Comrade Barnes addresses football-loving proletariat, calls on England to adopt socialism

You can forget about your Ken Livingstones and George Galloways. Believe it or not, the left has a new champion, and moreover one who has a plan to sort out England’s footballing woes. Yes, drawing inspiration from the Bolivarian revolutionary process in South America, it’s none other than Liverpool and England legend John Barnes:

“Football is a socialist sport,” he explains. “Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.

“The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don’t perceive themselves to be that. That’s why I use Messi as an example. As much as he’s a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts.”…

“Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction,” he tells me from a dressing room at Supersport’s studios where he is an expert analyst on the World Cup. “The most important thing for every Brazilian player is to play for Brazil.

“It doesn’t matter if he plays for Milan or Manchester United. A Brazilian who puts on that yellow shirt feels the same as the man next to him in that yellow shirt. They have a humility to the shirt. It is not the same for those who wear the Three Lions.”

Barnesy goes on to wax militant about the corporate monster that is the English Premier League, and about the virtues of collective team endeavour against the individualist egotism rampant in the England team.

I like this guy. I wish he was my MP. Or, failing that, England football manager.

Fancy Dan

I sense a disturbance in the Force. Or, if one may exchange Obi-Wan Kenobi for Yoda, rumblings in the Catholic Union there are. It would seem that one or two of the CU’s normally somnolent membership have woken up, pondered a certain media operation the CU is patronising, scratched their heads and wondered what exactly Dan and Jamie have got them into this time. That’s a bit of a turn-up for the books in an organisation where demands for scrutiny run the risk of coming across as terribly infra dig, even when someone can work up the energy to do so. Indeed, I can’t honestly remember if the dynamic duo faced a contested election or if they just got the top jobs because nobody else wanted them.

Be that as it may, a little puzzlement is abroad. “I tell you what,” said a contact. “Dan Brennan is a smart bloke, and people rate his judgement. Not only that, but he’s pretty orthodox – doesn’t fit the Tabletista profile. There are plenty of guys around who you could count on to buy a pig in a poke, but Dan would come quite far down the list. Don’t you think?”

Actually, that’s a fair comment. Far be it from me to speculate on what the great man is up to but… oh, what the hell.

As I’ve remarked, the Catholic establishment is not coterminous with the Tabletistas, it’s just that they happen to dominate at that level. And, while Dan Brennan may be orthodox, he’s establishment to his fingertips, and not entirely unclubbable. Two things to bear in mind. One is that he’s a New Labour peer. Another is that his law practice is at Matrix Chambers, where one can find a few other familiar characters – I think of Prof Conor Gearty, who amongst about a hundred other public-spirited jobs is a member of the Tablet Trust; I also think of Ms Cherie Booth, who I believe has some connection to the founder of the Mr Tony Blair Faith Foundation. This is not of course to allege anything so crude as a word in the ear from the Right People, but at that rarefied social level everybody knows everybody else, and connections never hurt. To put it another way, a lash-up of the government, the Suppository mob and the Magic Circle could exert a gravitational pull on people who don’t easily fit into those categories.

Maybe this is too cynical – with the big visit coming up, it’s all hands to the tiller and such a prominent figure would want to be mucking in. It’s also the case that said project has a lot going for it in principle, whatever about the detail. (Although pitfalls in the detail should have been forseeable.) And perhaps Dan was impressed by the barnstorming success of the Da Vinci Code Response Group and saw the need for that success to be replicated… no, forget that.

Or perhaps I’m not being cynical enough, and the good lord has some obscure Machiavellian purpose behind his alliance with the Catalan snake-charmer and Dr Tracksuit. What that purpose could be might be one of the great mysteries of our time, like the Man in the Iron Mask or the Marie Celeste.

Then again, it could just be a case of Dan having a rush of philanthropic blood to the head and deciding it’s time to do something for the common good. If there’s an expert on the common good handy, it may be worth underlining that “serving the common good” and “hastening Jack Valero’s march to global dominance” are not exactly the same thing.

Ah well. There are so many fingers in so many pies, we may as well term this the Little Jack Horner corner. And don’t think you’ve gone unnoticed, Abbot Jamison. The Skibbereen Eagle never sleeps.

Communication breakdown

Since this is a matter that’s attracted a lot of discussion, let’s return to the question of communications, and the difference between making a fair stab at an argument – which you may lose – and losing an argument by default, either by sheer incompetence or just being too lazy to turn up. In terms of Catholic communications, you really do wish at times that Fulton Sheen was still around.

Okay, there’s a media aspect to this. The difficulty on the media side often stems as much from incomprehension as anything else, as even when journos get their facts right – which can’t always be relied on – they often lack the background knowledge to make sense of what they’re hearing. Hence the media’s inability to explain stories, something that Roger Bolton has been very good on in terms of reporting religion. At the last British census something like 75% of the population reported identification with some religious faith – in many cases that will be very nominal, but it’s still a serious background factor in the culture – while there was a survey done of media workers, I think in the BBC, where only about 20% reported a religious faith. Even with the best will in the world, it’s a cultural gap.

This explains the familiar situation where the Pope makes a speech; I read the text on the CNA or EWTN feed; within about an hour there is learned commentary in the Catholic blogosphere about what B16 meant by his speech; I turn on the evening news to hear a report of the speech; I think “Hold on, that’s not what he said at all”; and then lots of well-meaning people go sincerely apeshit over what they think he’s said. At this point the only thing you can do is slap your forehead.

Well, the Holy See’s comms (or lack thereof) are one thing, and probably beyond our scope for this post. For a really appalling national example, look at the Irish bishops, who disbanded the Maynooth press office and then whined about all the (largely deserved) bad press they were getting. But, since we’ve been remarking a little on the English end of the concern, let’s stick with that.

Firstly, you have to get things in proportion, by realising just how bad the comms are. CCN press releases are something you really have to experience in terms of getting a feel for their stupefying awfulness, so you may want to take my word for it. Suffice to say, if Jack Valero has a reputation as a media maestro, that doesn’t mean Jack is the second coming of Max Clifford; it simply means he’s better at it than Peter Jennings. And that isn’t setting the bar terribly high, as I could do it better than Jennings. (Note to +Bernie: this is not a job application.)

As luck would have it, B16 has recently given us a few pointers for social communications. In his message for World Communications Day, the Pontiff urged priests to get blogging:

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.

Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ. They will best achieve this aim if they learn, from the time of their formation, how to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.

