Press Column

Apologies to the pope, then. After all the cheery predictions of fewer than 300,000 people turning up to his World Youth Day in Paris he drew a crowd of between 750,000 and 1,250,000 to the Longchamp race course for Mass. One congregation which might at its largest have been as large as all the Anglican congregations in England put together that Sunday. It probably was all the Catholic congregations in France put together that day.

There was generous coverage in all the broadsheets, complete with the traditional photographs of bishops pretending to be human beings. One points a cheap plastic camera at the distant pope; another picture shows six of them apparently asleep. The Daily Telegraph ran a triumphalist leader: "John Paul II, the best-travelled holder of his ancient office, routinely draws crowds of more than a million. By doing so again at the Longchamp racecourse on Sunday, he dramatically answered the criticism that his values are too stuffy to appeal to a modern age. Paris, in his case, was well worth a Mass.

"The pontiff evidently has as much appeal in this secular, sophisticated country as he has is the Third World … he has not altered the central tenets of his faith to placate liberal opinion. His adherence to traditional teachings on matters such as abortion and the sanctity of marriage has in fact contributed to the continuing vitality of his Church."

There is always something pleasing in the spectacle of a large, commercially successful newspaper denouncing "the crass materialism of the West" as the Daily Telegraph went on to do. But the belief that the Pope’s attitude to sexual discipline has contributed to the vitality of the church does seem wilfully perverse.

The Guardian and the Independent both ran small sniping pieces under their main coverage, pointing out that the French church was in a parluous state despite all this, with fewer than 100 vocations a year, and only 5% of its priests under forty. But these, too, may have missed the point. The real reasons for the successes of the Pope and the failure of his message may have little to do with doctrines.

A more profound reason, I think, came in the fragment of his speech quoted by the Times: "The world is wonderful and rich. It sets before us countless treasures. It attracts both our reason and our will. But in the end it does not satisfy our spirit."

The Pope, in other words, can be read as straddling both sides of the dispute wonderfully identified by Hugo Gryn, between those religions which have al the answers, and those which have all the questions. Gryn would always add that the problem was that the answers were not the answers to the questions; it seems to me that this can be the case within religions as well as between them. Because doctrines are easier to report than atmospheres, newspaper coverage tends to overemphasise their importance.

There was more evidence of this in the Times, which ran both a front page story and an op-ed piece on the possibility that the Pope might declare Mary co-redeemer. The top of the news story, written by Richard Owen and Michael Horsnell, was worthy of the Sunday Times: "Many of the eight million Roman Catholics in Britain are supporting a world-wide appeal to the Pope to proclaim the Virgin Mary as a co-redeemer, placing her on a par with Jesus Christ." How many is what I would want to know — the story suggested "more than 40,000", which is not really a very noticeable fraction of eight million: half a per cent if my calculator is up to speed. And they had got Nicholas Coote, on record and speaking officially, to rubbish the idea comprehensively: "This makes me feel uneasy. All one cna say is that there are certain parameters beyond which you may not go."

The real Sunday Times story was even odder. Christopher Morgan is getting a very high hit-rate on stories which suggest deeply sinister goings-on on the Church of England. Some of these are brilliant, like the scoop over Brandon Jackson’s departure. Anyone who can get a news story out of the churchwardens’ measure deserves congratulations: "The Church of England is set to clash with MPs over plans to give bishops the power to sack rebellious churchwardens…" In stories like this, you have to count the plurals. The interesting question is not whether some MPs object, but whether a sizeable minority or even a majority on the Ecclesiastical Committee does.

The whole thing is rather puzzling until you realise that the story originated with Kit Chalcraft’s breakaway. "The wardens in Oxborough are organising a campaign to encourage other MPs and peers to oppose the Synod." The story claims that the Churchwardens measure was passed in order to save the face of the Bishop of Norwich. As far as I remember the synod debates on the matter, the Chalcraft case never came up at all: this is not conclusive: the excitement in the press gallery during these debates is such a giant green UFO piloted by John Gummer could have swooped down swept the entire Synod off to Mars and none of us would have noticed — few synod members, either.

The News of the World had two fascinating examples of credulity this week. The first was a story about Satanists on the Isle of White, and absolutely bog-standard example of the Satanist scare story, held together entirely with "believed", "reported" and an anonymous central witness: "Sickened police are investigating allegations that a Satanist paedophile ring is breeding babies to sacrifice to the Devil. Already one child is reported to have been slaughtered in a perverted ceremony on the Isle of Wight. The occult worshippers are believed to be pillars of the community — respected hoteliers, businessmen and civil servants. — on the holiday island."

The other was another triumph of the occult: "After 15 years of yearning for a baby, Maureen Clear is pregnant at last — and she says it’s all thanks to a chance meeting with a faith healer."

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