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The pope's trip to Britain is worth the money

By Luke Coppen, Special to CNN
  • Objectors to the pope's state visit to Britain don't believe the taxpayer should foot the bill for his trip
  • The pope insists the visit should cost the taxpayer as little as possible and the church will pay more than half
  • Some five million Britons -- about one in 12 of the population -- are baptized Catholics
  • The church is asking only to be one voice among many as Britain confronts moral challenges of new century

Editor's note: Luke Coppen is editor of The Catholic Herald.

London, England (CNN) -- If you invited a friend to dinner would you escort them to the door at the end of the evening and present them with a bill for steak, cake and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape?

I didn't think so. And neither, it's fair to say, would most British people. But that is precisely what objectors to the pope's state visit to Britain are asking Her Majesty's Government to do.

They want Benedict XVI to foot the full bill of the papal visit -- an estimated £20 million ($31 million) -- even though he was invited to the country on behalf of the British people by the queen and two prime ministers.

You might not know that if you got your news from Protest the Pope, the group co-ordinating opposition to the trip. You might have the impression that Benedict XVI phoned David Cameron last month, told him he was coming and gave him a Mariah Carey-style rider demanding silk bed sheets in Vatican colors and a fridge packed with ice-cold Fanta (the Pontiff's favorite beverage.)

In fact, the pope has insisted that the visit costs the taxpayer as little as possible. Pope Benedict understands that Britons are about to face the harshest austerity measures in a generation and doesn't want their money wasted on traditional head of state courtesies such as the horse-drawn carriage ride with the queen. That is why the church is paying more than half the bill. But, again, you wouldn't know that if you listened only to the protestors.

A good number of British taxpayers happen to be Catholic. Some five million Britons -- about one in 12 of the population -- are baptized Catholics. Many of them object to their tax money being spent on abortion and nuclear weapons, but they accept that living in a modern democratic society means that their taxes are spent on some things they find abhorrent. If only opponents if the state visit were as accepting of the give and take of liberal democracy.

And that is one of the Pope's key messages during this visit: Believers are not a threat to Britain's tolerant, pluralistic society. They are, rather, an essential component of it.

Note that I say "believers" rather than "Catholics," because the pope is not making this point just for the benefit of his followers but for every British person who draws strength from their faith: Anglicans, Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs -- you name it.

Too many people see the relationship between believers and non-believers as a zero-sum game: If one group gains something then it must be at the expense of the other. If the state is not strictly secular, then it must be a theocracy.

Benedict XVI is offering an alternative to this crude way of thinking. He is appealing to the old British instinct for tolerance and fair play. He argues that it is undemocratic to limit public life only to the adherents of atheistic humanism. I suspect that most British people would agree heartily with him.

This does not mean that the pope is seeking to vanquish atheism and deprive those who reject Catholic moral norms of their freedom. He simply wants a truly plural pluralism in which believer and non-believer alike can take a seat in the public square.

The Catholic Church has well thought-out positions on the pressing issues of our time: Immigration, poverty, war, inter-religious relations, sexual responsibility, care of the elderly and the environment. It is not seeking a privileged position from which to proclaim its teaching. It is asking only to be one voice that is heard among many as Britain confronts the moral challenges of the new century.

If the pope's trip enlarges the British public square even a fraction then it will surely have been worth the price of a state visit.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Luke Coppen.

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