Press Column

I quite understand why the Daily Telegraph should have splashed Rupert Murdochís views on Tibet all over its front page. It is genuinely newsworthy if a Papal knight calls the Dalai Lama "a very political old monk in Gucci shoes", especially when his papers are locked in a circulation war with you. In the opinion of conventionally educated teenagers, who are the audience that far-sighted newspaper editors really worry about, the Dalai Lama is just about the most revered man on the planet, and Rupert Murdoch a symbol of all that is wicked.

But the Daily Telegraph has the most extraordinary collection of heroes you could wish for. Personally I find it hard to decide why Alan Clark should be accounted a better man than Rupert Murdoch, even if he was a better writer. Both of them were people with whom it would be wonderful to have lunch but largely because they combine great clarity of mind with charm and profound nihilism. But neither, I think, could be enjoyed in real life without bearing in mind Rochesterís warning "the pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains, to fright the enjoyer with succeeding pains." Both emerged from English upper class education with an admiration for megalomaniac dictators: Clark admired Hitler, and Murdoch, Mao-Tse Tung. More people, though, are frightened of Rupert Murdoch. This not necessarily a bad thing from the Telegraphís point of view. Clark was frequently unfaithful but only to one wife, whereas Murdoch is on his third. Itís all very complicated So it must have been easier to turn to the one priest the Daily Telegraph really admires: Fr Michael Seed.

Early reports of Alan Clarkís death all claimed that he had died a seedling, or society convert. This story undoubtedly originated with Seed himself, and when Jane Clark said that her husband had been buried according to the rites of the Church of England, one of his friends alerted the Daily Telegraph, whose editor, Charles Moore checked with the widow. She is hardly going to speak to a common reporter. She denied that Seed had in fact converted her husband, so the Daily Telegraph had another front-page splash saying that Clark had died an Anglican. Jane Clark said "Fr Michael and I walked [just before her husbandís death] and he told me he had received Alan into the Catholic Church on July 10;. He kept askig whether Alan had told me anything about it. Fr Michael means well, but I am afraid he has been completely carried away." Whether this should be regarded as a compliment to the Church of England is not obvious. Seed was then quoted indirectly as "accepting he was mistaken." However, when I called a couple of days later to check the sequence of events, it emerged that Seed still believes that Clark converted, but that he was in such a state by the end that he did not or could not tell his wife. Perhaps he did not know himself.

His brother Colin, writing in the Sunday Times, was in no doubt: "There was no Catholicism. Jane is furious at the suggestion that Al converted just before his death. It is just not true. When she read that he had in The Daily Telegraph, she rang me saying: "I've got steam coming out of my ears, it is just such nonsense.í

"My brother was very involved in the Catholic Church. He did have a great feel for it and he had been talking to Father Michael Seed about converting, but he certainly didn't convert on his deathbed. To do that just because you are at the end of this mortal coil is a bit of a cheat, a swizz. Al would never do that.

"But these Romans like to claim any scalp they can."

There is a Restoration flavour about the whole thing; not just in the memory of Charles IIís death-bed conversion, but also in Rochesterís repentance. Perhaps the only answer is for Fr Seed to write a counterpart to Bishop Burnetís account of Rochesterís repentance. The trouble is that it is difficult to imagine Alan Clark repenting of anything.

The review front of the Sunday Times carried a long plug by John Cornwell for his new biography of Pius XII, which conservative forces in the Vatican have tried to suppress. He is probably the best journalist writing about religion in English today. Partly because of his training as a seminarian, he understands the exercise of power within religions as well as the workings of the religious imagination. He is also a scrupulous historian. But the story he told was only partially an account of how he had come to believe that the Pope, whose reputation he had set out to rescue, was in fact as anti-semitic and pro-Nazi as his enemies had believed. It was also framed in an account of the significance of the canonisation process for the future of the Church and especially in the civil war in the American Catholic church. Cornwellís argument was that Pius was an architect of the twentieth century code of canon law which has made modern papal autocracy possible. To canonise him would be a further repudiation of the spirit of Vatican II. I hope his book does well; I wonder, though, how this demonstration of the temper of the English Catholic intelligentsia will be received in Rome where they are presently brooding on three names for Cardinal Humeís successor

The Daily Mail carried an unusually brutal and thorough kicking of the Archbishop of Canterbury on its op-ed pages "Is this the worst Archbishop in history?" (the answer, after careful consideration was, "no, but youíd never know that from listening to him on the Today show"). It contained among a whole mess of quotes and statistics, the assertion that church membership had fallen by a quarter in the decade of evangelism. Since I wrote it, I should point out in the interest of balance, that this seems to have been a mistake. As far as I can tell from the figures ó which of course Dr Beaver refuses to publish up to dare ó the real figure for losses this decade is only about 15%. At this point I should come up with some really cutting and savage remark to make the writer wish he had never been born but there are some mistakes so excruciating that they are best passed over in tactful silence.

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