Pope makes historic visit to UK; Catholic membership rises despite modern issues

By Kimberlee Hauss

Amidst current controversies surrounding the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI broke through religious and political boundaries that have been in place for centuries on his state visit to the United Kingdom, Sept. 16–19.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the Holy See has visited England, and the tour marked the first papal state visit since King Henry VIII split from Rome in 1534 over his divorce.  The 400 years of religious tension, added to modern conflict between the Catholic and Church of England, as well as the clerical sexual abuse scandals surrounding the papacy, set the stage for a historical visit in the U.K.

Although the pope’s trip attracted a lot of recent attention, many eyes have already been warily focused on the Catholic Church because of the ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandals. It started decades ago, but came to a head in Boston in 2002 and again in Ireland in 2009. Victims who had been sexually abused as children by their bishop were bringing accusations against many leaders in the Catholic Church.

“There were priests who should have been removed from the priesthood, and in some cases they moved them around rather than disciplining them,” said Dr. James A. Patterson, associate dean of the School of Theology and Missions. “Overall, there was a feeling that the churches response was not adequate to the crisis.”

Despite the number of sexual abuse victims who have come forward in the last year, the Catholic Church is still increasing in membership, while the Southern Baptist denomination, the second largest Christian body in the United States, declined last year, according to the 2010 “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches” released by the National Council of Churches.

Because of the mass number of Catholics in America, Patterson said evangelicals should be aware of what is happening in the Catholic realm.

It is the largest single grouping within Christianity,” Patterson said. “It has a long history and most of us have Catholic friends and neighbors, maybe even relatives, so we do need to be aware of what’s going on in the papacy and the Catholic Church.”

Aside from the sexual abuse scandals, Benedict’s visit to the U.K. highlighted the controversy between the Church of England and the Catholic church. The Church of England is angered over the pope’s recent decision to make it easier to convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Eleven months ago, the Vatican chose to allow members to bring some of their traditions with them to the Catholic faith. Many of these converts are people who were upset with the Church of England’s more progressive stance of allowing women and gays to be ordained. Benedict did not ask the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams, what he thought about the decision.

Patterson said he believes one reason behind the tour could have to do with this recent development between the Catholic church and Church of England.

“In a sense, he may be hoping that some point down the road, the Church of England and the Catholic Church can reconcile, although I don’t think that’s realistic,” Patterson said.

Regarding the Church of England’s allowance of women to be ordained, Patterson said that “would be one major obstacle to any reunion.”

The Rev. Thomas D. Kirk, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Jackson, agreed that this issue presents problems.

“It derails the Anglican-Catholic relations that were coming to full communion at a point under Pope Paul VI,” Kirk said.

If Benedict’s itinerary included reconciling differences, his presence at the beatification of a 19th-century Anglican convert did not help matters. The Holy See beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman, who left the Church of England for Catholicism, in front of 80,000 attendees of a prayer vigil. Typically, popes do not beatify, which means “to declare to have attained the blessedness of heaven and authorize the title ‘Blessed’ and limited public religious honor,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. However, Benedict made an exception to beatify a convert in the city where the power of the Anglican church presides.

While the Holy See may have been trying to reconcile differences on his tour in the U.K., Kirk said the overall purpose of the trip was to combat the “tide of secularism” that is taking over England.

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