply didn't agree with him about the State visit, for the following reasons:
- I think the Pope's stance on these issues, as propogated by Catholic relief agencies across the developing world, has undoubtedly had a negative impact on HIV/AIDS prevention and maternal health. But he's not alone. The Bush administration for example, only wanted to fund HIV programmes that promoted abstinence. (I've blogged about this before; one of Obama's first acts as President was to reverse this, which was excellent news).
- We've hosted State visits for a range of leaders whose views in some areas do not chime with our own. The Chinese leader, for example. But rather than just blanking them, isn't it better to get them over here and put them in the spotlight? OK, the Pope's unlikely to turn up on Newsnight to be grilled by Paxman about his views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, but his visit will inevitably trigger public debate on such issues, with the Catholic church called to account. Peter Tatchell is, I'm sure, already dusting off his slogan T-shirts and placards, and will no doubt be arrested - or try to be arrested - before the visit is out.
- Whether or not we like his views, there are rather a lot of Catholics in this country, many of whom will share the Pope's views. For them, the Pope's visit is an important moment, a major event. My constituent would no doubt argue that there are neo-Nazis in this country, and that doesn't mean we would roll out the red carpet for Hitler. But Catholics are part of the mainstream. Our last Prime Minister is now a Catholic. The last Speaker was a Catholic. Is the Pope really so extreme an example of the Catholic faith that we should treat him as a pariah? Don't I have a duty to my Catholic constituents to allow them the opportunity to participate in a papal visit? I can recall the last Pope's visit and the ecstatic welcome he received, although that was the cuddly Pope in his Popemobile who was portrayed on Spitting Image as a rap-loving hipster and who I think everyone quite like really.
So - am I right? Or wrong? You tell me.