Press Column Saturday 20 May 2000

What is it about Catholic papers and the Guardian? First there was the wonderful spat between Madeleine Bunting and John Wilkins, the editor of the Tablet, when he thought he was speaking off the record and she printed his remarks about the Pope’s health anyway. Now Dr Oddie of the Catholic Herald has got in a bate with Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s new religious affairs correspondent. I don’t think this is just to prove that anything the liberals can do, he can do better. The Herald believes in general that the Guardian has got it in for the Roman Catholic church. From my own limited experience I doubt this is true. Some Guardian writers, like Polly Toynbee, are notoriously hostile to all religion; and the paper never, to its credit, bought into the Odone myth of Catholicism as fashionable and uniquely glamorous. But I don’t think that the Guardian, taken as a whole, is more or less anti-Catholic than the run of the pack.

But Stephen Bates was the first journalist to get an interview with Cormac Murphy O’Connor after his elevation to the see of Westminster; and he did speak to him alone. The new Archbishop seems to have been careful to say nothing earth-shattering, so the story, which appeared a couple of weeks ago, led on his remarks that the discipline of celibacy could be removed. This is uncontroversially true, and unsensational, even it came as a shock to some Guardian readers. But for some reason, the spectacle of an Archbishop telling the truth made Dr Oddie froth over. The Herald ran a leader which concluded: "The confusion seems to have arisen when the archbishop asked, perfectly reasonably "is it(marriage) incompatible with priesthood?" and gave the theologically perfectly correct reply, "The answer is obviously no". When this question arises and there are secular journalists about, there is probably only one wise response: ‘Over my dead body’."

You have to give Oddie his due: the idea that Catholic prelates should tell the truth only to Catholic journalists is not one which anyone else would admit in public. Anyway, it upset Bates, who is himself a Roman Catholic who has worked on both the Mail and the Telegraph when Oddie was a guru there. So he wrote back an astonishingly rude letter, describing how a priest who had comforted his mother when she was dying had subsequently left the Church to get married. "The Church lost him, a sweet and gentle man of a calibre it could ill afford and subsequently gained you. What a bargain! In those circumstances, you will understand why I, a mere secular journalist in your pompous words, though a Catholic all my life, feel ill-inclined to accept the frivolous animadversions of a Johnny-come-lately apostate such as yourself."

You can see he’s settling into the job. Anyway, the letter carried beneath it a note from the Editor implying that Bates had spun the story anyway "Mr Bates is entitled to his views on clerical celibacy: but he is not entitled to imply that they are shared by Archbishop Murphy O’Connor".

So Bates has written back with another unpleasant allusion to Dr Oddie’s calibre: "since the Catholic Herald persists in insisting it knows better than I do what occurred during my recent interview with the Archbishop of Westminster in his study, at which only the two of us were present - unless your editor somehow secretly contrived to conceal his shapely form beneath an escritoire - can I say that no one has suggested that I quoted the archbishop inaccurately."

I hope this is the wave of the future. One of the great advantages of the web over conventional newspapers is that people are so uninhibitedly rude there; and now the Catholic journalists of Great Britain are showing once more that they have grasped the point of technological change before everyone else and are revivifying their newspapers with all they have learned from the Internet.

Bates also had a story which I saw no one else, about Dr Carey’s son Mark adopting two children. This might have been an intrusion into his privacy, had it not been the case that he got it from one of the Archbishop’s speeches, made in Texas, in which he said that the standards demanded of adoptive parents under English law are so tough that "By such high standards those of us who have had children of our own would have failed time and again. Those who adopt are motivated by love."

This came out in the lead as "The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, yesterday berated the British adoption laws for being so demanding of couples wishing to adopt children that even he would not qualify as a good parent." I think this is hard but fair, as they say of borderline psychotic football players. If, as Archbishop, you are going to make and circulate a speech like that, you must expect that it may be followed up. But I bet it came as a shock anyway.

Not half as much of a shock as the landlord of the Wassand Arms in Hull, whose plans to move his Victorian bar counter have been dropped after customers pointed out three faces of Jesus in the grain of the wood. This has persuaded him not to replace it with a pool table. The Sun does not say whether the faces get any special treatment from customers.

In Thailand, a sculpture of the footballer David Beckham has been added to a Thai temple’s collection of deities. The abbot of the temple was quoted in the Times as saying that "Football has become a religion with millions of followers. So to keep up with the times, we have to open our minds." Unfortunately, the sculpture shows Beckham wearing last year’s haircut. The Buddha may have been old-fashioned, but at least he stayed bald.

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