17 September 2010

Notes on the Papal Visit 1: Cost and Purpose

Sick in bed all today, I wrote a very long Facebook post about the Papal visit and the controversy some have tried to kick up about it. Thinking it mightn't be a bad idea to post it here too, here goes...

I've gotten rather tired of playing whack-a-mole with all the crazy myths being perpetuated about the Papal visit, so here's a pretty straightforward summary of where I stand on this.

Firstly, the Queen has made at least two formal state visits to the Holy See at the invitation of the Pope, and at the Holy See's expense. Given this, is it really so odd that the Pope, as head of state of the Holy See, should have been invited here or that he should have accepted? It is worth pointing out that the Holy See, to which the United Kingdom's ambassador is accredited, is not synonymous with the Vatican City, and predates most if not all other European states, dating back well into the medieval period.

There are straightforward political reasons why the British government should have wanted the Pope to visit. The British government and the Holy See work together in the fields of international justice, development, and debt, as well as other issues such as the environment. The government wants to develop these ties further to make use of what it perceives as the Holy See's massive 'soft power' in these areas. This is why the Pope has been invited here on a formal state visit, and is why more than half the cost of the visit is being paid for by the state.

Why not all the cost, as would normally be the case? Well, the Pope is taking advantage of being here in order to perform his pastoral duties for British Catholics, and to oversee the beatification of Cardinal Newman, one of his heroes, and one of mine, for what it's worth. Benedict would hardly have come here if he could not have done such things, and such pastoral and ecclesiastical elements of the trip are being paid for by the Church, which is having to seek special donations from Britain's Catholics to fund these, as when John Paul II visited in 1982, the Church in Britain was left broke and in debt.

(For what it's worth the Queen shall be visiting Ireland in 2011, and shall be doing so at the Irish taxpayers' expense. I hope there shan't be Irish people upset at the prospect of paying for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to visit their country.)

It looks as though £8 million of the costs shall be borne by Britain's Catholics, with the remaining £12 million or so - according to the government - being borne by the state that's invited Benedict to visit. This £12 million figure excludes security costs, but the government reckons they'll cost about £1.5 million. Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, on the other hand, is screeching that the visit will cost about £100 million, but given that the G20 Summit last year had a security budget of less than £8 million, I very much doubt that the Pope's visit shall cost eleven times that amount.

In short,  it looks like the taxpayer will be paying something in the region of £14 million for the visit. Presumably the government believes this will be money well spent if it means that it gain the support of the Holy See in achieving some of its foreign policy objectives. And £14 million, lest people feel that that's an outrageous amount to be spending on helping starving people in Africa, say, isn't that much; it's about 23p per head of population. And if that still bothers people, Halifax reckons everyone has, on average, seven tiimes that amount buried in their living room couch.

What then of the other reasons being wheeled out against Benedict being here? Two seem to be paramount, being the abuse scandals and the supposed effect of Church teaching on AIDS in Africa; there are other issues, but these pale into insignificance next to these. So...

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