British fair-mindedness was the Pope’s secret weapon

Peter Tatchell at the Protest the Pope march. The atheists' campaign was just too vicious to win people over (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

What now for Protest the Pope and for what it will continue to represent in our culture even after its presumably imminent dissolution? Before this deeply unpleasant organisation retires from the field, licking its wounds, it is as well to reflect on what it really did achieve. First, in the media battle that raged before the Pope’s arrival, the Protest the Pope coalition got a huge amount of coverage, so much, indeed, that some of us began to fear that the visit might turn out to be a disaster. They really did seem successfully to be whipping up an anti-Catholic hysteria which looked a lot more durable than in the end it turned out to be.

The sheer venom of the attack, at times, had me rattled. Remember Claire Rayner? “I have no language”, she spat, “with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the Pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.”

This, as I wrote at the time, “is all horrible for anyone who regards Pope Benedict with the admiration and love most Catholics feel for him; and I find myself almost wishing that the decision had been taken to beatify Cardinal Newman in St Peter’s Square and not a muddy field, and for the Pope to be spared this dreadful business of a state visit”.

Well, I got it wrong. Any doubts I had about the state visit were all swept away by that wonderfully impressive address to the leaders of civil society in Westminster Hall. A purely pastoral visit would have inspired the faithful, no doubt: but the result of a state visit has been seriously to re-engage the Church with our society, to regain our place in the public square: now the Pope has gone, that is something we need to keep alive. Download the text of the address – you can read all the addresses at – and (in the words of a famous Anglican prayer), “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” it.

In the event, that headlong confrontation of values, between the Pope’s transparent humility and goodness, and the vicious hatred and arrogance of Protest the Pope, could only end in one way: with the utter failure of the atheist campaign to gain the hearts and minds of the British people – a people who, in the end, will always choose decency over gross incivility. In the end, British fair-mindedness was the Holy Father’s secret weapon. Protest the Pope was just not cricket.

Before the visit, I was interviewed for the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS): are you aware, I was asked, “of any papal visit which has been preceded by a campaign of such fury and loathing?” Well, no. But the fact is that Protest the Pope and its allies peaked too soon, and they went too far – much, much too far. They discredited themselves and underestimated their enemy. In the event, it was just no contest.