This is not of course simply an idea for what might be done; there are already plenty of blogging priests out there, some of them doing sterling work, although they are not necessarily popular either with ecclesial hierarchies or the established Catholic media. This may not be unconnected to the orthodox element being a bit more vigorous online than the trendy element.

The other thing that comes to mind is the HF’s address to the English bishops following their ad limina visit some months back:

I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended. Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others – on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth. Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society.

You will, of course, note that Benedict felt that this was something the English bishops needed to be told.

Anyway, my view is that the Catholic blogosphere, chaotic and rowdy as it may be, can at its best be a spontaneous manifestation of the concept of the apostolate of the laity. Even leaving aside priestly bloggers, it’s clear that there are some lay bloggers out there who do a much better job of defending the Church’s position than either the official leaders of the Church or their press officers, and who have the ability to do so in a lively and populist way.

Which is a talent pool that needs to be tapped into. I can’t be alone in reading the papers and seeing all sorts of material from, say, Christopher Hitchens or Johann Hari or Peter Tatchell that isn’t actually true, and wondering how on earth they get away with it. The answer to that, of course, is that they aren’t challenged. Then you had the episode during the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, when Ed Balls went on the Today programme and not only said that Catholic schools should be required to provide information on accessing abortions, and in a non-judgemental way at that, but actually claimed that Archbishop Nichols agreed with him. In the absence of any rebuttal from the ABW, some silly people may have been misled into thinking that +Vinnie actually did agree with Balls, as opposed to agreeing with the Pope.

And this vacuum leads us to the necessity for something along the lines of Catholic Voices. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said many times, I think Catholic Voices is a great idea in principle. Nor can we really moan about Jack Valero running the show – if Jack was the only guy with the initiative to do this, good luck to him. Although there was, as there often is in these matters, a certain cosmic inevitability in Jack’s being involved, or in him calling for support on that strange wee man who used to do Cormac’s press, and who has graciously agreed to take time out from impersonating Saul Alinsky to put his media skills to work.

This is not however to say that there are no questions that can be raised – questioning the execution is a bit tricky when everything is under Chatham House rules, but there are questions about the concept. Chatham House rules in fact come into this – if you go to, say, a Stop the War conference, there is a fair possibility that there’ll be a workshop on media for anyone who’s interested, without any need for it to be hush-hush. I get what the object of the exercise is – it’s intensive cramming, like in TV’s Faking It – and we know, because Jack has told us and we probably could have guessed anyway, what are the areas of discussion. That could only be an issue of controversy if – heaven forbid! – at least one of the expert speakers had been a little unorthodox. But there’s no possibility of that, thankfully.

There is also the need to avoid getting bogged down in the internal factional politics of English Catholicism. There are a lot of suspicious minds out there who are already casting a jaundiced eye at the whole government-Tablet-Magic Circle lash-up, especially as it manifests itself around arrangements for the papal visit. Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to speculate that Jack and his tracksuited Napoleonic sidekick represent the comms end of the lash-up. And that is why it’s important to underline CV’s independence of the Bishops’ Conference. If, and I’m speaking purely hypothetically, if Vin Nichols had been spotted at one meeting and Charles Wookey at another, that would only serve to stoke the conspiracy theorists’ paranoia. What a relief that I’m only speaking hypothetically.

This isn’t, let me stress, purely a matter of orthodoxy versus Tabletism. What’s perhaps more to the point is that the whole culture of Magic Circle backscratching and old boys’ networks makes it rather difficult to hammer out the issues that need to be hammered out. On the other hand, it makes it much easier for those who are on the square to coast along year after year without being challenged. That’s why I’m constantly driven to teeth-grinding by hearing talk about transparency from those who certainly don’t want light to be shone on them.

Rud eile: This whole transparency issue is possibly flagged up by events in Belgium. I’m no great fan of the Belgian police, given their inability to first catch and then hold onto Marc Dutroux. Nor am I sure what they think they’re going to discover by drilling into archbishops’ tombs and violating the dead. But I can’t help thinking that Cardinal Danneels and the Belgian Magic Circle have brought this on themselves.

Rud eile fós: James has the scoop about those ever-changing venues for the Newman beatification.

Parish pumps to remain unreformed

Well, well. Thanks to the blood-crazed ferret having taken a shine to this blog recently, the traffic here has been ridiculously brisk, but I know how to fix that. For all the new readers eager for a bit more Catholic skulduggery – fear not, for we will return anon to the adventures of Ma Pepsi and her merry band. It’s just that, before the stats counter bursts into flames, I thought it might be an idea to calm things down with a discussion of local government reform.

Or rather, why it isn’t happening. First, some background. Following the Brits’ abolition of our Stormont-era local government system along with the parliament that oversaw it, the north was gifted a local government system in 1973 that has remained more or less intact to the present day. The building blocks of this system are the 26 local government districts; and, in the spirit of limited reform that was fashionable in 1973, the new councils differed from the old councils in having a universal franchise and being elected by PR. This was supposed (and remember, we’re talking Sunningdale-era optimism) to lead to partnership and the withering away of discrimination. If you want to know whether that worked, I advise you to pick up a copy of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s volume Belfast’s Dome of Delight, which expertly chronicles some of the literally incredible goings on at City Hall in those far-off pre-peace process days.

Almost as an afterthought, the new councils were stripped of virtually all the powers that local government in Britain would take for granted. Specifically, they weren’t allowed anywhere near housing or planning. You would almost think that Proconsul Whitelaw didn’t trust the natives to behave.

Fast forward three decades or so. With the restoration of devolution, local government was obviously going to come up for discussion again. Since the Assembly at Stormont with its 108 elected members bore some semblance of functionality, the question would naturally arise as to whether we really needed 26 councils with nearly six hundred councillors, who moreover had little to do except sit around with their two arms the one length. The fact that a majority of MLAs were also double-jobbing as councillors, and a few also triple-jobbing in Westminster, only slightly mitigated the argument for efficiency savings. The Brits also dangled as an incentive that a slimmed-down local government system might accrue some actual powers.

The issue, though, quickly got bogged down in which arbitrary number of councils would win out. Unionists favoured a fairly modest reduction from 26 to 15; the Provos, for reasons best known to themselves, preferred a model of seven enormous councils. Eventually a compromise figure of eleven councils, to be created through amalgamating the existing districts, was agreed on.

