Press Column

I forgot a landmark last week: the revelation that two women priests are actually transsexuals whose careers started as male priests. This story first appeared in the Sunday Times eighteen months ago, and at the time I bet Christopher Morgan the lunch of his choice if he could supply the name of even one of them — he told me, when I called him on the story, he knew the names of neither, but could find them out. Well, the next time we lunched, he paid, or Mr Murdoch did. But last Sunday they reappeared, as a throwaway in an article about transsexual weddings "Last year it was revealed that two women priests began their ministries as men within the Church of England." I suppose you could justify the use of "revealed" as biblical, in as much as St John the Divine has not yet stood up his stories either. But at least the saint supplied names for his protagonists.

The Sunday Mirror this week provided an interesting glimpse of Hollywood spirituality with the news that Sharon Stone has dedicated her life to God. "I’ve always been deeply spiritual, but I found that it didn’t get me anywhere in Hollywood."

However, the good news is that she has "totally given up her life to God" even if the exact nature of this commitment remains uncertain. "I have never prayed so hard as when [my husband] was in hospital. I found I couldn’t face the thought of a future without him." As a consequence, she has never been so deeply at peace. "Whatever god may be to each person, the bottom line is that God is love." She is, of course, a Buddhist.

There are two long-term stories rumbling away in the background this week. The serious and important one is the dispute about whether Pius XII was in fact a Nazi sympathiser. It started in the Sunday Times with its serialisation of John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope; and has spread now to the Times , the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. The scholarly approach, as you would expect, has been found in the Tablet, but the Telegraph and the Independent have eschewed such subtlety. "Was this the first Nazi Pope?" asked the cover of the Independent’s second section, as if he had founded a whole dynasty of Nazi popes. The Telegraph got Cardinal Winning to write an op-ed piece, which argued that Pius was a saint. It took William Rees Mogg, in the Times to restore some sense of proportion. "I met Pope Pius XII only once" he started.

I have no opinion on what Cornwell has proved; I’m still reading the book, and it combines in any case two logically independent theses: first that Pius was a moderate anti-semite who thought Nazism preferable to Communism and who acted and omitted to act in accordance with this belief; but also that this preference stemmed from his authoritarian view of the Church, that the current Pope shares his belief in divinely ordained autocracy, and that this is profoundly unChristian and damaging.

The first part of the thesis is — how can I put this? — not intrinsically implausible. Christian anti-Semitism was by no means an exclusively Roman Catholic phenomenon: look at T.S. Eliot. Before 1945 it was enormously widespread in mild forms, and these did make Hitler’s task easier. If he had declared that his object was to extirpate from Germany all red-haired people this would have seemed to most Christians at the time more monstrous and irrationally evil than an attempt to extirpate all the Jews. But it is precisely the widespread and pervasive nature of that kind of anti-semitism which weakens the connection between Pacelli’s foreign and domestic policies. Autocracy and anti-semitism have no necessary link. At present we have a Pope who is simultaneously autocratic and possibly the least anti-semitic Pole who has ever lived.

Such subtleties do not translate very well into newspaper polemic. There are only two possible opinion pieces to write on the subject: either Pius XII was a saint or else he was a Nazi. Which is how we reach the extraordinary position that the Daily Telegraph, the paper which even more than the Belfast Telegraph champions the cause of Ulster Protestantism against all comers, is simultaneously arguing for the canonisation of Pius XII. Someone should ask Ian Paisley what he thinks of it all.

The frivolous but illuminating story has been running on the obituaries pages. To judge by column inches, the most significant religious leader to die since Cardinal Hume was a witch called Doreen Valiente. She first appeared next to Cliffrord Longley’s Telegraph column, dressed in black, with a wide-brimmed spiky hat and a pair of large, plastic-rimmed spectacles. One interesting fact to emerge from all the obituaries was that the Pagan Federation conference in 1997was attended by fewer than 1,500 people. This doesn’t sound like a mass movement to me, no matter how much copy it generates. Both the Times and the Independent later gave her space. But neither was quite as funny as the original. Mrs Valiente was clearly a witch after the Telegraph’s heart. She disliked publicity and objected to the inclusion of modern liturgy as opposed to the cod-ancient stuff she wrote herself. She concealed her interest in witchcraft until her mother, a devout Christian, died in 1984. She came to believe in reincarnation and clairvoyance in Bournemouth, on the grounds, she said, that Bournemouth could not be all there was to life; and this rather likeable combination of absurdity and common sense ran all through her obituaries, reaching its culmination in the last paragraph of the Telegraph’s: "At the age of 75, she developed a penchant for ‘skunk’, a strong variety of cannabis which she smoked in a newly acquired ‘bong’, a kind of hubble bubble. She also indulged more freely her interest in Tantric sex, with an emerging passion for black leather. But to the last, Doreen Valiente maintained she was nothing more than ‘an old-fashioned witch’."

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