The very model of a modern monsignor

Allow me to introduce you to Monsignor Jim Curry, parish priest of Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. A most fascinating character. No, that’s not him in the picture.

But first, a digression. Many of you will be aware of the ongoing dispute around the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Holland Park. For those of you who aren’t, it may be worth recapping a bit. To begin with, a considerable number of Catholic schools in England – specifically the more successful ones – are lending a sympathetic ear to Michael Gove’s big push for academy status. This is because academy status looks like a good way of escaping the dead hand of the “Catholic Education Service”, a body of bureaucrats whose combined knowledge of education could be inscribed on the back of a postage stamp, but who don’t let that inhibit them from issuing detailed instructions to head teachers on the latest educational fashions. It should be noted that neither the incumbent chairman of CES, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, nor his predecessor, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, have managed to get a firm grip on CES.

Which background is important for understanding the dispute around the Vaughan. Damian has been doing Trojan work on this if you want to delve further, but here’s the story in a nutshell. The Vaughan is one of the best schools in the country outside of the private sector, and in particular is nationally known for music. The main reason for its success is the school’s extremely strong ethos, which is closely tied in to its admissions policy. No, the Vaughan doesn’t select by academic ability or by social class – it runs a points system giving precedence to children whose parents participate regularly in church activities, which to me seems entirely sensible. This, however, has been a long-running sore point with Catholic educational bureaucrats, who regard the Vaughan as hopelessly elitist and, rather than a showcase, a bit of an embarrassment precisely because of its success, and who’d dearly like it to become yet another bog-standard comp.

Which is where the long-running dispute with the Diocese of Westminster comes in. First the Diocese unilaterally changed the Vaughan’s admissions policy, a move hotly contested by the now sadly retired headmaster Michael Gormally. That was round one. In round two, Archbishop Nichols attempted to stamp his authority on matters by sacking a bunch of governors and appointing his placemen, a move that only made him look bad. In round three, the Diocese referred the Vaughan’s admissions policy to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – in other words, a Catholic diocese narked to the state on one of its own schools for being too good.

All things considered, you can see why Vaughan parents are hopping mad. For more detail, please considering visiting the site of the Cardinal Vaughan Parents’ Action Group, which has justly gained the support of a stellar cast of the Catholic great and good. Which is where we return to where we came in, with this letter [pdf, emphases mine] from the Action Group to Archbishop Nichols:

We write to express our grave concern at the turn of events during last Wednesday night’s meeting of the Cardinal Vaughan Governing Body on 6th April 2011, witnessed by a large number of parents and pupils who had gathered in the School car park at the culmination of the Candlelit Vigil of prayer and hymn singing, held outside the School gates.

At the end of the Vigil, parents and pupils processed into the car park, and were gathered under the window of the library where the meeting was taking place. We have received a number of witness statements which describe what took place, but the salient facts are these:

  • Mr Eynaud, the Acting Headmaster, was seen sitting at the desk in the Head’s office, directly below the library.
  • Parents were singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’; it was observed that someone closed the library windows, presumably to shut out the sound.
  • Mgr Curry (identified by parishioners of Our Lady of Victories and Our Lady of Grace, although he was not wearing clerical attire) entered the Head’s office and approached Mr Eynaud; clearly very angry, he was gesticulating with his index finger very close to Mr Eynaud, even appearing to prod him in the chest.
  • Mr Stubbings, the Deputy Headmaster, and Mr O’Donnell entered the room; at one point both Mgr Curry and Mr O’Donnell both appeared to be shouting at Mr Eynaud, while Mr Stubbings was trying to interpose himself between them.
  • It appeared that no one in the room was aware of the large number of adults and children who were watching this scene with a sense of mounting shock and dismay. The hymn singing had ceased and a section of the group was demanding the removal of the Director of Education from the Board of Governors; at this, Mr Eynaud emerged into the car park. He asked that the gathering should disperse and appeared pale and very shaken. He spoke to parents and his words implied that he had been given the impression, by Mgr Curry’s words or behaviour, that his career was now ‘finished’.
  • As the group was beginning to disperse, Mgr Curry, followed by Mr O’Donnell, moved towards the door opposite, leading into a corridor. At this, a number of parents began to shout comments such as, ‘Why won’t you come and talk to us?’ They both left the room, leaving Mr Eynaud and Mr Stubbings behind. As the shouting continued, one of the organisers announced that proceedings were at an end and asked everyone to leave. The car park was cleared within two minutes.

We believe that what occurred represents an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship that must exist between a Head and a member of the Governing Body. The Head had no responsibility for the presence of the parent group in the car park; no official notification had been given by the Governing Body that parents were barred from the School grounds (although a request that the Chairman of Governors should meet with parents in the School Hall before the Governors’ meeting had been refused). In any case, there can be no excuse for the bullying and intimidation to which Mr Eynaud was subjected.

Mgr Curry’s continued participation on the appointments panel for the new Head is obviously now out of the question. We believe that his membership of the Governing Body is also now untenable and we request that you replace him as your representative immediately. We also request that Mr Eynaud be given an immediate written apology.

Your Grace, a very large number of Cardinal Vaughan parents have written to you over recent months, asking a great number of questions; none has received a reply from you. On this occasion, we believe that a direct response from you is necessary.

We continue to hold your intentions in our prayers, and would ask you to pray for us as well.

In these circumstances, I would be a little less diplomatic than the redoubtable Mrs Anne Brown is in the forgoing. But eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the reappearance above of Mgr Jim Curry, and his presence requires a bit of explanation.

As you know, I can’t abide personal backbiting, and I really don’t like being nasty to one of our priests, who have enough troubles without me adding to them. But I’m prepared to make an exception for Jim.

For starters, there’s a brief biography here. Some people may wonder how come an East End boy like Jim Curry gets to swank it up at the Athenaeum. My response is that it’s a perfect illustration of that web of patronage known as the Magic Circle. Here we have someone who at a relatively young age got appointed as Cardinal Hume’s personal secretary, carrying on that function for Cormac when +Basil went to meet his Maker, and who since his return to parish work has been remarkably good at getting himself nice parishes. While I’ve rarely heard anyone say a kind work about Jim, there are elements of the hierarchy (naming no names like Cardinal Cormac) who hold him in great esteem.

Not, I hasten to add, nearly as much esteem as Jim holds himself in. You know when you’re leaving Mass and shake hands with the priest on the way out? I often find you can tell a lot about a priest from his body language in that setting. Jim’s body language was always – how shall I put this? – that of a feudal despot having to spend some time meeting and greeting his supplicating peasants. Not the easiest guy to warm up to, no matter how good he is at schmoozing bishops.