Moreover, the question was going to arises of boundaries, in the first instance. Some of this had to do with sectarian geography – so unionists in Limavady objected to the possibility of being lumped in with nationalist-controlled Derry and Strabane. (Limavady itself is under nationalist control these days, but that hasn’t quite sunk in yet.) Beyond that, there’s also a more general geographical issue. The old 26 councils generally made geographical sense, being composed in the main of town plus rural hinterland – it could get a bit confusing in the Belfast suburbs, but in somewhere like Cookstown or Ballymoney you would have, basically, the central town plus those rural areas that looked to it. The planned mergers would create some real monstrosities, lumping together areas that have little affinity with each other save that they share a boundary – the idea, for instance, that Dundonald looks to Lisburn as a regional centre is sheer absurdity when there isn’t even a bus link between the two, and indeed, there is a rather large city called Belfast lying directly between them.

You can tell they’re monstrosities by the proposed names. “Newry City, Mourne and Down District Council”? “Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council”? God love whoever had to design the letterheads. I suppose some old Gaelic names could have been dug up, which would have had the useful side effect of giving Nelson McCausland conniptions, but nobody seems to have thought of an imaginative name where a clunky one would do.

So anyway, the 11-council proposal went through the Executive in 2008. Proconsul Woodward also announced that the council elections scheduled for 2009 would be postponed for two years so as to give time to prepare the transition. Which is where we have been until the last wee while, waiting for the transition to kick in.

So why is it that the Executive, having agreed on local government reform two years ago, fails to agree on it now, and the delayed elections next year look like being to the old 26? There are a number of explanations floating around, most of which have some degree of plausibility.

Officially, it’s all about money. Specifically, a dispute between environment minister Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley) and finance minister Sammy Wilson (DUP, East Antrim) about Sammy’s demands for councils to cough up extra money for the transition, and differing estimates of what the councils might provide in the way of efficiency savings. This boils down to Sammy saying the councils aren’t willing to pull their weight, and the councils averring that Sammy is talking crap. You pays your money and takes your choice.

Another explanation is put forward by Paul Butler (SF, Lagan Valley). He points out that, as a quid pro quo for the councils getting additional powers, there would be mandatory power-sharing as in the Assembly. He remarks, correctly, that nationalist-controlled councils or those with a sectarian balance (Belfast, Armagh) operate all-party power-sharing, whilst unionist-controlled councils like Lisburn or Ards tend to operate a system of power-sharing between the DUP and UUP. As the SF group leader on Lisburn council, Paul knows whereof he speaks; and his theory is that the unionists are getting cold feet about having to share power in their fiefdoms. Well, perhaps.

We may also point to the Pootsiemander, the two interconnected micro-disputes around the boundary between Belfast and the proposed Lisburn/Castlereagh council. One of those relates to where the boundary was drawn in Dunmurry – although the area being transferred to Belfast is overwhelmingly Catholic, some Protestant residents were found and wound up to say that they wanted to stay in Lisburn. This may not be unconnected to Belfast having a fine sectarian balance while Lisburn’s huge Protestant majority can absorb a couple of thousand additional Catholics, which may also explain why the unionist parties (and, weirdly, the SDLP) are very exercised about the Dunmurry boundary. That the independent Boundary Commission heard those objections and rejected them seems entirely irrelevant.

The other element of the Pootsiemander related to the Boundary Commission proposal to include Forestside shopping centre in Belfast, which makes geographical sense as the Castlereagh boundary would then run along the dual carriageway. Edwin’s big idea was that Forestside (and its valuable commercial rates) would stay with Castlereagh, while in return Belfast would get the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the modestly named Peter Robinson Leisure Centre. This would not be a good deal for Belfast, but would help the Lisburn/Castlereagh bottom line.

Just by way of context, until he gave up his dual mandate earlier this week, Edwin Poots was a leading member of Lisburn council. This raised entirely unfounded accusations that Pootsie was more interested in the special interests of his own bailiwick than in getting a workable reform. It’s also hilarious that, since the minister in charge of local government reform was a councillor, he had to recuse himself from Executive meetings dealing with local government reform.

And so it is that DUP ministers turned up at the Executive last week to vote against that which they had voted for two years ago, for reasons not satisfactorily explained, and while the minister responsible (Alderman Poots) had to leave the room. Devolution working for the people, and as Mark says, it didn’t hurt that Edwin snuck the news out when everyone else was preoccupied with the Saville report.

Pootsie does, though, still plan to give the unreformed councils powers over planning. Perhaps not the best subject for a DUP minister to be enthusing about, given the continued outworkings of the Robinson Affair…

One hand washes the other

Let’s stick with the old Kremlinology for the time being, because I want to discuss That Mysterious Email and matters arising. Many of you will already have heard of That Email that’s doing the rounds, the one that when you click on the attachment sets off all sorts of alarms and sternly warns you that your IP address has been logged and if you’re viewing this content without authorisation you will be liable for divers lurid punishments in this life and the next.

There are several curious things about this. One is that the email emanates from the Diocese of Westminster, not an organisation known to be overburdened with computer whizzkids. However, the email itself is advertising an upcoming seminar to be held Monday week at Eland House, the corporate headquarters of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and gives a DCLG official as the contact. This in itself is odd, in that one can understand the discussions at the seminar being held under Chatham House rules, but all this Mission Impossible stuff seems better suited to MI5 than the DCLG. It also stands in some contrast to the content itself.

This, as you’ll have guessed, is a seminar aimed at orienting officials ahead of the papal visit. Nothing remarkable about that. Government departments of course hold these sort of seminars all the time. If you work at DWP headquarters, you may well get the opportunity to hear an academic speaking about labour market trends. If there’s something interesting happening in the Bananastans, the Foreign Office and/or the Department for International Development may well ask a SOAS professor to come in and give some background briefings. And, after the Foreign Office memo affair, government departments evidently need all the background briefings they can get. If the DCLG is having a seminar, you can bet that other relevant departments – the Foreign Office, Home Office, Scotland Office etc – will be doing likewise.

In the same vein, the itinerary is sensible enough. It makes sense to have a representative from the C of E’s ecumenical division to talk about ecumenical relations. Given the centrality of the Newman beatification to the visit, it also makes sense to be giving officials some background on who Cardinal Newman was and what his significance is to both the Catholic and Anglican traditions. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with the opening talk being on the theme of “the Roman Catholic Church in Britain today”. I do note, though, that the speaker marked down for this session is none other than our old friend Catherine Pepinster.

