Press Column

Just when it looked as if John Cornwell might be losing the argument about whether Papal autocracy and sympathy with Nazism were inextricably linked, he gets support from an unusual source: Pat Buchanan, a right-wing Catholic candidate for the White House, announced in the Washington Post (reported in the Daily Telegraph) that Britainís big mistake this century was declaring war on Hitler. If only the British had let him have Poland, "Hitler would have attacked an unprepared Stalin in 1940. The result might have been the eradication of Bolshevism in Russia and China, no Cold War, no Korea, and no Vietnam. Instead of six years of world War II bloodletting, we might have seen six months of a Hitler-Stalin war, ending with one dead and the other crippled."

The same paper reports two more items of interest: that the canonisation of Pius XII has been postponed: presumably this has something to do with Cornwellís book; and that the school board in Kansas which earlier this year made belief in evolution optional has now shown that it understands logical entailment and abolished any need to believe that the earth is more than 10,000 years old as well. "A spokesman for the 10-member board said that an examination answer by an 18-year-old predicated on the idea that nothing existed before Godís intervention 10,000 years ago could be given top marks."

In case one is left with the idea that all American religion necessarily involves malevolent insanity, there is a piece by the farmer, oblate, and poet Kathleen Norris (much admired by Rowan Williams) in the current issue of Forbes magazine: she writes about her sister, who lived for many years in an enclosed order, but is now a married stockbroker and ordained Anglican priest on the island of Hawaii. Her training gave her a certain detachment from wealth: "After a novitiate year of near total silence--she was expected to speak only with the novice mistress, and then only when spoken to--Ellen (who was then Sister Maria Noel) was allowed to take graduate courses at Columbia University. When travelling in Manhattan she was permitted to take with her, stashed in her habit pockets, the grand sum of 40 cents: 30 cents for subway fare and a dime in case she had to make an emergency phone call to the convent."

The biggest religious news of the week for the middle market tabloids was clear: the discovery that the Scottish Catholic church is paying a twelve-year-old girl not to have an abortion. Both the Mail and the Express put it on the front page and followed the same rather tired formula inside, with comment pieces for and against underneath the main story. The Catholic policy has always interested me because I canít see whatís wrong with it and so canít understand why it has been so savagely attacked. Itís very difficult for a genuinely pro-choice person to argue with a policy that says "If you want to have the baby, but canít afford to, weíll help you out." This seems to be a genuine work of mercy, so it drives pro-abortionists into a fury. Libby Purves, in the Times quoted Jasne Roe of the Abortion Law Reform Association as saying on radio that no child of that age could possibly have any idea of what a baby involves, and that only by termination could her quality of life be protected. But hardly anyone who has a first baby knows what they are letting themselves in for; and the logical conclusion of this argument has nothing to do with choice, but with a decree banning all births to children under the age of ó well, what? Thirteen? Sixteen? Wisdom?

"How dare any well-meaning lobbyist treat girls of 12 as if ther were inevitably airheads How dare anybody deny them a capacity for moral choice? And how dare anybody vilify a church which, when approached by such a girl, tries to meet her plight with kindness and a few clean cot blankets?" asked Purves. "I am glad someone has the bottle and the decency to defy the prissy, bossy consensus and help some, at least, of those poor kids to do things the hard way."

The force of her argument and indignation rests on an interesting and largely concealed premise point, I think: that the weakest and most defenceless party in the whole transaction is the child-mother, and that the Church is behaving admirably by defending the mother, and only secondarily the foetus.

The Sunday Telegraph started two interesting hares running. The first was followed by almost everyone: the figures on bishopsí expenditure, or expenses as the paper calls it. I found it interesting that Lambeth palace costs a million pounds a year to run: world class spiritual leadership doesnít come cheap. But for most papers the wonderful fact was that some bishops spend more than a priestís stipend on chauffeurs every year. The average bishop also spends over £3000 a year on mobile phones, which suggests that some must spend much more. Perhaps this explains why they never have time to return ordinary phone calls.

There is a defence to be made of bishopsí palaces, and Iíve made it myself from time to time. They do less harm there than almost anyone else would, and they give, or they should give, the same kind of lesson in detachment from wealth as Kathleen Norrisís sister, the stockbroking priest. There is also a defence that makes the church look worse, and dead on cue, the Rev Dr Bill Beaver (who seems to have rebranded himself as plain "William Beaver") produced it. It is "churlish" he said, to complain about such hard-working men. People donít like being called "churls", especially when they are being asked to subsidise the churl-callers.

The other was the news that HTB had written a letter urging, in effect, Conservatives in Kensington and Chelsea not to select Michael Portillo as their MP on the grounds that he had been gay as a young man, sorry, that he did not uphold family values. The church doesnít seem to have objected to his immediate predecessors, the lecher Alan Clark and the drunk Nick Scott, though lechery and drunkenness seem far more urgent threats to family life than homosexuality. But letís be charitable: by objecting to Portilloís homosexual experiences as a young man, HTB is simply trying to establish that none of its congregation or leadership went to public school.

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