Apropos of my little dig at Ma Pepsi the other day, I’d like to flag up a genuinely interesting and relevant article from the Suppository. Granted, it’s more than a decade old, but it does shine a light on current events nonetheless.
This is an extract from Clifford Longley’s book The Worlock Archive, which inter alia deals with the friction between Archbishop Worlock and Cardinal Hume that was something of an open secret at the time. Clifford’s extract deals with, you’ve guessed it, John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Britain in 1982, something that came to be seen as a roaring success due to the continuing strength of popular Catholicism (and, if you think popular Catholicism is finished, please note that last year some 300,000 people turned out to see St Thérèse’s relics despite very little publicity) but was marred by shocking organisation and serious money problems. Clifford explains:
AND so the Catholic Church in England and Wales travelled towards the ultimate Catholic happening – a personal visit by the Pope. It was a great upheaval, requiring many clergy to leave aside their familiar tasks and undertake entirely new and strange ones. Canon lawyers became temporary business managers, seminary lecturers became press officers, hospital chaplains police liaison workers. One group had to negotiate with car companies for the manufacture of a right-hand-drive popemobile; another to strike deals with insurance companies; another to supervise the growing trade in official souvenirs of the papal visit and extract the appropriate rake-off for the Church. Amateurs though they were, they turned out to be very good at all this.
Well, yes, but more by providence than design, as even an optimistic chap like Clifford would admit. And there was also the money issue:
Thus the Church had to borrow from the banks – the total budget was more than £6 million in 1982 values – and raise the money to pay for the visit afterwards, partly from church collections, partly from royalties on branded goods (which quickly became a minor industry). For an institution which traditionally lived hand to mouth, usually more interested in its overdraft limit than its cash in hand, there was a lot at stake.
Indeed so, and it shows up some of the possible problems that would confront September’s papal visit even if one could rely on the Bishops’ Conference not to make a pig’s ear of matters. But this is by the by; what interests me is what Clifford says about the political and press aspect:
…exceptionally, papal advisers agreed to allow very substantial British input in the briefing of the Pope and the preparation of his addresses. This enabled some careful downplaying of one or more of the most sensitive matters. It was widely felt among English Catholic leaders, for instance, that if the Pope went round the country berating the population for the looseness of its sexual morals, especially in the use of contraception, the visit would rapidly turn into a public relations disaster which English Catholics would have to live with for a long time to come.
Indeed, the whole purpose was for JP2 to give an upbeat, feelgood performance of the sort he was so good at. To have had him give off in public about some controversial issue really would have been embarrassing. But luckily, there were willing volunteers available to keep JP’s texts as uncontroversial as possible:
Worlock reported in one of his recollections of the papal visit that when the rather delicate matter of briefing the Pope was raised, I moved that the matter be left with the Cardinal and subsequently he got a team of three or four together under George Leonard. Apart from Leonard, Hume’s group preparing draft texts for the Pope consisted mainly of Vincent Nichols, Alan Clark and James Hook (Leonard’s deputy), working under the Cardinal’s supervision. Worlock was asked to prepare a couple of drafts himself.
Now, this is rather interesting. At the time, Fr Vincent Nichols was Derek Worlock’s sidekick in the Liverpool archdiocese, and his involvement in the papal visit would have marked his card as an up-and-comer, as with the administrative involvement of Fr Seán Brady in JP’s Irish visit. This casts a fascinating light on Archbishop Nichols’ current pronouncements about the delicate communications involved in Benedict’s visit, especially if you think of his involvement in drafting deliberately uncontroversial texts for JP. B16 of course likes to write his own texts, but no doubt Eccleston Square will have briefings ready to go on what subjects it would be politic for the Holy Father to avoid.
It also points up a recurring phenomenon in English Catholicism (and Irish Catholicism, for that matter), where the same names and faces keep on popping up in different contexts, year after year. You think there’s an enclosed, incestuous world there? You bet there is.
Vincent Nichols, of course, has since got the top job in English Catholicism, though in some ways he’s an aberrant case. It’s no secret that +Vinnie is not universally popular with his brother bishops, being seen as not very clubbable and rather too nakedly ambitious. It is known that, prior to his appointment to Westminster, at least two English bishops wrote to the Vatican urging that he shouldn’t get the gig, something that is almost unprecedented. He has made some friends in Rome by being just about the only bishop in England who’s actually read Ratzinger and has some idea what the HF is talking about, which doesn’t hurt when you consider just how heterodox the English bishops can be. However, if Nichols has become visibly much more orthodox over the years, I am sure that has nothing to do with the ambition of a crafty ecclesiastical politician, but is rather a case of +Vincent being moved by the Holy Spirit.