Let me make this perfectly clear. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Ma Pepsi talking to officials about the outlines of English Catholicism. She is, after all, a prominent lay Catholic and editor of an influential Catholic magazine. There is, however, a sense of cosmic inevitability, a feeling that it was always going to be Ma Pepsi or, failing that, Clifford. There could easily be an element of sheer laziness involved. Older readers may recall how about 25 years ago, if the BBC were covering a Catholic story and couldn’t get a quote from Cardinal Hume, they would always phone up dear old Norman St John Stevas, apparently on the grounds that dear old Norman was the only lay Catholic their religious affairs staff had ever heard of. So there’s that possibility. There are, however, other possibilities.

You’ll perhaps recall the old story about Peter Jay, and how a Times editor once remonstrated with him that his economics columns were completely incomprehensible. Jay is supposed to have responded that “my column is written for three people in this country, and you aren’t one of them”. There are somewhere between five and six million Catholics in Britain, and the Tablet sells just over 20,000 copies a week. But it’s read by the right people. If the Tablet was simply a magazine for progressive Catholics who enjoyed reading its Hello!-style interviews with Hans Küng, or Bobbie Mickens giving off about the evils of the Latin Mass, it would be of no real significance. Its significance lies in its historic status as the organ of the Catholic establishment. All those baronesses and retired diplomats on its board and trust aren’t there for no reason.

You may recognise this punter:

This is the Right Hon the Lord Patten of Barnes CH, former Tory cabinet minister, former Governor of Hong Kong, former European Commissioner, incumbent Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and all-round member of the great and the good. Chris Patten has recently been appointed by David Cameron as the government’s papal visit czar, reporting directly to Cameron himself. Chris Patten is a member of the Tablet Trust.

Unless you’re a serious politics nerd, you may not recognise this punter:

This is Sir Gus O’Donnell KCB, holder of many civil service posts over his long and distinguished career, and currently the Cabinet Secretary, making him the head of the Home Civil Service. He’s the highest-ranking and most powerful figure in the permanent Whitehall bureaucracy. Gus O’Donnell has spent several months coordinating an interdepartmental committee aimed at getting all government departments dealing with the papal visit pulling in the same direction. Gus O’Donnell is a member of the Tablet Trust.

I am not of course suggesting that either Chris or Gus have been going around actively pulling strings for their mates on the Suppository. I am simply suggesting that the connection doesn’t hurt. And the key point is, if you’re looking for Catholic establishment types, the easiest place to find them is at what the late Cardinal Franjo Šeper is supposed to have described as “that paper that used to be Catholic”.

Now, it’s true that the Catholic establishment and the Tabletista progressive tendency are not coterminous – hence the appearance around the papal visit of such figures as Neil Addison or Dan Brennan, who would be more towards the orthodox end of the spectrum. But it’s very clear which tendency is in the driving seat, and it ain’t the orthodox one.

The other noteworthy aspect of this is the involvement of the DCLG, a department created by New Labour with an eclectic set of responsibilities including council tax, housing, urban planning and the fire service. But one aspect of its powers is that, when the department was created in 2006, it took over the “integration and cohesion” brief from the Home Office, including the Preventing Violent Extremism initiative. This bit of the DCLG has taken on some of the functions of what in the old Soviet bloc would have been the Ministry of Religion.

Mostly, this has to do with Muslims, and the Prevent strategy has borne a strong resemblance to the grantocracy strategy developed by Douglas Hurd and Tom King in the north of Ireland in the 1980s, when local Catholic clergy were put in charge of community development schemes, with the aim of undermining popular support for Sinn Féin and thereby pacifying the ghetto. In a similar way, DCLG, particularly under Hazel Blears, developed a strong tendency towards using patronage to build up a compliant Muslim leadership while freezing out those who were a bit stroppy about British foreign policy. It hasn’t worked very well, and the main effect of handing over all those cheques to Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz has been to discredit them with the people they’re supposed to be influencing, even though as “approved Muslims” they’ve built up reasonable media careers. Let’s see whether Eric Pickles fancies carrying on with this approach.

But this is a tendency of all governments, which is why when we talk about the separation of church and state we have to remember that it cuts both ways. England of course has its long history of an Established Church with the monarch as its Supreme Governor, its bishops appointed by the prime minister and much of its functioning subject to parliamentary approval. On the other side of the world we find the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a body that agrees with all the policies of the Chinese government, dispenses with those bits of Catholic dogma that conflict with government policy, and whose bishops are appointed by the Communist Party.

That’s the extreme end of the argument. The relatively benign end is something like the north of Ireland peace process grantocracy. We are very familiar here with a situation where a small charity or campaigning group gets a grant, suddenly isn’t working on a shoestring any more but can afford fulltime staff and an office suite, and before you know it the charity has become a quango and is consulting on government policy. This usually goes without resistance, because the outcome suits everybody concerned. And it needn’t even be cash – access will do as well.

Stonewall is an excellent example of this. Ben Summerskill and his mates have long since become so close to the centres of power that the shoutier end of gay activism has found lots of mileage in deriding them as the government’s pet gays. Yet, the trade-off for their loss of independence is an enormous amount of influence in terms of shaping government policy, and Summerskill would argue that that influence makes the sacrifice worthwhile. Sometimes, the mutual benefits of this kind of backscratching are such that the late VI Lenin’s classic question “who whom?” becomes very difficult to answer. Look at the Sun, the government’s semi-official newspaper – does the government benefit more from receiving the sunny side of Uncle Rupert’s countenance, or does the Sun benefit more from its easy access to the corridors of power? Looking back at the days when Alastair Campbell was practically dictating the paper’s political coverage, who can say?

When considering the emergent Tablet-government lash-up, the danger is not coercion but backscratching. Of course it’s never stated – it may not even be a fully formulated thought in the relevant people’s minds – but it’s entirely possible that we see the government forging an alliance with the forces of Catholicism Lite. Entirely possible, too, that the hierarchy would go along with this, since it’s at least arguable that their established MO of chumming up to ministers might outweigh their willingness to work with marginal hardline figures like, er, the Pope.

There used to be a good saying about long spoons. It might come in handy in this context.

How they are connected, part two

By popular demand, we’re going to continue tonight with our project of putting Clerical Whispers out of business worm’s eye view of English Catholic politics. I’d like to begin by thanking Dr Ivereigh for obfuscating elucidating certain matters around Catholic Voices, and if you feel inclined to get stuck into Austen, just remember he was game enough to go on Newsnight and debate with Sinéad O’Connor, which must have been like debating with David Icke, and raises some questions about the judgement of the Newsnight editors.

