Benedict XVI's trip to Great Britain this week was already shaping up as a controversial showdown between a tradition-bound pope and a secularized British society, but inflammatory remarks by a German cardinal who was to have accompanied Benedict have upped the tensions even before the trip starts.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a well-known and popular churchman who recently retired as head of the Vatican department in charge of relations with other churches, was quoted by a German magazine saying Britain is a "Third World country" marked by "a new and aggressive atheism."
The Vatican immediately announced that Kasper, 77, was suffering from gout and would not be accompanying the pope on the four-day trip, set to start Thursday.
Kasper told the magazine Focus that "when you land at Heathrow you think at times you have landed in a Third World country." The Vatican said the cardinal had not intended "any kind of slight" and said he was referring to the U.K.'s multicultural society, according to the BBC
Kasper's critique of Britain's "aggressive atheism" was apparently not welcome, though it seems less arguable. Indeed, the cardinal's comment emerged as The Guardian, a national daily, printed a letter
from more than 50 prominent Britons saying the first-ever official state visit by a pope should not take place because of Benedict's record on child abuse, birth control, rights for homosexuals and abortion.
Even among the country's minority Catholic community, the reception for Benedict has been cool.