Jim is frequently tipped for a mitre himself, most recently with regard to the vacant auxiliary post at Westminster. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that his old mucker Cormac is a member of the Congregation for Bishops, and thus well placed to pull strings in Rome. The prospect doesn’t really bear thinking about. You see, if the behaviour mentioned above was just an isolated incident from an otherwise steady and responsible priest, that would be one thing, but…

Thinking back, some six or seven years ago, when Jim was parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Chiswick, he hosted a Churches Together meeting with then international development secretary Hilary Benn. Well, these are the sort of worthy events that take place under the Churches Together banner, and getting an actual government minister to speak might even be considered a feather in Jim’s cap. Were it not for the table just inside the entrance of the church before you got to the pews, groaning with DfID pamphlets and CD-ROMs, of which the large majority were on the topic of “sexual reproductive rights” or, in other words, population control. Such was the volume and placing of the material that it beggars belief that Jim hadn’t seen and okayed it. A priest having a display of population-control literature inside his parish church? Back in the day, that would have meant a stern phone call from the CDF.

Then there was the time he allowed an enormous banner advertising a mobile phone company to be draped from the church railings. This actually made the diary page of the Tablet, which thought the affair hilarious. Perhaps, but perhaps not the decorum you’d expect from a man who’d deeply like to be a bishop.

That’s Chiswick. Since Jim’s move to Kensington, he’s also hit the headlines for replacing the weekly sung Latin Mass with Filipino folk singing, something that wasn’t universally popular even with Filipino parishioners.

Then there was that mysterious affair of the forty grand bet. Back when Cardinal Cormac was retiring as Archbishop of Westminster, there was the usual speculation about his successor. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was widely seen as the frontrunner; in the end, of course, Vin Nichols got the job. In the midst of this, it was reported that Paddy Power had turned down a £40,000 bet on – you guessed it – Jim Curry. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Jim had anything to do with this, but it certainly raised his profile, in a way that cynics might even see as vulgar ostentation.

There was also a case over a decade ago of a controversial school closure in east London. At the time, parents who’d been trying to lobby the diocese reported the Cardinal’s private secretary replying to letters with mafia-style warnings not to bother him with this nonsense again. Hmm, sounds familiar.

And now, Jim finds himself a diocesan appointee to the Vaughan’s governing body in the midst of a bitter dispute between school and diocese, a dispute he seems to be doing his level best to escalate to nuclear level. Presumably Archbishop Nichols couldn’t find someone more emollient and diplomatic, like Colonel Gaddafi or Charlie Sheen. And this maniac is being tipped for a mitre? Sheesh, is all I can say. Sheesh.

Whereat your host says something nice about Cardinal Schönborn for a change

Don’t worry, I’m not losing my curmudgeonly streak, but for once it’s nice to turn one’s attention to Austrian matters without tearing one’s hair out about Klingon liturgies or such. Rather, we turn our attention to a small matter of real estate in the Ottakring district of Vienna.

This concerns a local church whose congregation has got too small for it to be viable. Well, that happens all over. England is coming down with such churches, which we’ll come to in a moment. However, under a policy instituted by our old friend Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn, the Archdiocese of Vienna won’t sell its churches to property developers, nor let them go derelict. The preference is that a house of worship should remain in the line of business for which it was built.

Thus the matter of the Pfarrkirche Neulerchenfeld. While, as always in these cases, its congregation is none too thrilled at being amalgamated with another parish – nonetheless, there’s a heartwarming little story here of practical ecumenism, as the Count has gifted the church to Vienna’s sizeable, but lacking in accommodation, Serbian Orthodox community. The deed has now been signed over and the building is due to start its career as a place of Orthodox worship this summer, once necessary adjustments to the interior have been made. Moreover, with the archdiocese having previously gifted churches to the Syrians and Copts, Vienna is a bit of a pioneer in this regard.

So, apart from the disgruntled parishioners, it looks like a good move. The Serbs, who’ve up until now had three tiny churches serving a community of about 200,000, are understandably happy. And this magnanimous act of giving a sister church a helping hand certainly makes the Count look good. Nor can this sort of gesture hurt the ongoing Catholic-Orthodox unity discussions.

Now then. This has a rather obvious relevance to the matter of the English Ordinariate. One of the chronic problems facing the good old C of E is that it has too many buildings and not enough people to fill them. Well, it’s one thing for the C of E to respond to the establishment of the Ordinariate with a prickly and legalistic insistence that no Tiber-swimming Anglo-Catholics are going to be allowed to take their church buildings with them. However, as we know, formal ownership of buildings and use of buildings are not the same thing. Indeed, following the last exodus in the early 1990s there were some local moves towards church-sharing, which were scuppered under not particularly edifying circumstances.

I don’t mean to imply that the response of the C of E as such to the Ordinariate initiative has been uncharitable.  For the most part, it’s been quite understanding, and +Rowan has shown the generosity of spirit one would expect of him. Nevertheless, there are those who would rather see churches lying derelict, or being flogged off to developers, rather than have those pesky Romanists actually putting them to use. A little flexibility in this area would not go amiss, and to those of an obstructionist bent (and I’m looking at you, Bishop Chartres), I commend the spirit shown by Cardinal Schönborn. Surely, for the ingenious latitudinarians one finds in the C of E hierarchy, a little imagination is not beyond them.

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball

Okay, by popular demand we’re going to turn our attention today to an ongoing story that isn’t getting an enormous amount of coverage on the blogs. Yes, it’s the Irish Apostolic Visitation, which has stepped up a gear these last couple of weeks, and which raises all sorts of fascinating issues.

First up, the context. The Visitation was of course announced by Pope Benedict in his open letter to the Irish faithful last March and, having taken the usual lengthy period of time to get organised, started work back in November. For those of you who aren’t well versed in Catholic jargon, a Visitation is effectively an inspection from head office. A team will arrive, do a root-and-branch inspection, and report back to Rome with recommendations. There are always a few of these ongoing at any given time – we’ve recently seen the conclusion of the Visitation into the notorious Legionaries of Christ, and there’s a long-running one into female religious orders in the US – and, like the mills of God, they grind somewhat slow but they grind exceeding fine. This is why the targets of Visitations tend to be a little nervous.

Thus the Irish Apostolic Visitation, on foot of the sexual abuse crisis, with an extremely high-powered delegation whose official remit involves assessing the Irish Church’s child protection norms, whether they are fit for purpose, and making sure that they’re being fully implemented. At the core of this are the visitators who have started work in the country’s four metropolitan archdioceses, from which they will radiate outward. These are Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, emeritus of Westminster, who is taking on Armagh; Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, who is dealing with Dublin; Archbishop Tom Collins of Toronto in Cashel and Emly; and Archbishop Terry Prendergast of Ottawa in Tuam. There are further teams dealing with seminaries, which we’ll come on to presently, and both male and female religious orders. Moreover, it’s not merely that the visitators are high-powered, but that they have specific expertise: +Cormac was deeply involved in the Nolan process in England and Wales, +Seán has had to clean up Bernie Law’s mess in Boston, and so on.