To begin with Catholic Voices – and we must enter the plea that the project’s shy and retiring nature invites speculation – perhaps we can recalibrate somewhat. From the websites of both CV and the Catholic Union, it certainly appears as if CV is a CU project, that it is operating under the auspices of the CU, and that it is being patronised by Dan Brennan. Notwithstanding that the CU may not actually have handed over a cheque – and I have no evidence to dispute Austen’s account – the CU has certainly lent its brand, which is as good as a cheque if not better. Having the imprimatur of the Catholic Union makes it much easier to raise money, and furthermore allows one to use “Catholic” in the title without having to go through the usual episcopal channels. One may further note that, while the CU is a membership organisation, said membership is not known for being very assertive, and most of the time Dan and Jamie are able to run the show very much as they see fit.

Well now. Let us for the moment turn our attention to matters broader and older, and I want particularly to muse on the intimate connection between institutional Catholicism and the Labour Party.

Catholics, as a group, are significantly more likely to vote Labour than the British electorate as a whole. In the 2005 election, Labour polled 35% of the vote, but surveys suggest the party pulled in 53% of the Catholic vote. Most parish priests vote Labour; the Bishops’ Conference is heavily, though not exclusively, Labour in its sympathies. This well-known situation simply does not compute for the No Popery brigade on Liberal Conspiracy, and is a constant source of baffled outrage for Catholic Tories like Damian Thompson, but is easily explicable. One factor is simply that Catholics are significantly more likely to be working class, and significantly more likely to be of immigrant background, than the societal norm. (This includes young Damo himself, who is of course of Irish extraction.)

There’s also the factor that the basic concepts of Social Catholicism – communitarian, anti-war, anti-poverty, in favour of society placing restrictions on the market so as to serve the common good – are a pretty good mesh for what we might loosely term Old Labour politics. Not such a good fit for undiluted Thatcherism, although the moderate Christian Democracy of someone like Chris Patten would be acceptable. There was also, a generation ago, the persistence of anti-Catholicism in some Tory circles, although today that prejudice has largely migrated to the liberal-left. Those are the sociological and ideological elements; there’s also a straightforward element of power politics.

The broad alignment of the bishops with Labour goes back decades, although in many ways the architect of its modern form was the late Archbishop Derek Worlock. This, by the way, was a dividing line of sorts with Cardinal Hume, who had a broader concept of integrating the hierarchy into the British establishment and thereby getting past the pervasive prejudice about Catholicism’s foreignness. Generally, though, the BCEW came to bear an uncanny resemblence to the Labour Party at prayer. To get a sense of the persistence of this sort of outlook, despite radical changes in the LP in the interim, you have to remember that the English episcopacy consists of a couple of dozen men who all know each other very well, who hold their jobs for long periods, who tend to think very much alike, and who in many ways resemble an old boys’ club. I’ve mentioned previously that it was Worlock who gave Vincent Nichols his leg up the greasy pole in the Liverpool archdiocese; it’s also worth remarking that, when +Derek was working his previous stint in Portsmouth, his private secretary was none other than a young Fr Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. It’s a small world, indeed.

Speaking of which, a useful area of investigation for future biographers would be the remarkably close relationship between Cardinal Cormac and Mr Tony Blair. This keeps on popping up in a number of different contexts. There would be, for instance, Gordon Brown’s offer of a peerage to Cormac on his retirement, so he could sit in the Lords alongside the C of E bishops and Chief Rabbi Sacks. It’s not exactly a pontifical secret that Cormac was desperate to accept this – charitably, it would be an outward sign of Catholicism having arrived at the highest rungs of society; less charitably, while Cormac is a very very nice man, he’s also a terrible snob – had it not been for that pesky provision of canon law that forbids priests from holding political office. See the case of Bruce Kent, and see also the current president of Paraguay. Cue anguished phone calls from the Cormac camp to the Canon Law Society looking for a loophole, until the Holy See made it clear that there wasn’t one.

A more enduring aspect of this relationship is the current heavy involvement of the Mr Tony Blair Faith Foundation in the organisation of the papal visit. Not many people are going to turn a profit from the visit – possibly the guys who are paying tribute to the Bavarian pontiff with commemorative Pope Benedict beer steins, but I somehow don’t think they’re official – however, I would be astonished if the Mr Tony Foundation actually took a serious hit to the bottom line.

The BCEW-New Labour relationship, though, has other elements to it as well, which have come to mute the Church’s voice as its leaders have sought influence. Now, of course the bishops will have to deal with whomever is in power and build up relationships with them. Vincent Nichols, a Scouser and therefore not one of the world’s natural Tories, has been spotted hobnobbing with the Conservative Christian Fellowship; no doubt feelers have gone out to the few Catholics left in the Lib Dems, although neither Charlie Kennedy nor David Laws has that much influence these days.

Lobbying ministers is fine, but lobbying ministers at the expense of any other methods, like, oh, making a public argument, is not. When the Sexual Orientation Regulations were going through parliament and the threat to the adoption agencies became clear, the word from Eccleston Square was “we’ve spoken to Mr Tony and he assures us we’ll be all right”. When the recent Children, Schools and Families Bill was going through, the line was “we’ve spoken to Ed Balls and he assures us we’ll be all right”. And when the assurances turned to dust? Having eschewed making the argument in public in favour of talking to ministers, the bishops came to the argument late and just looked completely unreasonable. Losing an argument is fine, but losing an argument by default through not turning up until the last minute, and doing this repeatedly, is not fine.

Perhaps a lesson could be learnt from Stonewall, who are also extremely close to New Labour and have gained so much from government largesse as to be effectively a quango, but who still do the basic stuff of lobbying MPs, working the media and so on.

Nor is this simply a matter of defending one’s own sectional interest. Take the invasion of Iraq. You will recall that John Paul II, despite his failing health, was a very strong voice against the war, and that the Holy See did a lot of diplomatic heavy lifting at the UN prior to the invasion. Getting a firm position from the bishops in the aggressor countries was a tougher job. In the US, there was a grand total of one prelate who condemned the war outright – that would be the rather splendid Bishop Botean, the Romanian Uniate eparch, who threatened to excommunicate any of his flock who took part – but it took some arm-twisting on the part of the Vatican to get even a weak formal statement on the general desirability of peace out of the 300-strong USCCB.

