Seventeen months ago, I had the immense honour of meeting His Holiness Pope Benedict during his momentous visit to the United Kingdom. His visit cemented the ever closer co-operation between our two states. Tackling climate change, promoting multi-faith dialogue, striving for peace and fighting poverty – on these and so many areas we share common goals and must work together. In particular it was the emphasis during the Holy Father’s address in Westminster Hall on inter-religious dialogue which struck a chord with me.
Today, in 2012, there is plenty to still do and our goals are as clear. That is why, this week, I am delighted to be leading the largest ever ministerial delegation from the UK to the Vatican. Prime Minister David Cameron and I have long been making the case for a deeper understanding of faith by the British government and it’s a great honour to be taking our message to the Holy See this week.
We understand that the Holy See through the Catholic Church is a global player with global concerns, reaching into every corner of the planet. It has an important role in international affairs, expressed through its network of bishops, priests, diplomats and religious, and is an influential voice in the major ethical, moral and intellectual debates of the day. This network and international reach is why we why we need to engage with the Holy See.
At the heart of the Queen’s government’s policies, at home as well as overseas, is concern for the support and promotion of fundamental rights and values, underpinning democracy, and sustaining a culture of social, economic and political responsibility, from communities on the ground to the level of government. Expressed through faith, these are also the priorities of the Holy See. Through the Caritas Internationalis network and Catholic NGOs in particular, and their vital work in aid relief, education and healthcare, the Holy See touches the lives of millions of people.
Our bilateral talks will of course see discussions on hard power questions, from giving impetus to this year’s multilateral talks on an Arms Trade Treaty and small arms proliferation, to the future of the Middle East. From Britain’s efforts to help bring peace and hope to Somalia and the Horn of Africa after years of civil war and under-development, to the impact of the Eurozone crisis on European societies, structures and politics, including in the United Kingdom.
But our conversation must also range more widely. I want the British government to consider with the Holy See how inter-religious dialogue – including that between Islam and Christianity - can be strengthened to prevent conflict and discrimination, guarantee respect and co-existence, and support minorities wherever they are found. In particular, I want to call on our continent to be more confident in its Christian heritage and argue that this is the most effective way of accommodating minority faiths. We need to look ahead later this year to the Rio de Janeiro Sustainable Development Summit, and explore how – despite our differences on some issues – we might best work together to secure sustainable and integral solutions to the challenges of persistent poverty and inequalities, especially in the least developed parts of the planet. And following the success of the Durban Climate Change Summit last year, we should examine how Pope Benedict’s call to protect creation, and the British government’s determination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, can be leveraged into faster progress towards a global low-carbon economy.
This short but intensive visit will also offer an opportunity to mark a significant milestone in our bilateral relationship: the decision in 1982, coinciding with Pope John Paul II’s visit to Britain that year, to establish full diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level. The Holy See is our oldest diplomatic mission, dating back to 1479. But following interruptions in the sixteenth century, formal diplomatic links were not reinstated until 1914. This was not done for sentimental reasons, but because the British government at the time understood that we needed a voice at the Holy See of Pope Benedict XV, the Pope of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, at a moment of global crisis.
We do not face World War today. But our world is facing unprecedented economic and social turmoil, requiring both sacrifice and effort as we look to a better future. I look forward to telling His Holiness, when he receives our delegation on 15 February, how much we value a relationship that his visit to the United Kingdom did much to reinforce.