So that’s the basic scenario. If the visitators stuck to a minimalist interpretation of their official remit, they wouldn’t have much to do. The Irish Church does, after all, have very tough child protection norms monitored by an independent ombudsman who issues an annual report. But of course it’s not about that. The crimes of the past can’t be ignored, which is why the visitators have been making a point, early on, of holding meetings with abuse victims, as well as doing some rather pointed preaching at the cathedrals. And this is exactly as it should be. If there’s to be some sort of healing process, the outside inspectors should be taking the lead; at any rate, it will do the Visitation a power of good for them to hear victims’ stories at first hand.

This has also provoked something of a division in what we may term the victims’ community. There are those abuse victims, including a few of the most prominent, who are totally invested in the idea that the Church as a body can do no right – which may be entirely understandable from their individual point of view. Hence the statements that came out prior to the Visitation declaring it a whitewash in advance, and calling for a boycott. On the other hand, many have been going along to the meetings – though often expressing their distrust of official Church channels, they’ve been keen to have their face time with the visitators, tell their stories and make whatever contribution they can to preventing this happening again. I make no moral judgement here: the victims are a diverse group of people, and it’s up to each individual to do what feels right for him. From the other side, it’s an extremely delicate task, and it’s been requiring O’Malley et al to use all the diplomatic skills at their disposal.

But as ever in Church affairs, there is politics. In this case, watching the spin tells you a lot. About a year ago, following the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports, when the reputation of the Irish hierarchy was squarely in the toilet, a very curious thing happened. All of a sudden, the Dublin media went all Ultramontanist, practically arguing for an imperial papacy. One would not have been entirely shocking in that period to have opened up the Irish Times of a morning and found Tintin O’Foole calling on the Pope to dispatch a crack squad of Swiss Guards to gun down malfeasant Irish bishops.

And then the Apostolic Visitation was announced, and all of a sudden, the trenchant critics of the discredited Irish hierarchy were suddenly demanding, er, that Rome keep its hands off our discredited Irish hierarchy. Not only that, but they were using phrases like “retrograde ecclesiology” that may have caused some cynics to suspect that the discredited Irish hierarchy was actually briefing against the Visitation.

Such cynics will have had their case strengthened by the leaking of the Storero letter just as the Visitation was entering its busiest phase. Two things are worth bearing in mind here. First, while the Holy See leaks, it leaks to the Italian media or well-connected parts of the international Catholic press; it doesn’t leak to RTÉ. This leads one to suspect that the leak came from within il circolo magico irlandese. Second, whilst one can say a lot about the current crop of Irish bishops, nobody can accuse them of being stupid. It doesn’t matter that the Storero letter, while embarrassing, is not the smoking gun being claimed (see John Allen and Jimmy Akin for analysis); whoever leaked the letter, at that strategic time, would have been able to predict exactly how it would have been received by the media, that there would have been some pretty big claims made about it by SNAP, and that it would serve to shift the blame from Dublin to Rome. Since at least some people tried to push that exact line with Judge Murphy… yes, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to derail the investigation.

This leads us to the question of why, when the Irish hierarchy is so completely discredited, there should be any motivation in trying to derail a Visitation process that offers at least the possibility of a fresh start. I put this down to the standard reflex of any bureaucracy trying to protect itself, especially since the visitators’ report to Rome will undoubtedly lead to some shakeup of Church structures in Ireland.

Most immediately, there’s the issue of Cardinal Brady’s retirement. Brady himself has asked Rome for a coadjutor archbishop, which indicates that he’s amenable to allowing himself to become a figurehead, before perhaps retiring on health grounds. But of course, as Hosni Mubarak could tell us, it isn’t simply a matter of an orderly transition. Who exactly gets the Armagh job is likely to be an area of much contention. It also impacts on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s chances of getting that red hat, or the plum job at the Holy See that his supporters have long been briefing the Dublin press their man is in line for. In any case, a vacancy at the top stokes factionalism.

On a more structural level, I draw your attention to the distinguished moral theologian Prof Fr Vincent Twomey. Twomey has got a reputation for being outspoken about the deficiencies of the Irish Church, due not least to him being too old to hope for advancement in the hierarchy. What is more, Twomey’s doctoral supervisor was one Prof Joseph Ratzinger, and the two remain close enough for Irish bishops to get a nervous twinge whenever Twomey does his outspoken thing. One of Twomey’s themes of late has been that 26 dioceses are far too many for a country like Ireland, when Germany gets by with a mere 27 serving far more Catholics. He suggests a more rational number might be, say, eight. I think this may be too radical – and the enormous German dioceses have their own problems of bureaucracy – but let’s allow that there are lots of depopulated rural dioceses that aren’t really sustainable. With three currently sede vacante, and three or four more due to become vacant in the near future, there’s certainly scope to knock it down to, say, fifteen. One also notices that some retiring auxiliaries have not been replaced. That’s certainly a possibility to watch out for.

But our local hierarchs seem especially unnerved by this guy:

This is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who is heading up the visitation of seminaries. This last week, +Tim has been in Maynooth, having previously dropped in at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Why has Dolan got people so jittery?

I would suggest that the abuse crisis tells us there has been something badly wrong with priestly formation in Ireland for a long time. Certainly, the great vocations boom of the 1950s and 60s was taken as an uncomplicated sign of the Church’s strength, without much attention being paid to quality. This meant that a lot of people were ordained who should never have been allowed near the priesthood. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the brightest young priests joined the orders – the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits – and were no sooner ordained than they were put on the boat to Ayacucho or Zamboanga. That’s without even getting into our long list of Irish bishops who should never have risen above monsignor.

So, formation is evidently an issue, and demands serious attention. I would point out here that not only does Dolan have the invaluable experience of having picked up the pieces of the Milwaukee archdiocese after the debacle that was Rembert Weakland’s reign, he is being assisted by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, who ran a visitation of US seminaries a few years ago. Get that: the Archbishop of Baltimore is the assistant. That, I think, counts as taking the matter seriously.

But this is where we encounter not only bureaucratic but also ideological resistance. I know I have this occasional argument with Shane over the importance of Irish Jansenism – I think it’s still a significant cultural factor – but the fact is that, today, Maynooth has a well-earned reputation as a stronghold of hardline Modernism. It’s the sort of place where seminarians caught reading Balthasar or Ratzinger are sent off to be interrogated by a Modernist star chamber on their ideological deviations; and if you don’t satisfy them, you’ll be questioned by a feminist psychologist about your sexual preferences. The result is a generation of priests who are much more au fait with the thought of Wilhelm Reich or Immanuel Velikovsky than marginal, eccentric thinkers such as, um, the Pope.

