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Press Column

One doesnít often think of the Tablet as supplying competition for the Racing Post but it was the only paper last week to suggest that a price of 20-1 on Cormac Murphy OíConnor to be the next Cardinal was a bet worth taking. Betting money is not a particularly widespread vice amongst my acquaintance. Betting small slices of reputation, though, is something we do every week. So the Catholic Herald put its money on Michael Fitzgerald, with a full page devoted to him, though it coyly did not actually say he would be Cardinal; the Sunday Times, more noisily, plumped for Cormac. The paper announced that he had already been chosen. Only the Times followed this up as if it were an established truth: "A radical Catholic reformer" in the news story, was "named by sources in the Vatican" as the man chosen by the Pope to lead the 4.1m Catholics of England and Wales. "Named by sources in the Vatican" is nice. Anyone would think that had some official standing, when it fact it means "a rumour started by Christopher Morgan."

It might yet be true. If it is, it will be a tremendous scoop. Buit for the moment no one knows; not even the Catholic Media Office, which, when I rang, said that they really didnít know anything. They couldnít deny it, but neither could they deny anything else. All they knew was that no candidate had been officially announced and they would officially say nothing. Later that Monday morning, I realised how serious they were about this policy of silence: a rare press release from them turned up in my email. I opened it to find if Chris had won his bet and read: "Ecumenical women in prison group to meet with prisons minister Boateng."

On the subject of the next Cardinal, still nothing.

This did not stop the Times from analysing the appointment as a done deal. In the news story we learned that "his appointment will alarm conservatives who had been lobbying for a hardline Archbishop from the churchís right wing. But it delighted liberals who were last night reading it as a sign that the Vatican was willing to embrace long-overdue reforms." The disastrous "Deirdreís photo casebook" slot on the Times opinion page has been replaced by a full-length caricature of a man in the news, with a commentary. This was even more confused than usual, in as much as Cormac was described as "The darling of the Roman Catholic Left" (really? What about Timothy Radcliffe?) but also said that "Yet under the liberal orthodoxy lies a steely and unshakeable orthodoxy. On issues such as abortion, he will shudder in unison with that funkster Cardinal Thomas Winning of Glasgow." I find myself shuddering in unison with something as I read that sentence: Times writers trying to be funny in that slot are as disconcerting as a hippopotamus attempting the Twist.

Even stranger, both the piece explaining that he was a dangerous radical and the one that says he has a heart of steely unshakeable orthodoxy were written by the same person, Ruth Gledhill. But it does give Christopher Morgan an unshakeable alibi if the next Cardinal turns out to be Vincent Nichols (as only three weeks ago, the Times was assuring us would be the case) or anyone else. A liberal Catholic journalist Ė who herself tipped and favours Cormac ó described the Times analysis as "absolute crap" and said that if the Curia really believed that his appointment might be interpreted as a triumph for liberalism, they might very well choose someone else, even at this late stage. Well, we will have to see. But if it does turn out the story is right, it will be Christopher Morganís scoop; while if it is wrong, the Times, which gave it much more space, will seem the sillier of the two papers.

It is not, though., the sort of thing for which one apologises, unlike stories about the Bishop of Londonís lunching habits. Anthony Howardís Times column contains a really classic apology: "I was wrong to suggest last week that [Richard Chartres] had Ďdined and sleptí at Highgrove. He has never done any such thing, though he did on January 10 dedicate a Sanctuary that the Prince of Wales had built in the garden there. He stayed for lunch and left in the early afternoon without meeting Mrs Parker Bowles. I hope this clears things up." It is the last sentence that makes this apology perfect. I feel more confused than ever, unless the suggestion is that couples who cannot be remarried in church can be offered a service of blessing for their gazebos instead.

The Independent picked up on a story in the Kansas City Star that was interesting enough to chase down on the original paperís web site. It was about American Roman Catholic priests dying of Aids: apparently to be a priest in America puts you at four times the average risk for contracting the disease. The original story was written with a remarkably reverent tone: in Kansas, none other would be possible. But this made it all the more shocking. The paper had tracked down 26 Jesuit ordinands from one seminary who had studied there in the Sixties. Only seven had gone through to ordination, and four of these had died of Aids. A survey sent to 3,000 priests found that a third of them knew a colleague with the disease, or at least the virus, and the paper found evidence of 300 deaths. I really donít think you would get that sort of figure from a corresponding survey of English Anglican priests, even if they were to talk to the newspapers, which is another unlikelihood.

One of the paperís articles dealt at length with the priest who had run a local university before retiring to die privately in a New York hospice. None one they said, had had the slightest idea that he was ill, or even that he was gay ó but then entirely wrecked the effect by printing his photograph. I havenít anything so camp in an Anglican dog collar since real women were ordained in 1992. If itís really true that no one who knew him suspected he was gay, then the problem of denial is not just one for the insitutional church.

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