The Press Saturday, November 21st 1998
Next to being a columnist, and so paid to be right about everything, all the time, I suppose the greatest satisfaction in life must be to be a Roman Catholic, since they too have the satisfaction of being right about everything, though since the Second Vatican Council only on a voluntary basis. To combine these vocations and become a Catholic columnist is as close to infallibility as any layman can get; if you doubt me, read any of them on Catholic Social Teaching (capitals obligatory).
This is normally Clifford Longley's territory in the Daily Telegraph; but Paul Vallely got the second front of the Independent to discuss Hague and politics on the day the General Synod opened its meeting. His story opened with a genuine scoop: that Tony Blair had written a private letter to Cardinal Hume just before the election praising The Common Good. It is not completely surprising that such a letter should have been written, since the message of the document was that Christians should vote for anyone but the National Front and the Conservative party. But it's interesting that the news should have emerged now. I can imagine two related reasons: Paul has just published a book on this interesting and important subject; and the chance to grind William Hague's face a little further into the dust was irresistible. If you believe in kicking a man when he's down, the spectacle of a party leader making his case to a fringe meeting of the general synod is hard to resist.
The message of Vallely's piece was that the only Christian thought that matters is Roman Catholic, and that Blair has already signed up for it completely. "From stakeholding to the minimum wage, devolution to welfare-to-work, from union recognition in the workplace to action on Third World debt, Tony Blair's agenda runs closely parallel to the social doctrine of the church of which his wife and children are members and which insiders say he may one day join himself.
"The Government's recent Green Paper on the family had all over it — for those who could recognise them — the fingerprints of Dr Jack Dominian, who has been for decades the English Catholic Church's doyen on relationships, marriage, and divorce."
The Church of England, by contrast "seems far more inwardly focussed than during the years of the Runcie/Thatcher confrontation." The only puzzling note came from the Daily Telegraph, which ran a leader praising Mr Hague: if columnists are infallible, it is editors who bestow that charism on them, and the editor of the Daily Telegraph is a Catholic. Can it really be the case that there are Catholics unpersuaded by The Common Good?
The Telegraph's leader did contain what seems to be the meat of Hague's speech, beneath all the fluffy moralising which was all that made it into the news pages. This is a simple deal that the Tories could offer to gratify the churches and the voters at the same time: hand over large chunks of the Welfare state to church control; save taxes, improve the result, and increase the power and importance of the churches concerned. "During the last century, the churches took the lead in welfare provisions, and grew. During this one, they have let the state take over, and have shrunk."
A similar deal has worked with education. But it would be hard to sell this one to the public even if the churches found the women to do all this new grunt work. Try saying, as the leader does, "Christians have a powerful motive to care for others: they do so because Christ did. State employees, while no less good people, lack such a motive: this helps to explain why local authority care for children has become a byword for child abuse." Then say "Christian Brothers". If the Conservative party had half the money to play with that the Catholic Church has had to pay out in law suits for child abuse over the last decade, Mr Hague would be a happy man.
The moral of this is surely that it does not matter who runs the children's homes so long as they are regarded as the dustbins of society.
As far as column inches were concerned, the story of the week in all the broadsheets was John Barton's vestments, with Spaghetti Junction on them. This is a very proper subject for liturgical embroidery, since it is the one stretch of motorway where everyone gets to move in ways as mysterious as God's.
There was also a scurrilous story in the next day's Daily Express diary, to the effect that Ruth Gledhill was so impressed by these robes that she approached the embroiderer to to put an angel on her favourite ballgown. I have no intention of spoiling this by checking it. The Times diary, meanwhile, had a snarky little paragraph about Lesley Perry, Dr Carey's press secretary, who had told them that she knew nothing of a review of bishop's expenses. She was telling the truth, but it turned out that some such review was in the works, and the diary ran a characteristically pointless and nasty paragraph to say this. My sympathy for her, however, was tempered by the quote she gave for the news story: "This is a proactive move to make sure that the Church of England is properly resourced for the new millennium .. a very positive look at the church's ministry at a time of growing demand."
I hadn't myself noticed a growing demand for sermons written in the back of chauffeur driven cars, but out here in wilds of North Essex it's easy to lose touch with the real, market-driven world. So, in order to respond pro-actively to changing customer demands in today's market-driven business environment my strategic review body, charged with implementing helicopter vision to proactively impact the mission of this column — oh never mind anyway — I shall launch an illiterary prize in memory of Lesley's remark. It will be awarded for the most egregious use of GodCo speak by any Christian leader. There are only two questions. What should the prize be? And what shall it be called?
Suggestions from readers would be welcome.