By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
LONDON (RNS) Seemingly unfazed by months of protests from secularist critics, Pope Benedict XVI deployed unusually forceful language on Friday (Sept. 17) to defend the "legitimate role of religion" in public life.
Benedict, on the second day of his four-day visit, seemed to be taking cues from the general temperament of his British hosts: polite and gracious but nonetheless firm and to the point.
Addressing parliamentarians and other dignitaries at the Palace of Westminster, Benedict denounced the "increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity" that is afflicting Britain and other liberal Western societies.
"There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none," the pope said.
Benedict insisted, however, that religion has played a vital role in public discourse, as a "corrective" to "social evils" such as slavery and the "totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century."
Benedict noted that he was speaking in the same building where a court had condemned Thomas More because he "followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign" and "chose to serve God first."
More, the former chancellor of King Henry VIII, was condemned to death for treason in 1535 for opposing the king's decision to seize leadership of the Church of England and repudiate the authority of the pope.
With prominent business figures seated before him, Benedict also drew a biting contrast between recent international bailouts for the banking industry and what he suggested what was the relative indifference to the plight of the world's poor.
"Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed 'too big to fail'," the pope said. "Surely the integral human development of the world's peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise ... that is truly 'too big to fail."'
The pope's direct tone extended to his encounters with other religious leaders. In a speech to non-Christian dignitaries earlier in the day, he pressed the need in "some parts of the world" for greater "freedom to follow one's conscience without suffering ostracism or persecution, even after conversion from one religion to another."
Without going into detail, Benedict's words seemed an unmistakable reference to a number of Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where Catholic leaders have long demanded greater freedom to worship legally and safely.
Benedict's busy agenda for Friday, when he delivered a total of six speeches, included two encounters with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Relations between the two churches have been strained since the Vatican announced plans last year to welcome Anglican converts, allowing them to retain a collective identity by retaining many traditional prayers and hymns in specially designed Catholic dioceses.
During their meeting in Williams' official residence, Lambeth Palace, Benedict acknowledged only generally what he called the "difficulties" between Canterbury and Rome, emphasizing instead their "deep friendship."
Later in the day, Benedict and Williams jointly led an ecumenical prayer service in Westminster Abbey, the traditional site of coronations and funerals for British monarchs.
Benedict urged his fellow Christian leaders to be uncompromising in their evangelization, "free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age."
The first pope to visit the Abbey--and only the second to visit Britain in modern times--Benedict asserted the ancient papal claim, rejected by Protestants, to leadership of all Christians, invoking the mantle of "the bishop of Rome and the successor of St. Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ's flock."
Outside the Abbey, Benedict's appearance was protested by several hundred members of the Protestant Truth Society, some holding signs reading "The Pope is the Anti-Christ."
The mostly friendly crowd, which cheered Benedict when he arrived in his "popemobile," included protesters with signs denouncing the sex abuse of children by Catholic priests.
Protests of Benedict's visit have been small so far, but a coalition of secularist groups has planned a demonstration for Saturday afternoon.
The biggest distraction on Friday was the arrest of six men, identified as Algerians working as street sweepers, who were being held by Scotland Yard on charges of plotting against the pope. Spokesman for the Vatican and the British government insisted that the pope had never been in any danger.