Regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of Pope Benedict. The man wears red shoes, rehabilitated the Tridentine Mass and annoys Richard Dawkins just by getting up in the morning – what’s not to like? And you’ll also be aware that from time to time I bang on about anti-Catholicism in the broader culture. That said, though, my response to the FCO memo affair is of amusement rather than outrage.
Actually, my initial reaction was “What is Frankie Boyle doing working in the Foreign Office? Doesn’t he have a tour to do?” The most disappointing thing for me was the teenage nature of the memo, when you would expect something more sophisticated from the FCO mandarins. As satire goes, it was very much on the Viz level. Granted, the line about getting Benny to open an abortion clinic was in very poor taste. But that stuff about blessing a civil partnership, or launching papally-branded condoms? There’s little there that Kevin Smith, or the writers of Father Ted, haven’t already done and done much better.
It’s important to point out that Catholics, as a group, are rather good at self-deprecating humour. It wasn’t any Catholic figure who called for Father Ted to be banned from TV screens – it was an ageing Trot from the hilariously misnamed Irish In Britain Representation Group. If there is sensitivity sometimes veering into chippiness, it’s when there’s the suspicion – as with portrayals of the Irish, where there’s a significant overlap – that this joshing is not quite as good-natured as it portrays itself. Likewise with criticism of the Catholic Church, whether it’s over Catholic doctrine or ecclesiastical politics or the handling of the sex abuse scandal – if you read the Catholic press or Catholic blogs, all these issues are openly and furiously debated; what winds me up is the inability of wide swathes of left-liberal and secular opinion to discuss any of these issues without resorting to Gordon Riots language.
But I’m not going to go off on a rant here about left anti-Catholicism – that’s a question for another day. What Catholics ask – and not unreasonably – is “Would this sort of stuff be aimed at anyone else?” For instance, President Zuma of South Africa has recently been on a state visit to Britain. There are plenty of questions about Jacob Zuma’s political record and personal behaviour, but it’s difficult to imagine FCO officials – whose job is diplomacy, after all – writing a similar memo on the Zuma visit, replete with hilarious “black man” stereotypes. Or indeed, imagine something like this happening around Hu Jintao’s state visit. In those cases, a junior FCO official who decided this was a good opportunity to try out his Jim Davidson act would find his feet not touching the ground.
One expects, of course, those who regard themselves as terribly modern (even if their ideas are 200 years out of date) not to have a lot of understanding when it comes to an organisation that’s supposed to be all about Tradition and unchanging truths. But then, this is a problem for the FCO – the government minister in charge of Benny’s visit is Jim Murphy, on the grounds that he’s a Catholic and therefore should have some insight into such matters. If the FCO is going to farm out its brainstorming to teenagers whose only knowledge of Catholicism is some fairly flimsy reportage in the Guardian and Independent (thus the memo stressing trendy causes célèbres like the ordination of priestesses), they’ve only themselves to blame. Of course, New Labour’s established practice of urinating all over Catholic voters and then expecting (and getting) their votes may not be irrelevant.
I was very taken, by the way, with the furious reaction from Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who has accused the Foreign Office of “disrespecting” the Pope. Yes, that’s right, a bishop using “disrespect” as a verb. Booyakasha! This is interesting, because it’s a long time since I can remember +Malcy being this indignant about anything. But then, our friend in Nottingham is the bishop in charge of the “Catholic” Education Service, and must therefore have had some input into the appointment of retiring Labour MP Greg Pope as deputy head of the CES. Mr Pope’s voting record on abortion, embryo experimentation and the Ed Balls Bill may place him well within the mainstream of today’s Labour Party, but does not necessarily make him the obvious candidate for a top CES job. In fact, short of appointing Dr Death Evan Harris, it’s hard to think of a less suitable candidate. The trendy lefties in the Bishops’ Conference, not least +Malcy, have some ground to make up, and an ostentatious show of outrage on behalf of the Holy Father won’t hurt.
The funniest thing about this, though? The enumeration of “Papal Visit Stakeholders” by importance and whether they were a positive or negative influence. This in itself is not surprising, nor is is a surprise to see (for instance) the Queen and David Cameron ranked as positive influences, or to see Professor Dawkins and the loose alliance of atheist and homosexualist groups in the No Popery Coalition as negative influences. No, what grabbed my eye was that SuBo was ranked as more important than the Archbishop of Westminster. I’m sure that caused +Vincent to spit out his porridge.