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.


  1. antigone said,

    June 18, 2010 at 12:40 am

    your possibly reklated posts should surely be on prada not loyis vuiton. But otherwise frustratingly tragic abnd funny but spot on. Tempted to forward to my priest but fearful for my daughters access to education therefater (not known for his sense of humour or parody).

  2. Edmund Adamus said,

    June 18, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Excellent piece. Given that the pastoral side of the Visit oragnisers wouldn’t even look in to the serious offer from Birmingham City Council to host the Beatification Mass for Newman at Villa Park football ground [amongst other venues] as well as accommodating all VIPs in hotels, providing a Newman tourist trail in the city to help raise funds for the Oratory and even a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at the city concert hall [all on the City of Birmingham] – one has to wonder how the ‘delicate mission’ of the Pope to Britain is only such because of the manifestly unapostolic nature in which senior clerics and their Blairite advisers go about the business of well …the religion business.

  3. Res Miranda said,

    June 24, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    “CU members might at some point like to ask Lord Brennan what exactly Jack and Austen are giving them for their money.”
    Indeed. The Catholic Voices website lists 39 print and broadcast media appearances. If the figure of £37,500 which Paul Priest suggests (on Holy Smoke) has been contributed to date is accurate, then that’s £961 per appearance so far (of course that figure will go down if CV suddenly becomes hugely successful). Some of these appearances have been in fairly obscure outlets (Premier Radio, Roundhouse Radio). For £37,500 the Catholic Union could have taken out 50 quarter page advertisements in the Catholic Herald, or 63 half page advertisements in the Tablet, if you think that’s a more likely choice.
    Which begs the question: cui bono?

    • birkenstock said,

      June 24, 2010 at 6:32 pm

      I’m unclear as to why ongoing contributions are required. Of course there will be set up costs with this sort of thing, but if the Catholic Voices are as altruistic as they pretend then surely the appearance fees will be channelled back into the project. Remember, the BBC and others ‘pay’ people to appear – a tidy source of revenue for those media types who like to put themselves about. CV doesn’t have to pay to have people appear – quite the opposite. If donations have been received from the public at large, if Tony and Cherie have smashed Euan’s piggy bank to shore up the CV project then it would be outrageous for individual CV types to be pocketing the cash. Why doesn’t CV come clean and stop all this blithering?

  4. Paul Priest said,

    June 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I’m much less concerned about where the money’s going to – Let Jack, Austen and Kathleen get their four score and ten pieces of silver – but I’m very concerned about where the money’s coming from !!??

    It’s now been two days – and generally ‘captain bollocks’ jumps like a vampire on a virgin at any suggestion that the good ship CV has a dodgy cv – but so far we’ve had naught but silence regarding the suggestion from the fair Lady Miranda that the ‘pretty nice guy’ is paying for a ‘Catholic’ version of a dodgy dossier.

    …tick,tick tick….

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