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Who did the Papal Visit Team think they were working for? And were they out of control?

2010 April 30
by Paul Vallely

Catholics in the UK have been divided about how to react to the news that the British Foreign Office has circulated around Whitehall an offensive email on its ideal outcome for the Pope’s visit to the UK in September – topped by the desideratum that the pontiff should launch his own range of Benedict condoms. Almost all of us have been astonished and shocked. But some have been outraged while others have insisted that we should shrug it off as a bad taste joke.

It is important first of all to say what the incident is not. It is not a spoof memo written by some individual office jester as satirical light relief from a serious workload. It is rather three official documents produced to stimulate discussion on the detail of the papal visit. It is not, therefore, a question of freedom of speech but of how Foreign Office diplomats should deal with a head of state who has been invited to the UK by the British prime minister.

The email is the product of a series of meetings of a significant number of officials nowhere near so junior as the Foreign Office has sought to make out. They were chaired by a diplomat with 10 years experience and the results were filtered, edited and then circulated to 30 civil servants in half a dozen Whitehall departments inviting them to further discussion. The fact that alarm bells rang only when it got to that level lays bare a Foreign Office culture which is so pervasive and so homogenous that such offensive thinking went unchallenged for so long.

Some have talked about a revival of an atavistic anti-Catholic sentiment deeply engrained within British culture. Certainly some of the rhetoric about the Pope being a threat to political freedom is familiar. But anti-Catholicism here is a front for a wider anti-religious sentiment which is mutating into something more virulent as it inter-reacts with the Dawkinsite new atheism. It characterised by a tone of secularist moral superiority which is to be found today throughout the educated metropolitan elite where it is accepted as unthinkingly as anti-Semitism was among the British upper classes in the 1930s.

The promotion of diversity by successive British governments has lessened the vehemence with which anti-religious views this can be expressed against Muslims, as the Holocaust has muted the acceptability of public expressions of anti-Semitism. But the gloves are now off when it comes to attacks on Christianity, and attacks on Catholicism are felt to be acceptable because of the scandal of clerical sex abuse. The extremity of its views on abortion, contraception and the use of condoms to combat Aids in Africa make it an easy target.

It was revealing that when the Foreign Office published its internal ad for staff to join the Papal Visit Team it stated: “Prior knowledge of the Catholic church is not necessary”. Diversity was admirably maintained in picking the four people in the team, which included a cultural Muslim, at least one gay, but not one Catholic.

Add to that the fact that the infamous brainstorming sessions took place after the detailed papal itinerary had been set, and the first recce trip to the chosen sites had taken place, and it makes you wonder what the Papal Visit Team were doing, who they thought they were working for, and whether or not they were under anyone’s control.

That whole team should now be collapsed and reformed, with greater sensitivity as to its make-up. But the diplomatic service also needs to hold an internal inquiry into the cultural mindset from which all this grew. And that will mean it unpacking its own prejudices and asking whether a secular sectarianism has developed within the Foreign Office. If they don’t, after the election, the politicians should do it for them.

One Response
  1. Maureen permalink
    May 2, 2010

    The Catholic church faces a dilemma . Being attacked on a number of fronts and suffering greatly from the abuse scandal, it is responding defensively and trying to be too conciliatory- in my view a mistake. I can imagine that the Catholic Church in England is so cowered by the current rampant and extremely aggressive secularism which dominates the public and government sector masquerading under the Diversity banner that it may well have felt uncomfortable at the composition of the Papal visit team. However, woe betide any persons / organisation that dare object to an Asian or a gay man being assigned to anything , no matter how inappropriate , these being the holy cows of Diversity philosophy.
    I believe the Papal visit is a mistake. There is too much hostility in Britain to the Pope personally and religion generally.The Catholic church is being singled out because it is vulnerable at the moment ( because of the scandals) but, more fundamentally, because it really does represent the last bulwark against humanist and atheistic beliefs of which England is the vanguard. Rather than appeasing secularism, which only seems to fan the flames, it should up its PR machine to take apart its opponents’ arguments ( and much more could have been made of that memo rather than down-playing it) and switch focus to the positive achievements of the Church at a global and national level. Cancel the visit which would be a great embarrassment to the British government, and arrange for the Pope to go where he is wanted.
    Job Ad – Wanted – PR experts savvy in modern media communications urgently required in the Vatican. 21ST century Francis of Assisi / Ignatius Loyola need apply

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