And this is why the spinning against Dolan’s part of the Visitation has been the most intense. Even such a publication as the Phoenix, not known for being a partisan of the Irish hierarchy, has been fulminating against Dolan, cast as B16’s hatchet man imposing a narrow theological worldview on those poor Maynooth seminarians. Dolan’s presence has also aroused the ire of the “Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland”, an organisation of flared-trousered hippies currently waging a battle for gender-neutral language in the new Missal. This, after all, is not merely a matter of pushing a few elderly bishops into retirement; it’s about the future direction of the priesthood in this country.

Personally, even if attitudes in Irish society have changed, I think a more rigorous and orthodox priesthood would be no bad thing, certainly in comparison to the free-for-all that developed in the 1970s. And the Irish hierarchy have so disgraced themselves that, really, a serious investigation followed by reorganisation is long overdue. We’ll have to wait for some time to get a sense of what’s going to come out of the Visitation but, if it’s annoying the ecclesiastical bureaucrats, it must be doing something right.

Of King James, and Sid James

Now then, Radio 4 listeners among you will be aware that some few days ago the thinking person’s wireless station devoted a day’s programming to the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, with dramatic readings taking place throughout the day. This led to the usual bitching and whining from the pub bore wing of the atheist community, but I don’t want to talk about Terry and Keith today. What I want to talk about, briefly, is language.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that the KJV is one of the great masterpieces of the English language. We use phrases from it every day, often without realising we’re doing so. Much the same can be said of the Book of Common Prayer – one may take issue with the late Archbishop Cranmer’s Zwingliite deviationism, but his command of language is magnificent. In both cases, it’s the fact that the text was designed to be read aloud, and in the solemn setting of worship, that gives the language its extraordinary power.

It’s tremendously sad that, despite the KJV and the BCP being enshrined in English law as the standard texts of the Established Church, they’re scarcely to be heard in that setting any more, outside of the great cathedrals and some old-fashioned rural parishes. The good old C of E, one records with immense regret, seems much fonder these days of what some wag – it may have been Craig Brown – dubbed the Sid James Version.

Why should those of us of a resolutely unreformed bent be concerned about such matters? I will tell you why. As you’ll no doubt be aware, the new translation of the Roman Missal…

What’s that, Sooty?

Oh. All right. Well, some of you may be unaware that a new translation of the Roman Missal is due to be rolled out this year. You may be unaware of this because the Bishops’ Conference has done bog all to prepare the faithful for its introduction, notwithstanding Uncle Arthur Roche having just bowed to the inevitable and mumbled something about doing so at some future point. And that is an interesting story in and of itself.

You see, the spread of “yo dudes!” liturgies in the good old C of E is by no means an isolated phenomenon. It has its counterpart in the dogged attachment of the Catholic hierarchies of these islands to the 1970 edition of the Roman Missal in its English translation. In some cases, notably in the liberal Protestant dioceses along the south coast of England, this is for ideological reasons, with the 1970 text being identified as “modern” and “progressive”. If you’re wondering how a forty-year-old translation gets to be the epitome of modernity, look no further than the psychedelic vestments favoured by certain bishops.

More often it’s political, as is often the case in the Catholic world where you have nine parts politics to one part dogma. Their Lordships are great believers in uniformity, and have a nasty tendency to come out in hives when faced with things that aren’t uniform, whether it be the Ordinariate or Summorum Pontificum or those nice young priests in the Polish missions who are now supposed to be acculturated into the much more successful English way of doing things. Which is why the 1970 text has got to be such a shibboleth.

Which brings me neatly to this week’s issue of That Magazine We Don’t Mention. In its capacity as the Magic Circle’s house organ, the Suppository has been a-moaning and a-groaning about the new translation for some considerable time now. It’s even at certain points got in some proper translators to argue aesthetics, but more often than not we’ve just had Bobbie Mickens overfulfilling his fulminating quota.

In this week’s editorial column, we have – conveniently enough – a reflection on the KJV anniversary, which then morphs into a whinge about the new Missal, getting in a sly dig at the Douay-Rheims translation on the way:

But the Catholic version… stayed as close to the Latin Vulgate as possible. It introduced English versions of Latin words, and translated obscure passages equally obscurely lest any theological nuances were lost. The Anglican translators, on the other hand, sought – not always successfully – to resolve uncertainties of meaning rather than reproduce them, and they preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin to Latin or Greek.

Ahem. Anyone who’s ever done translation work, should it even be translating a passage of Cicero at school, will know there’s a constant tension between being faithful to your source and rendering your translation in idiomatic English. That can never be avoided. That said, I think this account of the Douay-Rheims is a little tendentious – as Bible translations go, it isn’t really all that difficult compared to the KJV, and what you lose in immediacy you gain in accuracy.

But let us return to the Peppermint Spinster:

Differences of approach such as those between the King James and the Douay-Rheims versions are still alive today. Like the latter, the anxiously awaited new Catholic Missal in English has put literal accuracy above sensitivity to language, which is why many are warning that the rendering will be clumsy. [Though the old Missal isn’t exactly Henry James, is it?] At least the translation at present in use, whatever its shortcomings as literature [Told ya!], tried to stay closer to contemporary speech patterns, as did the translators commissioned by King James.

You what? “Contemporary speech patterns”, forsooth. One may argue that the KJV is somewhat less stilted than Douay-Rheims, but any fule kno that the language of the KJV was archaic even for its time, and deliberately so. Such was felt to be necessary for a translation of sacred texts.

I realise this may seem a bizarre idea to metropolitan sophisticates. Yet, even in today’s London, one can go to a Byzantine Rite Mass in the company of Ukrainian Catholics. Is their liturgy in the street slang of modern Kiev? No, it’s not even in Ukrainian but in Church Slavonic. One may also think of the other Eastern Rite Churches who use Byzantine Greek or Classical Armenian or Coptic or Syriac; not to mention non-Christian religious communities using Sanskrit or Pali or Avestan or whatever you’re having yourself. The notion of a sacred language is well enough established in human culture that the use of an elevated register of the vernacular shouldn’t be too baffling.

We conclude:

The Church of England has moved away from an Authorised Version style of language in its own liturgy. It would be an ironic twist if the Catholic Church in Great Britain – perhaps in reaction to unprepossessing translations emanating from Rome – longed to go the other way.

I know what the first sentence means, but the second has me scratching my head a little. Ma Pepsi’s organ has been running endless defences of the 1970 Missal – has she suddenly gone off message so completely that she’s now advocating something along KJV lines? Even leaving aside the implicit English Catholic chauvinism of the “emanating from Rome” reference… Well, I could see adaptations of the KJV and BCP having some purchase in the Ordinariate, as is the case in Anglican Use parishes in North America, but I can hardly see it going down well with the Val Doonican nostalgics in the Bishops’ Conference, for whom it’s always 1970.

