From the editor's desk

Vatican’s welcome ally

06 February 2014

It is well known that the Queen takes a personal as well as a professional interest in matters religious, and mentions it more often and more generously than she has to. She can be regarded as a Christian leader in her own right as well as a secular figurehead. It is not surprising, therefore, that she would be personally keen to meet the new Pope who has generated such an extraordinary degree of interest in such a short space of time. Now it has been announced that she will visit the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, at his invitation in April, and will pay an informal visit to Pope Francis the same afternoon.  

The Catholic community in Great Britain certainly owes her a debt of gratitude for the way she welcomed Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom in 2010. The dignity and warmth with which she did so helped to turn the tide of popular opinion towards him, which was by no means inevitable considering the strident hostility that had been generated against the papacy and the Catholic Church in the run-up to the visit.

It was quickly apparent that the minority did not speak for the majority – and she did. It was a telling lesson in statecraft at the highest symbolic level, very much what Queen Elizabeth is renowned for. It is something Prince Philip also understands, and though 92 and not always in the best of health, it is fitting that he can accompany her to the Vatican. She is herself 87, and they do not make many foreign visits these days.

Meetings between the Pope and the Queen are never merely a diplomatic encounter between heads of state. They have a significant ecumenical dimension because of her place as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, because of her personal commitment as a Christian, and because of the history of the relationship between the monarchy and papacy that stretches back nearly 1,500 years. Sometimes it has been a troubled history, but it also has a positive side. The very title “Defender of the Faith”, granted by Pope Leo X to Henry VIII, revoked by Leo’s successor Paul III, and re-awarded by Parliament in 1544, is still remembered on the coinage of the realm. It would be gracious if Pope Francis could acknowledge that such a title is once more well-deserved in her case. Though not a member of his flock, she is an important and influential ally and in no sense a rival.

There are further dimensions to the ecumenical relationship that are equally promising. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has acknowledged that Anglicanism can fruitfully borrow from the Catholic Church’s tradition of social teaching. There is much scope for future collaboration between the two communions in the area of social justice – over poverty, the environment, human trafficking and building fairer relations between the richer and poorer nations of the world. They are equally worried by the state of Christian-Muslim relations in places where conflict has erupted. Those are key themes of the ministry both of Pope Francis and of Archbishop Welby, and it would be very encouraging to see them working side by side, literally as well as metaphorically. Where the Queen goes, her archbishop cannot be far behind.

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