Were matters better in Britain? Well, in Scotland perhaps, where Cardinal Keith O’Brien isn’t known for mincing his words. South of the border, there was plenty of word-mincing – while statements were issued, these were of the “yes, well, obviously war is always a bad thing, y’know, in a very real sense” variety which wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers on Thought for the Day. What would have been great would have been a tough formal statement, allied to some lobbying of MPs. I can think off the top of my head of several Catholic MPs – Geraldine Smith, for instance, or Jon Cruddas – who initially voted for the war but then came to change their minds, and whose backbones could conceivably have been stiffened. Would it have made a difference to the vote in parliament? Possibly not, but it could have made the vote close enough to be interesting. But then, all that would have meant not worrying too much about your chummy relationship with Mr Tony.

And this brings us back to the whole question of communicating your case, and it’s clear the discreet lobbying impulse lives on. I read in the current issue of the Suppository that Archbishop Nichols has been lunching with newspaper editors, and yea, has even met Uncle Rupert himself. At least this demonstrates that +Vincent understands the necessity of a proactive press strategy, even if his concept of a press strategy is straight out of the 1950s, and exactly the sort of thing that pisses hacks off. A modest suggestion – it may benefit the English hierarchy if their press officers could take time out from feuding with each other to actually issue press releases. Schmoozing journos wouldn’t hurt either, but baby steps.

And it is indeed the general hopelessness of official channels that leads us to the necessity of freelance operations like Catholic Voices. Actually, we’ve seen a precursor to that in the recent past, in the shape of the Da Vinci Code Response Group, which operated under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Westminster but was formally autonomous. It’s not clear exactly what impact the DVCRG had either in terms of Dan Brown’s bottom line or in terms of debunking some of the mythology surrounding the book. What is clear is that the DVCRG got an article into the Spectator, and on that basis the party line at Westminster declared it a massive success.

Oh yes, I knew there was something else. The DVCRG consisted of nine or ten members of the great and the good who all had particular areas of expertise, but there were three people effectively driving it. The first was Peter Scally SJ, who runs a magazine called Thinking Faith which caters to the many insomniacs one finds in the Society of Jesus. The other two were entrepreneurial Opus Dei honcho Jack Valero, and this blog’s good friend, diminutive Catholic intellectual Dr Austen Ivereigh.

Does this seem familiar? You bet your ass it does. What would be surprising would be if there was a major event coming up and Beavis and Butt-head weren’t involved in the media side.

Rud eile: I’ve noticed that of late this blog has been getting quite a few hits from Vatican City IP addresses. I would like to imagine that this would be some staffer on the increasingly weird L’Osservatore Romano, whose cultural section has just done a five-part series on the Catholic significance of The Blues Brothers.

Rud eile fós: Did I mention Benedict XVI beer steins? What say youse to a Pius IX cologne? David Beckham had better look to his laurels.

The dry heaves

I’ve been meaning to post something more about the Blueshirt putsch, but there’s already been plenty of good commentary over at the place where the cool kids hang out. It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario for Fine Gael, who have never learned from their FF rivals the fine art of despatching a leader quickly. So there’s now the scenario where Kenny survives in charge with a slim majority, the precise size of which is a secret but which may not be unadjacent to six (in a parliamentary party of 70). Therefore Enda is in a position where he knows, and everybody else knows, that half of his party has no confidence in his leadership, and if you consider his strong support from party senators and MEPs, he probably has the majority of his TDs against him. The words “lame” and “duck” spring to mind, and all that will keep Enda in charge for the time being is a mixture of inertia and the Bruton camp’s making a complete balls of their heave.

Anyway, the thing I wanted to remark on was the geographical spread. Let’s take as a reasonable estimate of support the Irish Times breakdown that showed 33 for Kenny, 30 for Bruton and 7 fence-sitters. This may not be entirely right, so caveat emptor, but it’s unlikely to be wildly inaccurate. Some commentators have remarked on the east-west split, which is true, but it’s slightly more complicated than that. Breaking down the IT list by constituency, we arrive with the following stats:

The 33 for Kenny breaks down as Dublin 6; Leinster 6; Munster 10; Connacht-Ulster 11.

The 30 for Bruton breaks down as Dublin 7; Leinster 9; Munster 11; Connacht-Ulster 3.

And, for what it’s worth, the seven others were Dublin 1, Leinster 1, Munster 2, Connacht-Ulster 3.

You see the Bruton camp, then, having a lead in Dublin and the commuter belt, and Kenny having a near-complete stranglehold on the Connacht organisation, which would probably be crucial. The near-even split in Munster results from Bruton pulling in strong support from around Cork, which would be a Coveney faction rather than a Bruton one, Coveney having medium-term leadership aspirations of his own. There are anomalies, but they are mostly explicable, with Noonan down in Limerick having his own beefs with Kenny, Deasy in Waterford being a serial malcontent and Joe McHugh of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Donegal North East) being married to Brutonite siren Olwyn Enright. Conversely, Electric Enda does have some support on the east coast, but much of that can be identified as people who owe him for patronage reasons.

However, the fact that the anomalies are explicable tends to strengthen the overall picture of a Kennyite faction based firmly in the party’s country-and-western tendency, while the Brutonites huddle around the east coast, with opportunistic support from the Coveneyites in Cork plus scattered malcontents. You will notice the marked resemblance to geographically-based factionalism in Fianna Fáil.

And, as with the FF factionalism, we can pose the question – is there anything political in this? Well, there is and there isn’t.

As is well known, neither of our two main parties is very ideological, and both are what we might politely term broad churches, or impolitely term masses of contradictions. FG’s protean nature through its history borders on the bizarre. Starting out as the pro-Treaty faction of Sinn Féin, by the end of the 1920s it had become a halfway house for disenfranchised Redmondites and unionists; in the 1930s it was fascist; in the 1950s it was vocationalist; in the 1980s it aspired to be social democratic; and these days nobody quite knows what it stands for.

The southern Irish political system being what it is but, nobody knowing what a party stands for is not necessarily a disadvantage. FF for decades refused to produce party manifestos on the grounds that the government should run on its record; the Boss attempted to bring back that culture following the disastrous 1977 manifesto. Under the Irish system, you can be an ideological party and occupy a niche, or you can be a vague amorphous party and have large-scale support. Nobody has ever figured out how to do both.

In fact, political culture, often handed down through families, is usually more important than ideology. Most observers don’t realise – and perhaps Enda Kenny doesn’t realise – how peculiar are the roots of Fine Gael in Connacht and the border counties. Back in the 1940s, FG was virtually extinct west of the Shannon, and only managed to regain a serious base in the 50s and 60s by cannibalising the votes of independent TDs, Clann na Talmhan and, weirdly enough, Clann na Poblachta. (Specifically, the strong FG vote in Cavan derives directly from the old CnaP base there.) Western Blueshirts therefore can be somewhat more economically populist and socially conservative and even republican than their counterparts in and around the capital; but it’s not so much an ideological division as one of culture. With FG having a support base that tends towards the elderly and rural, that’s an important thing, and it lies behind much of the idea that Kenny, hailing from the badlands of Mayo, couldn’t connect with the Dublin voter.

