Sir Stephen Wall has had a bird's eye view of Vatican operations as a former public affairs adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Raised as a Catholic, Sir Stephen joined the British diplomatic service in 1968. He is currently the chair of council at University College London, established in 1826 to open up education in England to students of any race, class or religion. Since standing down as Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's adviser in 2005 following the Pope's election, Sir Stephen has become an increasingly vocal critic of the church.
On the eve of the papal visit to Britain, he talks about his loss of faith in the Pope's leadership.
When Pope John Paul II came to Britain in 1982, he was met with open arms - and yet there seems to be an apathetic response to Pope Benedict's impending visit. What has changed?
John Paul II was a charismatic superstar: approachable, unstuffy, a hero of the fight against communism. There were more practising Christians in Britain then and greater hope of reconciliation with the Church of England - and the scandal of child abuse had not then become public.
John Paul's visit was a purely pastoral event, but the Pope's is also a state visit. What explains the shift in focus?
John Paul came to Britain during the Falklands War with Argentina, so the Vatican, which did not want to take sides, insisted on his visit being treated as low-key. This time, there are no such constraints and since the Pope is a head of state (bizarre though this is for the supposed successor of St. Peter, the poor fisherman), he gets the red carpet.
Despite theological rifts over issues such as the Anglican ordination of women, the Pope is set to meet with key figures in the Anglican Church. Do you think his actions will be perceived as conciliatory?
Up to a point, but it will be a meaningless politeness. The Vatican has said some harsh things about the Church of England and, once the Church of England took the entirely correct and belated step of ordaining women as priests, the Roman Catholic Church broke off all serious dialogue about reconciliation.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the current head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has suggested there is now a great deal of public skepticism about religion generally, and about Catholicism in particular. With the church continually dogged by "bad news" stories, such as the sexual abuse scandal, is this a difficult time to be a Catholic?
Like many others, I have walked away from the church, in part because I think its structures are corrupt and its attitude to women and to gay and lesbian men and women unacceptable. Many of those who have stayed use the church as their route to God, but pay little heed to what the Vatican has to say. The child-abuse scandal has robbed the church of moral authority, which is tragic for the many good men and women in orders who themselves struggle to reconcile the official positions of the papacy with their own instinctive generosity.
There has been a lot of anger about the cost of this visit to the taxpayer. Do you think this is linked to any personal feelings about the Pope himself, or is it simply bad timing, as Britons face deep cuts to public spending?
Since we face the most savage spending cuts in a generation, there would be some hostility to the Pope's costly visit in any event. But the resentment is magnified because, for most British people, the present pope is someone whose views are authoritarian and outmoded and who claims a moral authority not borne out by the track record of his church.
Despite negative press surrounding the Pope's 2008 visit to Australia, a huge number of people turned out to see him there. Do you expect that, ultimately, his trip to Britain will be viewed as a positive event?
There is only one pope. He is a VIP who will attract massive media coverage. And there are still several million Catholics in Britain, including recent immigrants from Africa and Asia, for whom the Pope is still someone they respect. But unless the Pope changes his spots and reaches out to those millions beyond his own narrow constituency, I doubt whether his visit will have any lasting resonance.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail