The papal visit souvenirs are too tasteful – I say bring back the Benny Bear

This teddy bear T-shirt was sold during the Pope's trip to America in 2008 alongside the fluffy white "Benny Bear" (Photo: CNS)

“The leader of the world’s largest paedophile ring will be in Britain next month – and purveyors of crappy Catholic goods are hoping to make a killing with a range of monumentally awful souvenirs”: thus, The Freethinker (“the voice of atheism since 1881”). I say nothing about the “paedophile” jibe, since I have already written more than once about the lie that the Church is more paedophilic than society at large rather than less so, and discovered that those who want to believe a lie are simply not interested in any evidence to the contrary. No, it’s that sneer about “monumentally awful souvenirs” that interests me, since the souvenirs I have been able to discover are actually disappointingly tasteful.

For those who think that must be a misprint for some other word, let me explain: when I was an Anglican, it was – among other things – the unfailing good taste, especially visual good taste, with which Anglicanism as a religion was conducted which first made me suspect that there was something wrong with it. I don’t mean, by good taste, a taste which is educated and intelligent (that, after all, might be interesting and adventurous), but a good taste which is a kind of safety device, installed in order to avoid going too far. “Tasteful” autumn tints in the flower arrangements – nothing too gaudy – that kind of thing.  

It seemed to me more and more that authentic religion carried an element of risk and that in the unashamed gaudiness of so much Catholic tat I saw the reverse of a coin of which the obverse was a certain passion about religious observance –and also an entire absence of that great curse of Anglicanism, its deadening respectability. Oscar Wilde, shortly before his own deathbed reception into the Church, said: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” That respectability was conveyed for me by those dispiriting and omnipresent brown chrysanthemums and irreproachably polished brass lecterns.

But if we go to the official papal visit store, what do we find? Good taste. Nothing but the most impeccably English good taste. (There is, I admit, an electronic flashing candle, which can be waved during open-air events: but nothing any worse than that). Catholics with Attitude does a bit better, with its “Team Benedict” hoodies and baseball caps: but even here, there is a certain restraint, a dispiriting absence of gaudiness.

The Americans did much better two years ago: the first officially announced souvenir was a teddy bear in a T-shirt called “Benny Bear” (Benny, short for Benedict, get it?) of which the spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington said: “It’s cute. It’s fun. It brings the Holy Father into secular culture and lets parents go into a family-friendly store and do something related to their faith.”  That’s what I call tasteless.  But do we find Benny Bear on sale here? Not a chance.
There may be something I have missed. If so, let me know: I await your posts with some impatience. I can’t offer a prize for the most tasteless souvenir: but you will have reassured a slightly disquieted old convert.