26 Apr 2010

More complications ahead of the Pope's visit

“Appalling”; “outlandish”; “outrageous”; the Catholic Archbishop of Nottingham is quoted as saying. Not of the widespread priestly abuse of children, but of the revelation that amid the mounting gloom of attempting to plan a Papal visit at such a time, some junior FCO officials did what many would have done – looked for light relief with humour that veered in imagination from Glenda Slagg in the pages of Private Eye to Monty Python.

The Vatican speedily announces that the leaked email of joke ideas for the Pope to open an abortion clinic and issue Pope Benedict branded condoms “will not affect the visit”.

The Vatican operatives are no fools. They know they need to get the Pope out and about as soon as possible. They need this visit to the UK later this summer a lot more than anyone else. The Pope’s own authority and reputation – not least in his own responses to the scandal that so besieges his church, have been seriously damaged.

At the same time, as a reporter who was for a time the recipient of press accreditation to cover the Vatican, I am more than aware that the “Holy See”, lives in its own world and even now very possibly fails to understand quite how low esteem for the Catholic hierarchy has fallen.

Many are already asking, if the Pope is fallible when it comes to dealing with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, how come he claims infallibility when it comes to abortion and condoms. Britain’s foreign office has grounds to be more aware than most of the damage that the Catholic Church’s ban on condoms may have reaped in the battle against HIV/AIDS in the developing world.

The English and Welsh Catholic Bishops last week went further in their collective apology for the child abuse scandal inside their church than the Pope has yet done. The Archbishop of Nottingham was amongst them.

There are those in the church, to whom I have spoken who suspect that it would have been very difficult for the Pope’s visit to go ahead without such an apology. It’s already a visit complicated by the Pope’s planned canonisation of the remarkable 19th Century Catholic convert, Cardinal Newman.

As he neared death, Newman pleaded three times to buried with his close friend Ambrose St John, of whose death Newman equated with that of a ‘husband or wife’ – “can any (bereavement), can any sorrow be greater than this”, he wrote.

Ambrose St John lived with Newman for thirty two years. Charles Kingsley wrote at the time of Newman’s “femininity”. Theologians have written on Newman’s celibacy. The Pope will be visiting the two men’s shared grave in Birmingham when he confirms Newman’s canonisation.

Gay campaigners are already using the impending event to highlight their concerns about the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality and are threatening to demonstrate the shrine in Birmingham during the visit.

Against Newman’s strongly stated wishes, the Church was going to take Newman’s body out of Ambrose St John’s grave to rebury it in Westminster Cathedral. But when they opened the grave in 2008, they found the coffin had not been lead lined and the body was gone. Newman sustained his wish from beyond the grave.

Gay protesters are unlikely to be only ones who will make their feelings known whilst the Pope is in the UK. Perhaps that’s why the visit itself made its way into last week’s Prime Ministerial Debate on Foreign Affairs as a matter of ‘National Security’. Pity the people who have to plan such a visit.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4