But no matter. You know I like to be constructive, so I’ll just leave you with a modest proposal. Those priests who have a genuine, principled objection to the new translation have a simple alternative to hand. If they don’t like the new English Missal, they can just use Latin. After all, under the terms of Summorum Pontificum a priest of the Latin Rite doesn’t need anyone’s permission to celebrate Mass in Latin. And I’m certain those bishops who are uncomfortable with the new English Missal could hardly object. Could they?

Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few, an’ they’re aw deid!

Let us see if we can find some disturbances in the Force. Here’s something from our old friend Titus Oates of the National Sanderson Society:

The first thing I want to say is that the Protest the Pope campaign is not anti-Catholic. Some Catholic bloggers have tried to portray us as some kind of off-shoot of the Orange order, but this simply isn’t true.

That’s right, the leader of the most bigoted anti-Catholic organisation in the British Isles is upset because some people may think that his latest anti-Catholic campaign is, er, anti-Catholic. Wherever could they have got that idea? Perhaps by reading the NSS website? Or being aware of Mr Oates’ habit of conducting personal vendettas against even the most humble papist who hoves into his line of vision?

I do notice, incidentally, that over the last couple of weeks the No Popery Coalition has been featuring disclaimers on its propaganda claiming that it isn’t anti-Catholic. This rings a little hollow, since the Coalition hasn’t withdrawn any of its wilder assertions or toned down the Guy Fawkes language, but a month ago they weren’t even bothering with a token disclaimer. Evidently a nerve has been hit.

Oh yes, there was this other comment from none other than Ma Pepsi:

Catherine Pepinster, editor of the influential Catholic weekly the Tablet, offers a more nuanced assessment. “If you developed an interest in British Catholicism by reading the various ‘Catholic’ blogs that have sprung up in recent years, you would conclude that we are in the midst of vicious cultural wars,” she says. “But when you get to the parishes, nobody seems to be at anyone else’s throat.”

Well, there was that unfortunate episode in Blackfen, of which Ma Pepsi is well aware. But beyond that, and yes, we do know that the Peppermint Spinster is in the habit of railing against these pernicious “web-logs”, but could this be Ma admitting that she actually reads them? Presumably she means the destructive role played by blogs like this one, or this one, or indeed this one here.

Finally, while we’re in trumpet-blowing mode, the Dale fella has been releasing his big list of the most popular blogs in the sphere. The safest bet there is for Slugger to top the Norn Iron standings, which it deservedly does for yet another year, but it’s with great aw-shucksitude and no little astonishment that your humble host finds himself in the runner-up position. Do take a look at some of the others on the list, for there’s some powerful stuff there:

1 (1) Slugger O’Toole
2 Splintered Sunrise
3 (3) A Pint of Unionist Lite
4 (2) Three Thousand Versts
5 (5) A Tangled Web
6 Open Unionism
7 (14) Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland
8 (10) 1690 & All Thon
9 (7) Bobballs
10 (6) Ulster’s Doomed
11 Ultonia
12 Bavarian Orange Order
13 (8) Devenport Diaries
14 Alan in Belfast
15 Hand of History
16 (18) O’Conall Street
17 Jeff Peel’s Diary
18 Burke’s Corner
19 (20) The Dissenter
20 East Belfast Diary

Notable that much of the energy in our local ‘sphere is with moderate unionism, a political creed that’s nain too healthy in meatspace. But if it’s providing some good reading on the blogs, I’m not complaining.

This charming man

Here’s an absolutely lovely quote from Titus Oates of the National ‘Secular’ Society:

For too long the Jewish community behaved like an arrogant, unaccountable arm of the government and of the law aided at every turn by a fifth column of Jews whose primary, indeed seemingly only, loyalty is to their own kind. Having so comprehensively abused their place in the corridors of power, they now need to be banished from them.

Oh, I’m sorry. Mr Oates was in fact talking about Catholics. So that’s all right then.

As Mr Oates is weighing in on the Chesney affair, there are one or two other points in his barking mad editorial that are worth remarking on. Let’s just note in passing that, as far as we can tell from the Hutchinson report, the cover-up was instigated by the government and police, while the Church authorities were brought in to get Chesney out of the way. Mr Oates of course cannot admit this, as in the NSS view of the world the State is a God-term. It’s the same way that, while he references the Ryan Report, one will find no acknowledgement that not a single child would have gone into the industrial schools without the approval of the Department of Education, the Garda Síochána and the courts. Which is not to deny Church responsibility, just to point out that the responsibility wasn’t the Church’s alone.

What’s also remarkable about this is that Mr Oates ventilates rather a lot on the Irish state. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I thought Willie Whitelaw was a minister in the British government. And that the RUC had its headquarters in Belfast, not in Dublin. Of course, this is rather inconvenient for the flow of Mr Oates’ argument, given that his view of the Irish nation is roughly equivalent to that of a nineteenth-century Punch cartoonist. So the Brits get quietly brushed under the carpet.

Finally, note the reference to the government being riddled with fifth columnists who need to be sent packing. Nice to see that our 21st-century rationalists can still channel the spirit of the 1840s when it suits them. Of course, this all very reminiscent of the episode a couple of years back when NSS honorary associate Mary Honeyball MEP called on the Labour Party to keep papists off the front bench, and followed it up with paranoid ravings about the Vatican’s alleged stranglehold on the British parliament and mass media. Or their other honorary associate, the sane and rational Johann Hari, who is living proof that you can take the boy out of Govan but you can’t take the Rangers Supporters Club out of the boy.

Indeed, Mr Oates has quite the track record at this sort of witch-hunting, having argued, for instance, that Mark Thompson is unfit to head the BBC because he’s a Catholic. Not that it’s ever stopped the BBC running fawning interviews with Mr Oates, where he can be confident that his many terminological inexactitudes will never be challenged.

If Mr Oates is really that worried about popish fifth columnists, and fancies campaigning for the reinstatement of the Test Acts, perhaps he could have a word with new equality minister Lynne Featherstone, who is on record as opining that religious believers shouldn’t be employed in the public sector. Ms Featherstone is not yet, I see, one of the NSS’s small army of honorary associates, but I think she’d fit right in.

And since Mr Oates will be on our screens and in our papers a good deal more over the coming weeks in his capacity as co-leader with Peter Tatchell of the No Popery Coalition, it will be worth keeping a close eye on him.

Claudy, and the meaning of Jim Chesney

I want to reflect – indeed, I need to – on Al Hutchinson’s report into the 1972 Claudy bombing. In an insightful piece, Malachi has already said much of what needed to be said, but there’s still some amplification I want to do in terms of the historical context.

