All right, let’s take a brief look at the current issue of That Magazine We Don’t Mention, for there’s something in it that’s been annoying my brain the last few days. I mean, more than usual.
Bobbie Mickens has been at a trendy theological conference in the Alpine city of Trent, site of the famous ecumenical council, which gives him the opportunity to whine about the Extraordinary Form and, indeed, the whole of Church history prior to 1962. But this is par for the course, and it’s not that that’s been annoying me.
There’s a big ad for this West End debate on 14 September about whether compulsory celibacy should be abolished, which is an interesting topic even if the discussion is usually hackneyed, and I fear the orthodox side is seriously rhetorically outgunned. On the reformist side of the argument is Tablet trustee Baroness Helena Kennedy, who is a formidable debater, and Tablet director Professor Tina Beattie. On the status quo side are the ubiquitous Jack Valero, who is commendably game to go in for these things; Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who evidently has nothing better to do two days before a papal visit; and Fr Stephen Wang of Allen Hall Seminary. All I have to say about the latter is, if you haven’t yet been exposed to the devastating charisma of Fr Stephen Wang, you’re in for a treat.
But it’s not that.
There is a very short and anodyne piece on the Birmingham Three, which can’t be ignored any more, especially as more keeps leaking out. Since it can’t be ignored, there’s an article that reports the situation without actually explaining what’s going on, let alone asking awkward questions like what exactly Iggy Harrison thinks he’s playing at.
But it’s not that.
We turn to the latest in the patchily interesting “Understanding Benedict” series, and this week the author is the shambling miscreant Ed Stourton. Lord, give me strength. If that wretched toad had been a hoodie-wearing, cider-drinking yob from a sink estate, the Daily Mail would be holding him up as the cause of Broken Britain, but of course Ed went to Ampleforth and is a Tablet trustee, so that’s all right then. Anyway, at the point where theology needs to be discussed, we usually get a load of guff from Fr Tim Radcliffe, but oddly Ed eschews the obvious in favour of quoting extensively from… Fr Stephen Wang. If you think this sounds like an old boys’ club, you have grasped a great truth about the Tablet.
But it’s not that. Nor even is it the editorial on Turkish membership of the EU, which I’ve read three times in the vain hope of finding a point. No, I’m thinking of Clifford’s column. Because, once again, dear old Clifford is in his Karl Rove mode.
We begin with Clifford recalling opinion polling prior to JP2’s visit to Britain in 1982, and the expectation that there would be Protestant resistance to the visit:
In fact, after the Catholic population itself, it was the members of the Free Churches (arguably the most Protestant section of opinion) who were most favourable to the visit. But the greatest opposition came from a hitherto unsuspected body of opinion, which was mainly detected by correlating the result with newspaper readership. Yes, they were Guardian readers.
You don’t say, Clifford! Actually, that could have been determined by just reading the Grauniad, whose approach to such matters often resembles the Protestant Telegraph circa 1971.
…it’s a safe bet that at least as much media attention will be given to those relatively few activists who want to wreck the visit as to what the Pope actually says or does himself, or the hundreds of thousands who will turn out to greet him.
This is true. In fact, something that has struck me about the Protest The Pope Coalition is the disconnect between the amount of sympathetic media coverage it’s been given and the uniformly derisory turnouts at its events. The last picket of Westminster Cathedral attracted fewer than thirty people – even Peter Tatchell only claimed fifty – and they seemed to be heavily made up of professional protesters like Peter. To understand that, you have to consider the Coalition itself, which is the usual anti-religious lash-up of OutRage!, the National ‘Secular’ Society and the Worker-Communist Party of Iran plus a few waifs and strays. When this constellation are organising anti-Islam rallies, it’s normally the WPI who provide the warm bodies, but the Iranian exiles don’t really give a stuff about the Pope either way, and Maryam Namazie seems to have concluded that her time is better spent broadcasting Hekmatist propaganda to the freedom-loving peoples of the world.
If you then factor in the rather elderly and inactive membership of the NSS, and then realise how small OutRage! actually is (hence its reliance on headline-grabbing stunts), you come to the conclusion that there really isn’t a coalition at all. It is no wonder that their public meeting next Thursday, to be addressed by Tatchell, Terry Sanderson and that Italian wackaloon who wants Berlusconi to annex Vatican City, is not being held in the Albert Hall but in a library in Richmond. What the coalition does have is Peter Tatchell, with his tremendous media profile, the enormous respect he’s held in, and his unparallelled ability to sit in a TV studio energetically talking rubbish to anchors who know even less on the subject than he does.
And yet, the Rod Liddles and Johann Haris notwithstanding, Clifford doesn’t care to speculate on why the other side dominates media discourse so completely. That’s a slippery slope that might lead to pondering why the Church’s comms are so awful, and tactless vulgarians might start to wonder aloud what exactly Alexander DesForges and Mary Wang have been doing to earn their keep. And, since CCN is essentially a vacuum, one’s mind turns to Jack and Austen’s Little Voices project and thinks, “Well, it can’t be any worse.”
Catholics might meet trouble halfway by lowering their expectations of the visit…
That would be difficult, as Benny hasn’t even touched down yet and it’s shaping up to be a monumental shambles. Or perhaps by lowering expectations Clifford means taking a stoical attitude towards downsizing plans, like holding the Newman beatification in a shed in Sparkbrook.
…hoping, for instance, that Pope Benedict won’t actually make things any worse than they are already.
It’s not really B16 I’m worried about, not in an environment where Kieran Conry can hail a passing journalist and unload his stream of consciousness with impunity. I suppose a cynic may think Clifford was worried about the Pope saying something controversially orthodox and out of step with the liberal zeitgeist, but that would just be silly.
…the Pope is sometimes the author of his own misfortune, with a clunky public relations touch that leaves ill-chosen words or phrases open to misinterpretation by correspondents looking for copy.
Well, Benedict doesn’t share JP2’s instinct for sugaring the medicine, but those familiar with his work will know that he’s very careful and precise in his choice of words. What he doesn’t do is express himself in soundbites; and let’s also concede that the Holy See press operation (that is, Fr Federico Lombardi and his trusty fax machine) is not state-of-the-art. I merely draw attention once again to the transcendental crapness of English Catholicism’s media operation, which Clifford is surely aware of, and wonder whether our old friend is being slightly disingenuous. Surely not.
We needn’t doubt that Pope Benedict is capable of delivering a message to the British people that they need to hear, despite the strong chance it will be drowned out in the clamour. But the medium is often also the message.
This is Clifford McLuhan just getting into his stride…
They say that to teach mathematics to Jimmy, you not only need to know mathematics, you also need to know Jimmy. So to offer the insights of Catholic faith to the British, you have to know the faith, which the Pope surely does inside out, but also to know the British.
And so we come back to the old Tabletista trope of a Catholicism so thoroughly Anglicised that only some minor liturgical details would distinguish it from the good old C of E. I also for some reason recall Clifford’s old story about how in the runup to JP2’s visit the English bishops organised a team (including a young Fr Vincent Nichols) to draft papal texts with a view to JP giving the feelgood messages he so excelled at, while sidestepping moral or ethical issues that might upset the Guardian-reading public. I get the feeling that some people would quite like to see that happen again.
Finally, Clifford ends up with a little conclusion on the relevance of Cardinal Newman, but sagely warns us against the tendency of modern observers, whether conservative or liberal, to create a Newman in their own image. Tu quoque, mate.