LONDON – Spokesmen for the Vatican and the Catholic Church in England worked to downplay remarks by a former Vatican official who compared Britain to a “Third World country” in the grip of a “new and aggressive atheism.”
The comments were made by German Cardinal Walter Kasper in the Sept. 11 edition of the German magazine Focus but gained notice in the British media Sept. 15, the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 16-19 visit to Scotland and England.
The cardinal was supposed to have joined the papal entourage for the trip but dropped out because of ill health, said a Vatican statement.
British media reported Cardinal Kasper was suffering from gout and was unable to walk.
“England today is a secularized and pluralist country,” the cardinal said in the interview. “When you land at Heathrow airport (near London), you sometimes think you’ve landed in a Third World country.”
Commenting on the rise of aggressive secularism, he remarked that “when you wear a cross on British Airways you are discriminated against” – a reference to the case of Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee of the airline who was suspended in October 2006 for refusing to remove a crucifix on a necklace wore over her uniform.
The comments generated buzz in the British media and led to further condemnations of the Catholic Church by groups and individuals already opposed to Pope Benedict’s visit.
The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales quickly distanced itself from the comments of Cardinal Kasper, who until last year was a frequent visitor to Britain, often meeting Anglican leaders as the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
“The attributed comments of Cardinal Kasper do not represent the views of the Vatican, nor those of bishops in this country,” the bishops’ conference said in a Sept. 15 statement.
“Clearly, they are the personal views of one individual,” it said.
“Catholics play a full part in this country’s life and welcome the rich diversity of thought, culture and people which is so evident here,” the statement added. “This historic visit marks a further development of the good relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See. We are confident that it will be a huge success.”
At the Vatican, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, also issued a statement to clarify the cardinal’s comments, which he said “have no negative intention and do not reflect any lack of appreciation for the United Kingdom.”
He said the cardinal “wanted to refer to the fact that from the moment of one’s arrival at London’s airport – as happens in many great cities of the world today, but in London in particular for its unique historic role as capital of the United Kingdom – one is aware from the very beginning that one finds oneself in a country in which many human realities from diverse origins and conditions arrive and encounter each other: a cosmopolitan reality, a crucible of modern humanity, with its differences and its problems.”
Father Lombardi added: “As far as the reference to atheism, he was referring evidently to the positions of some noted authors who are particularly aggressive and who cover themselves with scientific or cultural arguments, but which in reality don’t have the value that they claim. This doesn’t mean, naturally, that Cardinal Kasper is unaware that these positions and trends are limited, or that he does not recognize the great values of the British culture.”
Reports of the cardinal’s remarks about “aggressive secularism” came the same day that a British newspaper printed a letter from more than 50 prominent Britons criticizing the visit.
Signatories included atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, comedian Stephen Fry, and writers Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman.
The signers said Pope Benedict’s positions on such issues as contraception, homosexuality and abortion meant he “should not be given the honor of a state visit to this country.”
Contributing to this story was John Thavis at the Vatican.