The facts of the matter are relatively simple. On 31 July 1972, three 250-pound bombs ripped through the tiny village of Claudy outside Derry, devastating the village and leaving nine civilians dead, both Catholic and Protestant. No warning was received. No claim of responsibility was ever made, though it was universally assumed the Provos were to blame. Even by the standards of 1972, our worst year for atrocities, it was an exceptionally stupid and murderous act. No prosecutions were ever brought, which is the starting point for the Hutchinson report.

What has grabbed the headlines is the apparent involvement of a south Derry priest, Fr Jim Chesney, in the bombing. This isn’t altogether a surprise – Chesney’s involvement had been rumoured for decades – but it makes the bombing unusual in the extreme, and that is reflected in the cover-up.[1]

There is a general and a specific reason for Chesney to be a remarkable case. The general reason is that the Church doesn’t do war. Well, you can go back to the Crusades if you like, and the Franciscan Order has never quite lived down what its Croatian members did during WW2, but the general rule holds firm. That’s why, though many if not most Anglican churches contain war memorials and will fly the flag on certain occasions, you will not see anything of the sort in a Catholic church. And, even if the Church’s stringent conditions for a just war are met, priests are certainly not supposed to take up arms.

The specific reason has to do with the Catholic Church in the north of Ireland, which had long since reached a modus vivendi with the Orange State similar to the arrangements it reached with the Polish dictatorship – spiky, at times hostile, but mutually dependent. At the time, in 1972, and for many years afterwards, the British relied on the hierarchy as a moderating force holding the line against republicanism, the relationship intensifying in the 1980s when Douglas Hurd launched his programme of pacification through grantocracy. And this was reciprocated by the bishops producing fierce condemnation of the IRA as required, while offering very muted and qualified criticism of the state. In political terms, the bishops never quite ordered their flock to vote SDLP, but they came very very close. The establishment instinct ran very strong indeed.

Now, add to that the conformity you associate with a ghetto religion. If the Catholic clergy in the south sometimes resembled a mafia, discipline in the north was infinitely stronger. Considering that hundreds of priests would be active here at any given time, during the entire period of the Troubles there were precisely three priests who publicly fell out with the hierarchy. One of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t really count, as he’s a southerner and his problems with the hierarchy mostly related to his homosexuality. You had Fr Joe McVeigh in Fermanagh, who had an essentially republican viewpoint casting the bishops as pro-British; and Fr Des Wilson in Ballymurphy, who also started from a basically republican position but added to that social issues relating to the deprived urban area he was working in, plus some well-aimed criticisms of the elitist and cliquish practices of the Irish hierarchy. And that was it.

And this points up just how much of an outlier Jim Chesney was. There were a relative handful of priests who were known, quietly, to have strongly republican opinions, but that would be a matter of their opinions, and at most they might be thought to have turned a blind eye to certain activities. A priest actually becoming a bomber was literally unheard of; as I say, the rumours about Chesney have been circulating for many years, but I cannot think of any other named priest about whom there was anything similar, even on the level of rumour.

Which takes us to the cover-up, and we have some idea of the mechanics behind this. After the Claudy bombing, a detective sought permission to have Chesney arrested for questioning, but this was stopped by Special Branch. There then followed a series of discussions between British proconsul Willie Whitelaw, Cardinal William Conway and the top brass of the RUC on the theme of what to do about Chesney, which led to him being taken out of the north and transferred to a southern parish.

Note a couple of things about this. One is that the decision not to pursue Chesney was a political and police one, the two not really being separate in the north. The Church, in the person of Bishop Eddie Daly, interviewed Chesney twice; this was twice more than the cops did. Even after his transfer, there was nothing preventing the RUC from further investigating Claudy had they chosen to; they chose not to. Why?

One of the most common pitfalls to make when considering the north of Ireland is to assume that it works in a basically analogous way to Surrey or Hampshire, or indeed Dublin or Cork. It doesn’t – it especially didn’t in the febrile atmosphere of 1972 – and policing and criminal justice show that starkly. To say that the RUC lacked credibility in nationalist areas is to put it very mildly. It would be more accurate to say that the RUC was viewed as essentially a sectarian militia whose main purpose was to keep the Catholics down; a view shared by Protestants, who by and large thought this was a good thing. Internment was in full swing at the time. “Taken in for questioning” was not an innocuous phrase when it was known that suspects were being tortured. The loyalist gangs styled themselves as auxiliaries to the state forces, and in later years it would become clear that many of them, including some of our most notorious mass murderers, were actually on the state payroll.

Let’s take this further. What would have been the effect of arresting a priest on bombing charges, in the atmosphere of 1972? At the time, it wasn’t unknown for Catholic churches to be attacked by loyalist mobs. Two priests had relatively recently been shot by the British army. Is it implausible to think that ghetto opinion would have rallied behind Chesney, either believing the case to be a stitch-up or not caring, just seeing a priest under attack from the hated state? And what of the reaction on the other side? Loyalist political and religious leaders frequently claimed that the Vatican was controlling the IRA, often in collaboration with the Kremlin and sometimes the Freemasons or Illuminati. Some still do. Would the exposure of a bomber priest confirm that narrative? Was the fear of an enormous pogrom, dwarfing even that of 1969, an unreasonable fear?

So, when sketching out a police and state cover-up in which the Church was also complicit, the reasoning is not really all that mysterious. Since it appears that, despite plenty of intelligence pointing to Chesney, there was a lack of hard evidence coupled with the man’s own denials, it’s all too easy to see how a political-police decision (and all policing here is political) might be reached that pursuing Chesney through the criminal justice system was more trouble than it was worth. Having reached that conclusion, the next question was how to get him out of the picture before he did any more damage, which is where Conway comes in.

Jim Chesney has now been dead for thirty years. Willie Whitelaw is dead; William Conway is long dead; of the senior RUC officers involved, most will be dead by now. Justice, in the judicial sense, is probably out of the question at this point, and all the survivors and victims’ families can be left with is some transparency about what happened. Not that this will be much consolation. It’s a murky story, and nobody comes out of it well. As can be said about much in our history.

[1] In fact, we’re still at the point where intelligence rather than hard evidence is pointing to Chesney, and some people who know about these things are sceptical about his involvement. But we’ll assume that for the sake of argument, as the cover-up was premised on the assumption of his involvement.

Birmingham Three: the plot continues to thicken

I must apologise for the lack of service here the past while. Evidently, your host is somewhat lacking in the old Protestant work ethic. Moreover, I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that, if you’re feeling out of sorts, the blogosphere is not going to make you feel better. There are certain things that might make you feel better, like a Wodehouse novel, a box set of The Prisoner or a glass of dark liquid, but the blogosphere is not one of them. It tends to have a bad effect on the blood pressure.

Anyway, the Birmingham Three saga is more uncontainable than ever. I gotta give mad props to my main man Will Crawley, who was covering it on this morning’s Sunday Sequence, and big up also to Martin Beckford on the Telegraph. It’s certainly one in the eye for those ecclesiastical bullies who would rather have the whole affair silenced.

