Cyber Warfare Breaks Out Over the Papal Visit to Britain

As anticipated in our post of 26 February on ‘What do we think of the Pope?’, the planned papal visit to Great Britain in September is already causing controversy. The internet has become one of the battlegrounds for the expression of rival views.

The campaign opened with an online petition on the National Secular Society’s website to ‘Make the Pope pay’. It called on the Prime Minister to ask the Roman Catholic Church to bear the estimated £20 million cost of the visit, to avoid any fiscal burden falling on the taxpayer. This petition attracted over 25,000 signatories in three weeks.

The National Secular Society has now closed this petition and joined forces with a petition started on the No. 10 website by Peter Tatchell of OutRage! This is open until 2 October 2010 and has to date (15 March) been signed by 7,771 people.

The Tatchell petition calls upon the Prime Minister to disassociate the British Government from ‘the Pope’s intolerant views’ ahead of the papal visit. Especially condemned is the ‘Pope’s opposition to women’s reproductive rights, gay equality, embryonic stem cell research and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.’

This petition will be found at:

Supporters of the papal visit have now opened a counter-petition at:

Roman Catholics are being encouraged to sign up to this. A letter in the Catholic Herald of 12 March urged its readers to sign the petition and to get their parish priests to mention it in their parochial newsletters. As of 15 March, there are 24,454 signatories, probably not all of whom are from the United Kingdom.

Short comments are also allowed on this pro-visit website, of which the following are specimen examples:

  • ‘I’m disgusted that we even have to do this to welcome a man of the Church into our Christian country. What is this country coming to?’
  • ‘I fully support the Pope’s visit to this country and consider any opposition to be bigoted and against the principles of democracy’
  • ‘If it were a Muslim prelate there would be no opposition – they wouldn’t dare!’
  • ‘In a multi-faith, multi-cultural democracy we should welcome the leaders of all faiths and be prepared to accept that not all of their views will accord with our own’
  • ‘The Pope is a head of state. His visit is a matter between the Vatican and the UK Governments and does not depend on “yes” or “no” campaign of UK citizens or residents’

Of course, while of illustrative value, none of this expression of opinion has any kind of statistical significance. Like phone-in polls run by the media, these online surveys of self-selecting respondents fall into the realm of what Sir Robert Worcester of Ipsos-MORI has labelled ‘voodoo polls’.

Hopefully, in time, we will get a more scientific measurement of British attitudes to the papal visit, much like the series of polls run by Gordon Heald of Gallup in 1982 when Pope John Paul II visited Britain. These may be traced through the British Religion in Numbers sources database.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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