What’s more interesting than the episcopacy in some ways is that category known as “influential laity”, the sort of people who get invited on the BBC to discuss Catholic issues when Nichols and McMahon and the boys are lying low. And of course you find small circles of people who think more or less identically. If you performed some minor stylistic edits on Ma Pepsi’s article, it would be indistinguishable from the stuff Austen Ivereigh has been writing on the issue.
Clifford Longley is a good example of the phenomenon. He continues to occupy his long-term berth on the Suppository as Ma Pepsi’s right-hand man, and is also a regular on news discussions thanks to his ready availability for interview. The Tablet connection is one that runs through this like lettering through a stick of Blackpool rock. The Peppermint Spinster herself has been doing lots of media, as you’d expect. Lord Chris Patten, recently appointed by David Cameron as his papal visit czar, sits on the Tablet Trust, the body that publishes the Suppository. And of course you have another Suppository bigwig, and former press secretary to Cardinal Cormac, Austen Ivereigh, doing (or not doing) the press operation, something I will now deal with.
As noted, the press operation is being bankrolled by the Catholic Union, and is effectively (or perhaps not so effectively) being run by Jack Valero and Austen Ivereigh. Jack, who possesses some of the shiniest suits I’ve ever seen, is of course the UK head honcho of Opus Dei and seems to have his finger in every pie around. Austen is a good mate of Jack’s, and furthermore is like the cat who always lands on his feet, appearing as if by magic at the heart of whatever Catholic media initiative is going on at any particular time. Now, I have some regard for the CU as a lay organisation that does useful work, but I must raise the question of whether the CU gave any serious consideration to what sort of media operation would be needed, or if Dan Brennan and Jamie Bogle simply listened to a pitch from Jack and Austen and wrote them a cheque. I have no conclusive evidence either way.
So, the core of this media strategy, if one can call it a strategy, is Catholic Voices, which is all about giving 25 enthusiastic lay people some media training to enable them to go on the airwaves and put the Catholic point of view. In principle, this is a great idea, the apostolate of the laity in action, and something along these lines should have been done years ago. That’s not to say that questions can’t be raised about the execution. There has been some grumbling about whether the array of professionals who make up the Voices are representative of a community that’s predominantly working-class and very multi-ethnic. There are questions about whether it’s quite as independent of the BCEW in practice as in theory. There are rather more pointed questions about what exactly this media training involves, and whether it equips the Voices for dealing with a media that’s likely to be ignorant and hostile in equal measure.
For instance, currently the media find it difficult to discuss any Catholic issue without bringing it back to the sex abuse scandal. That’s perfectly natural from a journalistic point of view, and obviously anyone doing an interview needs to be on top of their facts as regards the Scandal. I recently saw Bishop Malcolm McMahon doing News 24’s HardTalk on precisely this issue, and +Malcy was so poorly briefed that he only survived by virtue of Stephen Sackur literally not having a clue what he was talking about. It was like watching two incompetent boxers repeatedly failing to land punches on each other. Now, let’s say for talk’s sake that if you’re a Catholic Voice, your preparation on this most important subject consists of a briefing which directs you under “further reading” to lots of articles by Austen Ivereigh. This sort of thing may be what you’d expect of a man who will entertain his engagement party with YouTube clips of his triumphant appearances on News 24, but really, is it what’s needed? Especially when these articles are of very variable quality, and their main distinguishing feature is a resolute defence of the English hierarchy?
You don’t need to be a traddie obscurantist to form the impression that the “progressive” Catholic establishment in England is precisely the greatest block to the openness and transparency that everyone agrees is needed. This backslapping culture of people covering for each other, getting jobs for their mates and burying any criticism of Eccleston Square is something that can no longer be afforded. Does it aid the task of cleaning up the Augean stables to get endless op-eds in the Tablet reassuring the faithful that all is well? I would say not. And the joke is that Austen will tell you to your face that there’s no such thing as the Magic Circle. Ya think, DiNozzo?
Hat tip for the Longley article to the indefatigable James Preece, who is an object lesson himself, in a different way. Despite being a passionate and argumentative guy (a good recommendation, you would think, for media work), James has been deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the Catholic Voices programme on the grounds of being too Catholic – that is, he’s too loyal to the Pope and can’t be relied on not to say anything that might embarrass the Bishops’ Conference. There’s a lesson there for us.