There is now polling data on Scots' attitudes to the papal visit which reveal a more welcoming environment than might have been suggested by the rumblings from certain quarters when the visit was announced. Sectarianism, which it was feared might damage Scotland's international reputation if manifested during the visit, is still a malevolent presence in Scotland and must not be treated with complacency - but this opinion poll suggests it has significantly diminished. The poll, commissioned by the Scottish Catholic Media Office, found that 31 per cent of respondents were "very or fairly favourable" to the papal visit, while 63 per cent were neither for nor against it. Those opposed comprised a smaller than expected minority, with 3 per cent objecting and just 2 per cent "strongly" objecting. If this survey had been conducted 50 years ago, when historical antipathies were still mainstream opinion in this country, the results would have been very different. Even 15 years ago, opposition would have been significantly greater.
That is not to gloss over the fact that 5 per cent of objectors represents a quarter of a million people in a population of just over 5 million. It would be wrong, however, to make assumptions about their motives. Early on, the Orange Order, bastion of hardline Protestantism in this country, announced that it would respect the state visit - the Pope, after all, is the guest of the Queen. Although the poll did not explore the opinions of those opposing the visit, a reasonable supposition would be that many are motivated by their opposition to the Pope's unyielding line on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Or the Church's conduct over recent child abuse accusations. Or simply because they are secularists who question the Catholic Church's status and influence. These are legitimate points of view, and critics of the Catholic Church have a right to use the visit to give voice to their opinions. Even among these groups, however, proactive opposition to the visit seems limited. An organisation called Protest the Pope has now abandoned plans to demonstrate in Scotland, though it intends to hold a march in London.
Scotland will be on display to the world during the papal visit, with the global television audience estimated at more than one billion. And Scotland being Scotland, for every sectarian there are two curmudgeons - the people who complain about every public event in our capital city, from the G8 summit to the papal visit, on the grounds they are inconvenienced by roads being closed, etc. Their tiresome bleating does no-one any good, and makes us all appear petty and small-minded. This particular group may like to consider a vow of silence along the lines practiced by the Catholic Trappist order of monks.Benedict XVI is the head of a worldwide religion with more than a billion adherents. This event is primarily for the Catholic community in Scotland and nobody should underestimate the importance it has for the Pope's flock. His visit to Scotland is a significant, even historic, moment. The authorities should make every effort to ensure its success and the wider public should be encouraged to extend traditional Scottish hospitality to this distinguished visitor. Some Scots strongly disagree with certain teachings of the Catholic Church; but disagreement should not engender discourtesy. The most formal part of the visit, the Pope's reception by the Queen, will take place at Holyroodhouse and it is gratifying that such an occasion of state should be hosted on Scottish soil. Let us show the world how Scots welcome a guest to this country.