The problem, though, is whether the Brutonites have a solution to that. Observers will have noticed the presence in the Bruton camp of the noisy rightwing faction of Brian Hayes, Leo Varadkar (who, terrifyingly, seems to aspire to being a young Brian Hayes) and the Unbearable Lightness of Lucinda. These people do have an idea of what FG should stand for; it involves FG becoming, to all intents and purposes, the Progressive Democrats Mark Two. If you’re really serious about that, then you should be prepared for Desocrat levels of support, for the Irish electorate remains resolutely resistant to ideology. Further, if FG’s problem in Dublin is that formerly FF-supporting public sector workers are switching en masse to Labour, you want to consider whether you actually want to deepen those guys’ antagonism to FG. It may well be – in fact, I’d take it as a given – that Labour will do frig all for the public sector, but there’s a difference between that and an FG front bench positively promising to screw the public sector.

Garret FitzGerald was so good at winning over the Dublin middle class not because of the detail of what he said – his pronouncements on the PSBR went over most voters’ heads – but because of who he was. He was the sort of politician middle-class voters liked, because he reflected well on the electorate, and he was brilliant at mood music. Gilmore is also great at mood music. I doubt many people could tell you what Gilmore’s policies are, but at the moment he’s more popular than Nelson Mandela. I submit that the two things are not unconnected.

Rud eile: just a passing thought on That Poll. It’s often said that FG needs Labour more than Labour needs FG, because Labour has two options for coalition. The FG preferred scenario, I suppose, would be FG on 70-plus seats and Labour on 15-20, just like it used to be. That would mean a clearly Fine Gael-led government with Labour making up the numbers. But, since FG-SF is not an option (yet), FG could be faced with the appalling vista of coalition on parity terms, and no other option. On the other hand… it’s assumed that FF is so electorally toxic Labour couldn’t possibly prop the Soldiers of Fortune up for another term. But what about the prospect of a Labour-led government with FF as the junior partner? Might Gilmore see that as an opportunity worth considering?

How they are connected

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.

Vuvuzelas and theology

Sometimes a familiar old publication still has the ability to make you sit up and take notice. Like when the wonderful Penny Red started writing a lifestyle column for the Morning Star: of course you’re pleased for her, and the result is worth reading, but the juxtaposition of the Morning Star and the whole concept of “lifestyle” makes me wonder if these are the droids we’re looking for.

And so we turn to the popular issue of the moment, the vuvuzela. One expects, of course, the tabloids to run big on the vuvuzela; one even expects the Grauniad to deal with it in an achingly postmodern way. What one doesn’t expect is to see it being discussed in the good old Church Times:

THE VUVUZELA, the plastic horn that has dominated the 2010 World Cup, is Africa’s revenge on the West, a South African theologian says.

The president of the South African Council of Churches, Dr Tinyiko Maluleke, interviewed by ENI in Edinburgh last week, praised the vuvuzela for the volume of noise it makes. Dr Maluleke described the one-note instrument as a “missile-shaped weapon”, which forced the world to wake up and acknowledge Africa’s past sufferings.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Sun on Wednesday: “The vuvuzela is part of our culture. We cannot separate them from the soccer fever.”

By the middle of this week, the website had attracted 84,000 votes to ban the instrument, and 9000 votes in its favour. The BBC has received more than 500 complaints about the background noise on its broadcasts. There are also fears about hearing-loss among fans; and football man­agers say that they can­not commun­icate with players on the field.

But Dr Makulele said: “In the 19th century, white missionaries sided with colonials and gave blacks the Bible, while they took the land. Now, we have created the vuvuzela, which is one of the most obnoxious in­struments: very noisy, very annoy­ing. It will dominate the FIFA World Cup. I see the vuvuzela as a symbol, as a symbol of Africa’s cry for acknowledgement. . .

“We see it when Africans are em­barrassed to be African in their own vernacular language, to relate to their culture positively: the schizo­phrenic relationship that Africans have to their traditions, their cul­ture, and their religions.”

A South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, has reported that the vuvuzela is commonly used in church services in neighbouring Bots­wana. One Botswana church­goer, Jacqueline Chireshe, explained: “The vuvuzela is a biblical instru­ment; it is a trumpet, and God expects us to blow the trumpet in offering praise to him.”

Last year, members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, founded in 1910, unsuccessfully argued that they owned the copyright on the instrument, which was used on an annual pilgrimage to a mountain in KwaZulu-Natal which they consider to be holy.

Every day’s a school day, isn’t it? In related news, Archbishop Nichols is concerned about vuvuzelas. I humbly suggest that +Vincent may have more pressing matters on his plate.

Sophistry at the Suppository

Fear not, for you’re not going to get a long-winded blog on Leo Strauss. Just by way of a prologue, I was thinking there of how good Strauss was on reading Machiavelli. In particular, this related to a feature of The Prince that will be apparent to the careful reader, how a chapter will be headlined “Why A Prince Should Do X” and then the text of the chapter will point you strongly in the direction of why a prince shouldn’t do X. This is the genre that Strauss identified as “esoteric writing”; it flourishes also on the further left, notably in the Socialist Workers Party where the genre is known as Molyneuxism.

But I don’t want to talk about that. Rather, I want to identify a little example of the genre.

As penance for my unutterable sins, I am a regular reader of the Tablet. For those of you who aren’t readers of the venerable organ, I should explain that the Tablet is a weekly magazine that closely resembles the Oldie except that it contains less Catholicism. And I hereby direct your attention to this week’s lead article by Ma Pepsi herself, dwelling on that vexed subject of the papal visit.

Now then. Let’s say for talk’s sake that you’re the editor of the Tablet. Let’s further say that the papal visit that is now mere weeks away looks very much like turning into a fiasco. Let’s say that your mortal enemy, Damian Thompson, has just had a big prominent article in the Spectator detailing just how much of a fiasco it looks like being – and that this article stands up, because even Damo’s many detractors admit there isn’t a pulse in Catholic England that Damo doesn’t have his finger on. Let’s say that this fiasco in the making reflects very badly indeed on precisely that English Catholic establishment that the Tablet exists to serve. Let’s say that all this is common knowledge and you can’t just let it go by unremarked – what does a Tablet editor do to justify her position?

