RDN, the Pope’s visit, and BBC R4’s “Sunday”

I had a v brief outing on Radio 4’s Sunday religious current affairs programme, and it’s a privilege to be asked.  Here’s the crib I prepared for the event, in which I was asked about the protest dimension of the Pope’s forthcoming visit.

(1) This being a state visit, in which a leader is invited by the state (the nation, the country), the Pope is entitled to be treated with a particular dignity (as was President Zuma or the Chinese head of state). Any talk of arrest (in the manner of Pinochet) is plainly absurd. The idea of a citizen’s arrest is almost worse, and anyway rendered very difficult by the levels of security which rightly surround the pontiff.

(2) If they disrupt papal events, protestors will be abusing the right of thousands of people to celebrate and worship along with the leader of their faith. This ought to affront the liberal principles the protestors insist are so dear to them. This is especially so granted that the religious followers of Catholicism are themselves rather liberal and kindly. The Pope and his followers are not some extremist (say, fascist or crypto-Nazi) group who need challenging in some especially robust way.

(3) The Pope and his followers do not need to be subject to protest on the basis that otherwise they would not know the arguments against them. The protestors’ freedom of speech has been evident in the oceans of media coverage given to their arguments.

(4) It is not remotely self-evident that public protest will somehow be more convincing than media argument, so any argument by the protestors that efficacy commends their right to public protest is flawed.

(5) These arguments do not dispute the right of protestors to be evident on the street during the visit. They do, however, question the value and merit of such protest. One shouldn’t protest merely for the sake of exercising the right to protest, in the manner of Koran-burning or (on one interpretation) insolent mosque-building.

(6) Any Pope is a focus for protest, but this Pope is a target not least because he hasn’t built up the (rather irrational) fan-base which adored Pope John-Paul III. JPIII was not especially liberal, but he was the Beatle Pope, he ski-ed, he was the first Pope to go on tour, and he was associated with the Polish freedom-fighters. He had the Nelson Mandela dimension, even the JFK dimension. He hadn’t been head of the Inquisition. Priestly child-abuse was not much (or at all?) in the news on his watch. Benedict is a more complicated figure than he seems (as was JP), but the public imagination does not always grasp that sort of nuance.

(7) In general, it is important to say that almost all direct action, even “peaceful direct action”, is either silly or wrong. We are in a muddle about that, and I have written a lot on the theme. 

 (8) There is a lot to be said for wit in protest, and for bearing witness. The point being that outlawing disruption and confrontation, say, does not mean that more effective protest cannot be designed and implemented.

(9) There was nothing to stop protestors mounting an event of quite enormous scale, perhaps before the visit or away from Papal events. The issue about direct action, or about the style of on-the-scene protest, is not about any judgement as to the merit of the Pope’s visit versus that of the protestors’ cases.


What a breath of fresh air to see such a clear, reasoned and truly liberal argument on this issue. I am very glad I have found your blog.

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Publication date

12 September 2010