How Benedict XVI vanquished the New Atheists

Benedict XVI arrives at Cofton Park, Birmingham, for the beatification of Cardinal Newman (AP)

Ten years ago today Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, taking the name Benedict XVI. One surprise of the papacy that followed was that his visit to Britain was a such resounding success – so successful, in fact, that the benefits are still felt to this day.

In the months leading up to the papal visit in September 2010, we had militant atheists, campaigning secularists and many sections of the anti-Catholic lobby doing their worst to cast a shadow over the visit.

The National Secular Society launched its (grammatically suspect) “Protest the Pope” campaign, making known to anyone who would listen its beef that the taxpayer was footing some of the bill for the state visit. It ran an online petition, as well as printing T-shirts with the slogan, “Pope Nope”.

The human rights activist Peter Tatchell even threatened to arrest Benedict and put him on trial for “crimes against humanity”.

Then there was that leaked memo, exposed by the Telegraph, in which civil servants lampooned the Pope’s visit by suggesting he should open an abortion ward during his trip and launch a range of papal-branded condoms.

But the British public generally had little sympathy for the protesters. They felt they protested too much, and the Pope’s visit went swimmingly.

Perhaps the turning point was when a young Catholic, Paschal Uche, welcomed Pope Benedict on the steps of Westminster Cathedral. Paschal was training to be a pharmacist at the time, and is now a seminarian. The sight of eloquent and well-adjusted Catholics such as Paschal taking centre stage did a lot to strip away the anti-Catholic prejudice stirred up by the protesters.

Campaigning secularists and self-styled New Atheists lost a lot of credibility during the visit. The campaigners poured so much of their energy into trying to put Benedict on trial, as if he were some base criminal, that they acted as though the British public needed safeguarding from the grandfatherly, gentle man in white.

When Benedict arrived on our shores, the public saw through all the huffing and puffing. Parts of the mainstream media also looked rather silly. Before the visit they had given lots of ink and airtime to anyone with an anti-papal axe to grind.

The fruits of the visit are still being enjoyed today. The profile of Catholics in Britain has been raised and anti-Catholic bigotry has lessened. That explains why Pope Francis’s detractors don’t enjoy much of an audience among ordinary Britons nowadays. And New Atheists have never quite been given the same platform as they were before Benedict’s visit.