The Press Saturday, July 11th 1998
"Pope turns on Liberal Catholics" was the Guardian's splash on Thursday; in the letters column the next day Alasdair Lidell, of Gloucestershire, added: "I suppose the more repressed ones have to make do with fantasies about Ann Widdecombe."
This was a week dominated by two stories, which went zinging around the religious world like well-struck shots at pinball, lighting things up all over the table amidst a most satisfying cacophony of explanation, clarification and gyroscopic medicine.
Madeleine Bunting's Guardian splash was a brilliant piece of excavation. Few things are more satisfying than turning a three-month old document written in Latin into a proper news story. She had some help form John Wilkins, the editor of the Tablet, who told her "There is a lamentable mindset in the Vatican at the moment. It's a dreadful period. He has become an old man; his attention span has dropped off. He can't listen and follow an argument through."
The next day he wrote to the paper to complain that these were "off-the-cuff remarks I gave them to your correspondent as a general briefing. The quotations therefore do not represent either my own considered opinion on the matter or that of the paper I edit." I have every sympathy with anybody who is quoted in the newspapers, especially when they're quoted accurately. But if John Wilkins doesn't believe that this is a dreadful period characterised by a lamentable mindset in the Vatican, he has been successfully concealing his secret for years. Of course it's true that this is not his considered reaction to the document. He hadn't read it. No one seems to have. Even the Catholic Media Office was at a loss to get a translation from the Latin in a hurry. But it seems entirely clear that at the very least the Pope is claiming that a Catholic must give "firm and definitive assent" to a great many things which most Western Catholics don't believe. Those who have remarried after divorce, for example, are forbidden even to consider the possibility that they might have been right to do so.
It is of course true that this has been going on for years and that this is not going to precipitate a crisis in the Church, even though most of the immediate follow ups looked at the idea that the Pope's letter would lead to Catholics leaving the Church in protest. This won't happen. Every day, people wake up, look across the bed, and realise it was a terrible mistake to remarry; but not, usually, because the Pope has told them so.
The problem is more subtle. Clifford Longley had a very thoughtful and penetrating piece on this in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the document's real error was to be "simply shouting louder at people who have already stopped listening. Worse, it fails to address the fundamental change in people's consciousness and sense of who they are, which is whakt the term postmodernism referes to. The Vatican is setting an anti-modernist cat to catch a postmodernist mouse. They are not even in the same room.
"Now we must await the first much-loved professor in an American Catholic University who is the sort of person most likely to be censured or sacked under the new rule. And for his honesty and integrity — even if we do not agree with him — we will hail him as a hero of our age. That is not, we may presume, the result the Vatican wanted."
Conservative Catholics wrote in from all over the place to say how muchthey agreed with Clifford, though that is not quite how they would put it. Some of them were obvious suspects, like Joanna Bogle, the Catholic Times columnist and Daphne McLeod, of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice who wrote to the Guardian (without mentioning her organisation) to say that Pope John Paul II confirms what all faithful Catholics believe today, what they have believed down the ages. Those who do not share these beliefs have no place in the Catholic Church."
But two of the Daily Telegraph letters were from names I didn't recognise. Their theme, too, might be summarised as "No no: we are the Church. Not you liberals" and once that sort of argument starts, it is very destructive and difficult to stop. I am reminded of a letter I got earlier this year from a Spectator reader: "On what authority does Mr Brown say Cardinal Martini is holy? If he is a liberal, viz., holds opinions contrary to Catholicism, he cannot be holy."
One has in the past been beastly about Christopher Morgan and will no doubt have occasion to do so again. But he is like the little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead; and when he is good, he is very very good. His chat with David Hope at the Synod was the other zinger of a religious story this week, knocking down all the right targets and bouncing around for days. It showed up particularly well in contrast to the Express on Sunday, which had the opposite spin on very similar remarks: "She was the People's Princess. The day, instead of being too overwaed with emotion shlould instead be a day when we should reflect more closely and carefully" he told the Express, which headlined it "Million prayers for a princess"
Morgan had a much better news line "Archbishop urges end to 'cult of Diana'.". He had quotes to back it up. "We should be careful that she is not worshipped. That worship should be directed to the God who created her." And best of all, these sentiments were such a solid Hope grey that their force came through at once. This proves once more that a good news story must shun novelty. It must tell people things they already know in a new and slightly different way.
Some weeks there's just too much news. No time to do more than mention that the Financial Times had a wonderful interview with a Mexican priest who for twenty years raised money for his orphanage by wrestling professionally, in a mask and costume, until recognised by a wrestling fan to whom he gave Communion. But Tony Higton's new-found interest in crystal healing made all the papers too. The secret is to keep banging those rocks together, Tony.