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Pope Benedict's Visit to the U.K. May Be a Flop

4 years ago
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LONDON -- Boy, do I hope that the pope has thick skin. On Thursday, he arrived for the first papal visit to the United Kingdom since John Paul II came in 1982. But unlike his predecessor, it doesn't look like Pope Benedict XVI is going to get a hero's welcome.

The pontiff will spend four days in the U.K., visiting Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham. But if ticket sales are any indicator of his popularity, he's far from attaining rock star status on this island nation.

As of Tuesday, thousands of tickets remained unsold for events during the pope's visit. One of these -- the beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman, a Victorian theologian who converted to Catholicism -- was scaled back dramatically from a venue that could hold 200,000 seats to one holding only 80,000 (of which only 50,000 tickets have been sold). Many of the unsold tickets are now being redistributed or given to schools.

Pope Benedict XVIIn addition, the pope is going to be greeted by protesters. On Thursday, the Rev. Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland led a 60-strong delegation from the Free Presbyterian Church to protest the visit. On Saturday, Protest the Pope, a loose coalition of human rights activists, secularists, survivors of clerical sexual abuse and reform-minded Catholics will march in London. The group has 9,000 Facebook members and champions causes ranging from female ordination of priests to lifting clerical celibacy to more pro-active church efforts on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse. (Some members of this group even went so far as to mount a campaign to enact a citizen's arrest of the pope during his visit, but that idea has been shelved.)

There's also a good deal of resentment over the cost of this trip, the price tag of which -- this is an official, State visit -- is estimated at over 20 million pounds (about $31 million). Of that total, £11 million will be funded by the church and £9 million by the British government, including a record £1 million to £1.5 million in policing costs. But a recent poll found that 77 percent of people do not think taxpayers should be paying for the visit. And on Wednesday, The Guardian published a letter from a group of prominent actors, writers, and academics saying that the Pope shouldn't be granted the "honor" of a state visit because of the Vatican's policies on homosexuality, abortion, and birth control.

Pope Benedict will also be facing a nation of non-believers. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that just a third of the country's population held firm religious beliefs, with another third deeply skeptical and the final third uncertain. This is consistent with a Guardian/ICM poll conducted in 2006 in which only 33 percent described themselves as religious, against 63 percent who said they were not -- including a majority who described themselves more broadly as culturally Christian.

While many have assumed that the rise in immigration from places like Africa and Eastern Europe would bolster Christianity in Great Britain -- particularly Roman Catholicism -- that hasn't necessarily proved to be the case. In an interview with the BBC, Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, says that Mass attendance in Great Britain has "dropped by half in 20 years," from 1,913,200 in 1990 to 972,800 in 2010. His prediction is that, despite the influx of immigrants, Catholicism will be nothing more than a "cult" in 30 years time, and that the Catholic Church will be unsustainable as a national institution. (There are approximately 4.7 million Catholics in the United Kingdom, which is roughly 8.5 percent of the population.)

Whether or not he's right about that -- and others disagree -- there's no question that the pope is not arriving on particularly fertile soil for his message or his religion right now.

Let's see whether he can work some magic and turn those numbers around.

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