George Weigel thinks there is a ‘hollowness’ at the heart of post-Blair Britain

In his autobiography Tony Blair writes about the funeral of Diana but does not think of it in Christian terms (Photo: PA)

George Weigel, in an article in First Things, dealing at length with Tony Bair’s autobiography and then with the papal visit to England and Scotland, has a great deal to say that many of us would agree with. He links these two apparently disparate phenomena in an interesting way, not one which does much for our national self-esteem.  He doesn’t seem to see much hope for our future, or for that of our Church: and that’s where I think he’s just wrong.
“Blair’s recounting of the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales” he writes, “brings into clearest focus the hollowness at the heart of the Britain he helped midwife into being… her state funeral, the prime minister decided, ‘had to be dignified; it had to be different; it had to be Diana’. What it didn’t have to be, at least by Blair’s account, was Christian, despite its being held in Westminster Abbey, ‘hard by the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and the sacring place of the kings of England’, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote. Somehow, according to Blair, ‘Elton John singing Candle in the Wind and doing it rather brilliantly’ was ‘in keeping with Westminster Abbey’. Well, yes, if Westminster Abbey is simply a stage, a shrine to the Real Absence on which any romance may be produced.”
“That this woman’s death,” comments Weigel, “however tragic, sent an entire country into a nervous breakdown says something deeply disturbing about the culture of contemporary Britain. That Tony Blair perceived this national crack-up as ‘a tide that had to be channelled’ rather than a nonsense that had to be confronted suggests that he is not quite the Churchillian figure some of his American admirers would like him to be.”
And that is the nation, argues Weigel, that in his gentle way Pope Benedict did confront. It was a confrontation that many of us had feared. For, as Weigel memorably puts it,  “into the hollow soul of Britain during the Blair years roared any number of demons, such as those that could, with no fear of public retribution, describe the 83-year-old Pope Benedict as a former Nazi who ought to be arrested, on arrival in the United Kingdom, as the central figure in an international criminal conspiracy of child rapists and their abettors”.
Yes, but, but, but. If we are all so totally hollow, how come the British public generally (for, as we all noted with enormous relief, it wasn’t just Catholics) ignored the demons and responded so overwhelmingly positively to the Pope when they saw what he was actually like? That positive response was also an indication, just as powerful as the general response to the death of Diana, of the national soul: maybe it was even a sign that we had all moved on.
Weigel doesn’t seem to think that there’s much of a chance that Catholics in this country will respond in any lasting way to the challenge of the papal visit. He thinks little of our hierarchy, and quotes someone he describes as a “lucid observer” (I wonder who?) saying: “The British hierarchy didn’t do much wrong on this visit, but they did contain their enthusiasm until the secular press declared it a success, and then they joined in.”
Well, it may be true that “into the hollow soul of Britain during the Blair years roared any number of demons”, Dawkins and Tatchell being the chief archdemoniacs: but demons can be driven out: who listens to the “atheist coalition” now? And though I have great respect for Weigel, I wonder if he really thinks that this alleged hollowness is basically a British phenomenon to do with Blair (though undoubtedly “the people’s Tony” epitomised it to perfection here) or has to do more with the aggressive secularism that Pope Benedict has identified throughout western culture. What about the US, George? A certain hollowness there, too?
The Pope, I believe, released something in English, Welsh and Scottish Catholics that had been waiting to come out for years. I think that even lukewarm bishops (and none of them, have you noticed, have been anything less than publicly enthusiastic about the Pope since his visit, though quite a few were less than encouraging about it before it happened) will not be able to talk us down from that new confidence in ourselves and our religion. We just need a few good episcopal appointments from Cardinal Bertone to send a sign from Rome confirming that we are no longer on our own: and our churches, North and South of the border, will go from strength to strength. Don’t write us off yet, George Weigel: you just may have got us wrong.