Critique preferable to indifference

“The fact that a Pope is coming to Britain on a state visit also speaks volumes about how far we have come in the United Kingdom,”
Ambassador Francis Campbell

According to the U.K. ambassador to the Holy See, Britain is “very proud” of its shared relationship with the Catholic Church. Despite critique and controversy, he told Catholic News Agency (CNA) in an interview that there is great interest in the Pope’s visit this coming fall, and if people listen to his words closely, they might find that the Catholic Church is a “force for good.”

Ambassador Francis Campbell, a practicing Catholic, has been the lead British diplomat at the Vatican since 2005. His time in Rome would likely have been limited to just four years if not for his commitment to the papal trip from Sept. 16-19, he explained as he met for an interview with CNA.

Commenting on the positive impact of the Pope’s pending visit, Campbell said much can be accomplished for the U.K. “The figure of the Pope represents 17.5 percent of the world’s population, it’s a huge opportunity for Britain to say something to a huge section of the world community (with which), actually, historically there have been tensions.

“The fact that a Pope is coming to Britain on a state visit also speaks volumes about how far we have come in the United Kingdom,” he added, noting that “the world is very different positively and negatively than when Pope John Paul II was there” in 1982.

Campbell said that “looked at on the whole, [it] is a tremendous opportunity for the United Kingdom and the Holy See to really point to a strong, shared relationship.”

The U.K. government and the Church collaborate extensively, not only in Britain but all over the world, he said, pointing to areas such as education, elder and health care and achievement of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. And while the two sides do not see eye-to-eye on everything, even on the points of dissension they continue negotiating to see how they can reach common ground, the ambassador said.

“By and large,” Campbell said as he assessed the relationship, “there are these areas of tension between the Catholic Church and the government in any country, and in Britain it’s no different. And there have been issues in the past number of years about stem cell research, about quality legislation, and you could stand on those points of division and say there is animosity, there is distance, but there are other points of tremendous collaboration. School structure, for example.”

Addressing the voices in the media that attempt to “inflate” obstacles to the Pope’s visit, he said that naysayers have been there throughout the nation’s history, and that they represent a part of “the fabric of British life,” much like the openness that can be seen in British parliament discussions.

He pointed out that it would have been much like this also in the “world of Newman,” the influential 19th century Englishman who will be beatified by the Holy Father on Sept. 19 in Birmingham.

Controversy and critique, explained the ambassador, are preferable to indifference in the context of the papal visit.

“There’s an active interest in where he’s going for positive and negative reasons and an active interest in what he’s going to say. Now, how people hear that will be very interesting. There can be many strong preconceived ideas of what the papacy is and what the Pope is.”

Reflecting on a possible effect of the trip, he said,

“when people will sit and listen, and if they listen genuinely with an open spirit, then they may well be surprised at some of the things the Catholic Church is doing. It is getting people to address these preconceived ideas they have and actually realizing that the Church is there as a force for good.”

Campbell said that many times when he reads critiques raining blows on the Catholic Church or the Pope, he doesn’t recognize his personal experience of the Church or the papacy in their descriptions.

“I don’t know where this description is coming from, but if you want to create a ‘straw man’ to knock it down, try to get an accurate picture”.

“The Church is complex, it is large, it is global. And like any institution it has its pluses and its minuses, but, overall, we each have to answer the question as to whether or not it’s a force for good in the world and international development, and climate change and disarmament … ”

“The Church is playing a very, very active part in the life of the international community and we in the U.K. are very proud of our track record of working with it.”

Greatest moment

The greatest moment in the tenure of the U.K. ambassador to the Holy See was the Pope’s contribution to a British government-sponsored initiative to eradicate diseases in developing countries.

“He purchased the first bond for immunization and that scheme raised 1.6 billion U.S. dollars,” the ambassador recalled.

The British government-initiated funding effort called the International Financing Facility for Immunization (IFFIm) was founded in 2006 to finance immunizations against polio, malaria and tuberculosis in the world’s 72 poorest countries, especially for children under 5 years old.

It was promoted within the GAVI Alliance, an organization composed of the World Bank, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other partners to offer immunizations and work towards the U.N. Millenium Development Goal for child health.

Ambassador Campbell called it “a very innovative international development financing mechanism, to try to raise money in the here and now, so that we can immunize children … now, rather than have a 20-year program which would come too late for a lot of children.”

He said that the Pope’s purchase had an impact as he was followed in the action by a number of other religious leaders, thus reinforcing, through the “symbolic” contribution, “the moral dimension” of the development financing mechanism.

According to a Bloomberg news report, the first six bonds were purchased at their $1,000 face value by the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Chief Rabbi, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Hindu Forum of Britain and the Network of Sikh Organizations.

Through a “big bang approach,” made possible with the great amount of capital, diseases that have been eradicated or controlled in the developed world can be addressed on a broad scale in the developing world, said Ambassador Campbell

He noted that the Holy See was a “key partner” in the development of the concept of the immunization effort and when Pope Benedict bought the first bond, “for us it was a huge achievement.”

Rome, Italy, Aug 5, 2010 (CNA/EWTN News)