The answer is to go in for a bit of the old esoteric writing. I read this article, scratched my head, read it again, and then wondered whether Ma Pepsi had missed the point entirely or whether the article was a masterpiece of sophistry. The answer, of course, is both. Ma Pepsi does indeed miss the point by a mile, but gives the strong impression that, as so often, she’s doing so deliberately.

You will not of course find any reference to the revelations that have prompted this puff job, for there is little that is considered worse form at the Tablet than to mention those reprobates at the Catholic Herald. Rather, what Ma Pepsi does is to big up Chris Patten, who has taken over coordination of the government end of the papal visit. It helps that Lord Patten is a big cheese at the Tablet. And, while Ma Pepsi graciously concedes that some things are going awry – notably the huge mismatch between the costs of the papal visit and the amount being raised from the faithful to pay for it – she reassures us that

The appointment of Patten makes sense, given his experience of overseeing complicated events that were by no means guaranteed to have the successful outcomes he enjoyed. As chairman of the Conservative Party, he helped John Major to an unexpected election triumph in 1992 (although lost his own seat in the process), and then as Governor of Hong Kong oversaw the successful handover of the former British colony to the Chinese Government, despite Chinese hostility to him (they curiously nicknamed him “The Triple Violator”).

Well, quite. It is true that Patten isn’t in the habit of presiding over fiascos. It helps that he’s reporting directly to Cameron, and also that the line managers at the Foreign Office have severely cracked the whip on those teenage clerks who caused so much embarrassment a little while back. However, as Ma Pepsi well knows, the problems that threaten to turn the visit into a fiasco are not on the government side. For instance, while costs have been ballooning on the pastoral side of the combined state and pastoral visit – basically, the deal was that the government would underwrite things like the Pope’s meeting with the Queen and his address at Westminster Hall, as well as police overtime and such, while the Catholic Church would pay for the pastoral bits like the open-air Masses – the projected cost to the taxpayer has been absolutely steady, and remains on the cheap side for a state visit. No, the problem is with the Bishops’ Conference. But that’s precisely the sort of thing the Tablet can’t say.

The thing you need to remember here is that the papal visit was not an initiative of the Bishops’ Conference, but was Gordon Brown’s bright idea. The English bishops were not quite as enthusiastic as the government. Mainly this is because the English bishops are not in the Pope’s good books at the minute (although the Scottish bishops are, and Cardinal O’Brien has been very enthusiastic indeed). There are various reasons for this to do with church politics – one is the liturgical reform B16 places such a high importance on, which is not popular with bishops who react to requests for an Extraordinary Form Mass as if you had handed them a dead stoat; another is the Anglican Ordinariate, which has upset the old-style ecumenists; yet another has to do with personnel issues at the Vatican. What it boils down to is that the bishops in England – and the same is true in a number of other countries – are not exactly simpatico with precisely those parts of Benedict’s programme that have enthused a significant layer of the faithful. In this, the BCEW can always find a sympathetic echo chamber at the Tablet, spiritual home of those progressive Catholics whose defining feature is their nostalgia for the reign of Paul VI.

That’s the political side. To that you have to add the famous inability of the Bishops’ Conference to organise themselves out of a paper bag. For instance, if you were planning to hold the Newman beatification at Coventry Airport, it might have been a good idea to book Coventry Airport. And, while it surely doesn’t help that papal nuncio Faustino Sainz Muñoz is currently sitting in a wheelchair in Spain recovering from a serious stroke, nobody familiar with Sainz would expect him to be banging heads in Eccleston Square.

Anyway, back to Ma Pepsi. Without actually admitting that the English Catholic establishment have made a pig’s ear of the papal visit, Madam Editor does concede that all is not well on the Church side of things. We are even treated to a couple of soundbites from Mgr Andrew Summersgill, one of the chief culprits, allowing that there might just be a few minor wrinkles, which will all be straightened out in time. We even get this zinger:

In a recent interview, Mgr Summersgill cautioned Catholics not to be too optimistic about their chances of attending the pastoral gatherings. He has suggested some could see the Pope from the roadside while he hoped that huge numbers would participate “virtually” with the live coverage on television and online.

Ma Pepsi says rather mildly that this didn’t go down well in Rome. Perhaps it doesn’t seem outrageous to Tablet readers, many of whom don’t like B16 and many of whom have age-related mobility issues anyway. But the basic point that the Pope travels to be seen and heard by as many of the faithful as possible – that’s why popes travel in the first place – should have been instinctively understood. Catholicism, after all, is a sensual religion in which you have to physically be there. You can’t yet go to confession by text, though no doubt there’s some proposal to legalise that.

Again, we return to Ma Pepsi’s touching belief in the miracle-working powers of Chris Patten:

…it is not his remit to knock heads together in the Catholic Church. But Patten’s mix of political frankness and diplomatic savvy – the iron fist in a velvet glove – may well produce results. If he sees there are problems, he is unlikely to stay entirely silent.

There you go, he’s unlikely to stay entirely silent, a sentence that would have given Orwell kittens. Given what bishops are like – they don’t listen to their priests, certainly don’t listen to the laity, and only listen to the Pope if he holds a gun to their heads – you’re expecting an awful lot of Chris Patten. Note, too, that this is all part of the same crabwise approach of admitting that there are serious problems without pointing any fingers at the English Catholic establishment who must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame.

It’s all a bit wearying, especially if you’ve had long-term exposure to writings in this genre. And especially if you’ve grown used to a lot of blether about openness and accountability from people who are afraid to speak one or two home truths. The intention, presumably, is to own up that there may have been a hitch or two along the road, but you have to trust in your wise leadership who have already overcome these problems before they even admitted that the problems existed in the first place. Again, it reminds me of a lot of left discourse, except that the Tablet house style is slightly more digestible than Trotsko-sectarian internal bulletinese. All in all, though, a stellar performance for English Catholicism’s answer to Pravda.

Finally, and by way of an aside, Ma Pepsi raises the question – in a detached kind of way, of course, not as an accusation – of whether enough has been done to sell Benny’s visit to the faithful, let alone the wider public. The new booklet from the bishops might help, or then again it might not. But the communications side, or lack thereof, might repay some attention. It’s really a subject that would require a whole separate post, but for the meantime one may merely note that the Catholic Union is bankrolling the press operation, and CU members might at some point like to ask Lord Brennan what exactly Jack and Austen are giving them for their money. One merely makes the suggestion.

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