James reminds us that the Three have now passed more than a hundred days in exile, and that you have to commit a pretty serious crime for the secular courts to send you down for a hundred days. The draconian punishments meted out to three men who, it is admitted, have not committed any offence, seems more than a bit off. It’s all a bit strange, so let’s do a recap. I should say in advance that, while there are all sorts of interesting sidelines to the affair, not much is known for certain. However, even sticking to what’s known and making a bare minimum of deduction, the timeline prompts a number of questions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the autumn of 2007, a 20-year-old man approaches Birmingham Oratory seeking to become a priest. He isn’t accepted, but he does strike up this intense relationship with the Provost of the Oratory, Fr Paul Chavasse. The word is that there was no nookie involved – a “close but chaste” relationship is how it’s being put – and we must take that as read, but it was sufficiently visible a relationship to excite comment, especially as Fr Chavasse is as camp as a row of tents. (And yes, I know that camp and gay aren’t the same thing. But we’re talking here about impressions given.)

At this point we have to do a little deduction, so a health warning applies to this paragraph. We may reasonably assume that words were spoken amongst the Oratorians. One important thing to bear in mind is that even assuming there was no nookie involved – which would be difficult to prove either way – allowing the impression to be given that there might be would fall under the category of giving scandal. It’s also important to remember that the gay aspect, while it may add a bit of piquancy, is not necessary for giving scandal. For what it’s worth, those who know Fr Dermot Fenlon swear he isn’t homophobic and the authorities (in the person of Jack Valero) explicitly say he isn’t being accused of such. The fact is that if a middle-aged priest had formed a visibly intense (if chaste) relationship with a 20-year-old woman, it would still be inappropriate behaviour, or at the very least imprudent.

Now then. We are told there was disharmony in the community resulting from this affair. Not surprising, since it’s a tiny community – there are only ten or twelve priests at the best of times, and currently there are only five – and these small religious communities, very much like families, can harbour seething dissensions for a long time. It is further alleged that reports were made to Rome, which is how Fr Felix Selden came to be at the Oratory as Apostolic Visitor.

Fast forward to last December. Abruptly, Fr Chavasse resigns as both Provost of the Oratory and Actor of the Newman Cause. He vanishes from the Oratory, either having been sent away on a long-term retreat or being sent to a parish in America, depending on who you’re talking to. At any rate, he’s gone, and without explanation. Why so abruptly? Perhaps it had something to do with the upcoming papal visit and Newman beatification, with the prospect of B16 dropping into the Oratory for a meeting with the community. Perhaps it had something to do with that TV documentary crew that was hanging around the Oratory. Not being able to read the minds of Felix Selden and Ignatius Harrison, we don’t know.

This may have been the end of things, with the source of the dissension out of the picture. But no, around April rumours of the Chavasse affair begin leaking out into the press. This seems to have spooked the authorities, because it’s shortly afterwards, in May, that Fr Dermot Fenlon, Fr Philip Cleevely and Br Lewis Berry are sent to the Catholic equivalent of Guantánamo Bay – which is to say, ordered to monasteries some hundreds of miles apart to spend an indefinite period in quiet contemplation. With the stress very much on quiet. As with Fr Chavasse, there was no reason given, and the few statements coming from the Oratory served only to confuse things more.

Ten years ago, this might have just been a passing storm, but as we keep saying here, the blogosphere has changed Catholic affairs and meant that the old Tammany Hall methods – well, maybe they aren’t quite untenable, but they’re less tenable than they used to be. From a few disgruntled parishioners at the Oratory, who had seen four members of the community abruptly removed in a short space of time without explanation, this has gradually snowballed. Not least because the papal visit runs a distinct risk of turning into a fiasco even without trouble at Brum Oratory.

The whys and wherefores are obscure, except that the Chavasse affair was the proximate cause. Were the Three, as speculated, the ones who confronted Fr Chavasse? Did they, alternatively, protest the rather brutal removal and humiliation of the much-loved Chavasse? (The two are of course not contradictory.) Were there, given that all those concerned were heavily involved in the Newman Cause, ideological factors to do with the legacy of Newman? Was it just a matter of Church authorities’ well-established dislike for troublemakers? These are some of the questions that people are asking.

And so we are where we are. Fathers Fenlon and Cleevely are said to be in North America, and we do know that Brother Lewis has been sent off to South Africa for at least a year. Apropos of Brother Lewis, since he’s the youngest of the Three and still on the ordination track (actually, his ordination is taking an extraordinarily long time), away from home and cut off from his friends, he has been in a vulnerable enough position that you couldn’t blame him for taking whatever deal he’s been offered. Not least because these orders can be very persuasive when they put their minds to it. If I were a cynic with some knowledge of how Church affairs work, I would speculate that the next step would be to strong-arm Fr Philip into a deal, so then the blame could be placed on Fr Dermot as the ringleader who led the two young men astray. But we aren’t cynics here, are we?

Adding to the murkiness is the prospect of Fr Chavasse returning home for the papal visit, which does make it look rather as if he was in protective custody while the other three have been in extraordinary rendition. Cue some more scratching of heads.

Finally, although we give Uncle Jack Valero a bit of stick around here, I actually feel a little sorry for him. This sort of crisis management would tax the best of spin doctors. At this point, some transparency is the only rational way forward, but I sense that Selden and Harrison don’t have transparency in their vocabulary. It’s something that, these days, all clerics should know about; a good Latin word and everything.

Birmingham Three: this suppression will not stand!

However much the powers that be sit on this, the scandal of the Birmingham Three just won’t go away, in fact it spreads further and further. Here is Ruth Dudley Edwards in today’s Sunday Independent:

What Father Selden had reckoned without was the blogosphere. By the time I heard what had happened to Dermot, speculation was rampant, much of it of the ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ variety. By the time he was permitted to go to the US to do some teaching, he found that there was a widespread belief that to have been punished with indefinite exile suggested ‘The Birmingham Three’, as they are known by sympathisers, were guilty of some terrible sexual sins. Yet on the blogs there were also many, many supporters who believe they have been victimised by the establishment for being forthright defenders of Catholic values in the face of secularist threats (Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is not in favour of too much challenging of the state) and for having eloquently resisted attempts to co-opt Newman as a gay icon.

All three had been looking forward to the papal visit as the high point of their clerical careers, but although it appears that Father Chavasse will be back for it, the others will remain exiled: three Oratorians who are in complete theological harmony with Pope Benedict are being kept as far away from him as possible. Enquiries from the laity to Father Selden have resulted in a patronising brush-off: the official line is that they were a cause of disunity.

