“Benedict XVI’s success in the UK,” writes George Weigel, “challenges the often supine British hierarchy to be as humanly compelling and intellectually forceful as the Pope. If the bishops of the UK gather their nerve, they may eventually recognise that the New Atheists are in danger of becoming Paisley 2.0: people so perfervid, so over-the-top in their antipathies as to be dismissed as fundamentally unserious. The virulence of the New Atheists’ pre-papal visit commentary suggests they may fear this fate for themselves. In which case, to use another local phrase, it’s time to put in the boot.”
I would like to know what my readers think about this. My own instincts often tend towards putting in the boot: for instance, what are we to make of Bishop Kieran Conry, who, when an interviewer asked him about the ordination of women (on which the Catholic view has been clear for centuries), and whether the Pope should “change his mind”, replied with that (he thinks) winning twinkle: “Well, according to Pope John Paul II, this was a definitive statement, wasn’t it, so… [laughs] I couldn’t possibly comment.”
This is not the first time that Bishop Conry has inspired in me a certain twitchiness around the boot area: but of course, what George Weigel is saying is not that what he calls Britain’s “often supine British hierarchy” (which strictly speaking, of course, doesn’t exist: there are at least two “British” hierarchies) should have the boot put into it – and one would have to say anyway that the Conryite tendency is not universal among our bishops – but that they, the bishops, should be putting the boot into the New Atheists.
Well, there are two reasons why they won’t and probably shouldn’t try. The first is that they are probably too frightened of them, even now, to do anything of the sort. Archbishop Peter Smith even went to plead with them beforehand not to be too nasty, thus handing them a propaganda triumph. It was unnecessary anyway; it was the Pope who sorted them out, simply by the loving kindness of his gentle but powerful personality, by a charisma which attracted crowds so large that their own puny demo was simply swept away. He made only one reference to the “aggressive atheism” which had by then already discredited itself, and the agressive atheists were utterly routed; job done.
That brings me to the real reason why the bishops shouldn’t put the boot in. The Pope’s secret weapon, as I also wrote just after the visit, was British fair-mindedness: if we put the boot in now against the “protest the Pope” mob, who are still prostrate and licking their wounds, that would rebound on us: you don’t kick a man when he is down. Just ignore them is my instinct. They are harmless now: their own sheer futility has finished them off.