One of Joseph Ratzinger's first acts on becoming Pope in 2005 was to meet the terminally ill Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the scourge of Mussolini's fascists and Osama bin Laden's Islamofascists. Neither ever revealed what was said, but if there is one conversation I would like to have heard, it is that one.
Although she described herself as a "Christian atheist", Fallaci was enthusiastic about the new Pope. In particular, she was uplifted by his call to non-believers to behave "as though God exists". It was, Fallaci said, a "brilliant" invitation.
I thought about Fallaci as Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Britain last month. Like Fallaci, I'm a Christian atheist: a cultural Christian who does not believe in God. I disagree with the Pope's views about a lot of things. In rows about specific Vatican doctrines, I would ordinarily find myself with the National Secular Society. But on this occasion, I couldn't be.
The lead-up proved the problem, dominated as it was by the noise that now makes up for news. There stood, consummately revealed, the horrible hollowness that the Pope aimed to address. Impeccably "liberal" leaders in our society kept referring to him as "Herr Ratzinger", as if being German as well as Pontiff constituted a particular offence.
The infallible Stephen Fry gave a lecture on the BBC about the history of the Vatican, explaining that it "isn't a state" because "it just plain isn't". State or no state, it was a place to which Richard Dawkins asked the Pope to "go home" and not return. All the time Joseph Ratzinger's standing as any kind of moral thinker was derided. What was he but an obtuse, old, anti-gay, anti-women expert in a defunct theology?
Here in all its casual, thoughtless, infinitely superficial glory was Britain's strange new hybrid religion. It was hung, as it usually now is, on the term "human rights" — as amorphous a term as anyone could wish for. The fundamentals of these rights may be good. And there are many disagreements to be had with the Vatican. But what an intellectual muddle the secularist opposition to the Pope have got themselves tangled up in.
Peter Tatchell, for example, worked as a gay-rights campaigner in difficult and often dangerous circumstances. But I trust him very little as a moral arbiter. He is, by his own description, on "the left wing of the Green Party". (Is there a right wing, I wonder?) In the weeks before the papal visit, he was leading criticisms of the Pope's alleged role in covering up child sex abuse scandals in the Church. You would have thought then that Tatchell was absolutist on this issue. Yet in a 1997 letter to the Guardian this same Peter Tatchell wrote that "several of my friends — gay and straight, male and female — had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused...While it may be impossible to condone paedophilia, it is time society acknowledged the truth that not all sex involving children is unwanted, abusive and harmful."