As I write, Brother Berry has been ordered to South Africa for at least a year and the Oratory spokesman tells me the other two await imminent sentence. Their defenders have formed an alliance that includes right-wing Catholics, people of other religions and none, and gays as well as straights, for from personal knowledge I can testify that there is nothing homophobic about Dermot Fenlon, who was much sought-after as a confessor.

Read the whole thing here, and also please visit the Free the Birmingham Oratory Three blog. One understands, of course, that such as Selden and Harrison aren’t used to having to explain themselves to the great unwashed, and don’t particularly like the idea, but if I was advising them (hello Jack) my advice would be to get this resolved as soon as possible, preferably by bringing the Three home. Otherwise this fiasco runs the risk of overshadowing the Newman beatification.

A few further thoughts. Firstly, the splitting up of the Three enables them to be picked off individually, or at least for pressure to be brought on the younger two – Fr Dermot is not known for his fear of rocking the boat, and would be a tough man to pressurise. Secondly, since it’s being spun that Fr Chavasse will soon be returning to Brum, it would seem to me that his exile was not punitive but designed to protect him. Thirdly, why exactly are the Oratorians being allowed to investigate themselves?

I humbly suggest that there are a few people in Rome who might find this fiasco interesting.

Hello darkness my old friend

I really hope our friend Austen Ivereigh has had a nice, relaxing time of it in Tanzania. Seriously, I do, because what follows beneath may have a bad effect on Austen’s blood pressure.

Okay, so if there’s one thing that should have been made abundantly clear in Catholic circles by the clerical abuse scandal, it’s that a culture of secrecy and silence is not going to fly these days. It especially isn’t going to fly given an increasing unwillingness amongst the faithful to keep quiet for fear of rocking the boat. Indeed, the fact that you are reading this on the interwebs tells you that we are long past the point where there were a couple of weekly papers that could be leaned on by the Magic Circle if an inconvenient story needed suppressing. And yet, there are still some dumbos in the Catholic establishment who don’t apprehend this basic truth.

Exhibit A is the case of the Birmingham Three. This has now moved up a gear, with two developments. One is that it’s been made public that the three exiles are not guilty of any wrongdoing, which prompts the question of why three Oratorians acknowledged to be guilty of nothing have been treated more severely than, well, I’m sure some notorious clerical miscreants will come to mind. The other is that Ruth Dudley Edwards is on the case, and Ruth is a fairly heavy hitter in the media. The longer this drags on, the more it will spread.

It strikes me that if Iggy Harrison had come out at the start of this with some anodyne statement about the Three being sent away because of, I don’t know, personality clashes at the Oratory, the whole thing would probably have died down by now. At least it wouldn’t have taken on the dimensions it now has. And now, of course, the silence has become the story, and the silence is going to feed the rumours and speculation. It’s no wonder Uncle Jack Valero seemed a little subdued, even pensive, at the Evangelium conference. Not quite his usual ebullient self.

Which brings me to Exhibit B, namely Catholic Voices. I mention this because there is no earthly reason for Catholic Voices to be run along Chatham House lines, and if you announce some high-profile project and then are less than open about it, you positively invite speculation. This appears to be lost on our friend Dr Ivereigh, who apparently has taken to phoning around the dweebs Voices in an agitated state, demanding that one of them fess up to being the leak. Really, I am disappointed. I knew Austen didn’t understand the blogosphere, but I would have thought he might have heard of something called a “grape-vine”. We’re not talking George Smiley here. Perhaps we might put that down to the personal eccentricity of someone who might urge his wedding guests not to talk about the happy occasion lest he be subjected to some mild ribbing on the internet; or someone who would cajole his pal Robert Pigott into something as ineffably dopey as this. But no, I have a feeling this goes beyond Dr Ivereigh’s idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps the liking for secrecy is an Opus Dei thing. But I suspect it’s got more to do with a general attitude that the Catholic establishment shouldn’t have to be answerable to the great unwashed, and that asking awkward questions is just terribly vulgar. That’s a habit that the establishment will have to break, or be broken from, like it or no.

In the case of CV, which I reiterate is a perfectly sound idea in principle and should have been done years ago, it creates a sort of air of shiftiness around something that could perfectly easily be transparent; in fact, if it was transparent, it would be easier to get the great unwashed to adopt the project as something they can be enthusiastic about. But have Beavis and Butt-head grasped this concept? Noooo.

And of course, if you’re used to operating without scrutiny, this makes amateurish pratfalls much more likely. For instance, CV made much of its rigorous selection procedure, helped along by the involvement of such as Fr Stephen Wang, who is used to rigorous selection procedures in his Allen Hall capacity. This rigorous procedure ran to summarily dismissing a number of enthusiastic young Catholic bloggers on the grounds of their being “mad” (Ivereigh-speak for “slightly more orthodox than me”); yet apparently did not run to basic things like, oh, making sure that all the Voices would be present at the roll-out in September, without being derailed by small matters like visas running out. Do you think Simon Cowell runs X Factor with that sort of slapdash attitude?

This may not matter if it was just a Jack ‘n’ Austen vanity project, but no, the Catholic establishment is heavily vested in this boondoggle. It’s being co-patronised by Dan Brennan and Chris Jamison, neither of whom is a lightweight. Luminaries such as Vin Nichols, Charles Wookey and Jamie Bogle have popped in to meet and greet. Uncle Jack has been appearing everywhere to talk about how tremendously significant CV is. With that sort of buildup, you’d better hope the end product is good.

Here’s a final thought. You will of course be aware that there’s this outfit called the “Catholic Communications Network”, which is supposed to do the comms for the Bishops’ Conference on a regular basis. Arguably, it’s the notorious uselessness of CCN that makes a project like Catholic Voices necessary. But hark! What’s this? Papal Visit Communication Officers, linked to the individual dioceses? To paraphrase the divine Oscar, duplication of functions may be put down to inefficiency, but triplication looks like extravagance. At least the Magic Circle can’t be blamed for this appeal from the BBC, or we might be talking about quadruplication of functions.

As the late VI Lenin used to say, “better fewer but better”. I’d rather have a handful of comms people who know what they’re doing than a small army who don’t.

Moreover, this is a bit like the Greg Pope situation. When Eccleston Square identify a problem, their stock response is to throw money at it. Hence dealing with the Oona Stannard problem by creating a job for Greg Pope and hoping that he cancels Oona out, rather than having the Oona Stannard problem compounded by a Greg Pope problem. And Alexander DesForges being AWOL making a new series of Changing Rooms is to be addressed by new media teams springing up like dandelions.

Bearing in mind that the Catholic Church has, how shall we put this, certain issues with cashflow, and that we’re in an age of austerity more generally, it really is striking that the Catholic establishment are doing a good impression of Formula One drivers spraying champagne all around them. Does Vin Nichols think this is a sensible way to proceed? Does Dan Brennan think it’s a sensible way to proceed? Because I don’t.

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