Press Column Saturday 23 September 2000

The Times carried a nice story of life imitating art, in this case "Jesus of Montreal". There is a wonderful scene in that film where an actress is recording the soundtrack for a porn film, fully dressed, and bored out of her mind. "Oh God" she says, and "Hello. The postman has arrived. Perhaps he would like to join in." Then she sips some more instant coffee from a mug and gossips with her friend a little more. Only one conjunction of words and action could be more incongruous, and this was managed by a satellite broadcaster in Luxembourg which swapped the soundtracks of two programs it was broadcasting: one a porn extravaganza on something called the Fantasy Channel, and the other, a two-hour broadcast of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Rome involving twenty cardinals and a huge supporting cast processing between ancient churches. What I find truly bizarre about the story is that no one seems to have complained effectively for two hours until the mix-up was over. I quite see how the viewers of the Fantasy Channel would find the new dialogue an exciting improvement on their usual rather monotonous soundtracks, but what about the man in the Vatican, or RAI, the Italian broadcasters, who was presumably keeping an eye on the programme?

This kind of ventriloquism, though, is the common run of journalism in one sense, as the reports on the discovery of a drowned village in the Black Sea, splashed across all the broadsheets, made clear. All these reports had two things in common. They quoted the leader of the expedition, Dr Robert Ballard, as saying that he had not found Noah’s flood. "We really cannot say in any way, shape, or form, that this is the biblical flood" he told the Guardian; and the put Noah’s Ark in the headline. The Guardian’s, for instance, read "Evidence found of Noah’s ark flood victims" with a huge illustration of the ark stranded on a mountain thatched with corpses. Of course, neither bit of this makes sense without a knowledge of the background, which is that Dr Ballard is Americans, and has to deal there with a backdrop of fundamentalists unclear about the difference between a flood that filled the Black Sea at a rate of a mile a day and one that covered the whole earth in forty days; and the Guardian is written for people who would never for a moment entertain the suspicion that the Genesis stories are literally true and so can enjoy the luxury of pretending they are.

It was also the Times which noticed the extraordinary pastoral letter of Cardinal Biffi, who earlier this year warned the world that the anti-christ was already walking among us. This time he told his priests that Christian Europe was in danger of being overwhelmed by a Muslim invasion and demanded no more entry visas for Muslims to Italy. When asked whether he was calling for "a new crusade", "he added, with a smile, ‘I have never had anything against the word ‘Crusade’ personally’." This kind of thing will play well with American Conservatives; to me it brings back a Franciscan I heard preaching in Medjugorje that the Bosnian War was final battle of Christ against the anti-Christ. Outside the church, Croat boys with pictures of the Virgin Mary pasted on their gun butts were strutting among the deserted relic stalls. It is very strange to see apocalyptic fervour, largely extinguished in the wackier protestant sects by the damp squib of Y2K, should still flourish in the sophisticated Vatican. It’s hard not to wish that the Cardinal’s remarks had been swapped out for a different broadcast.

The Times had a thoughtful and gloomy leader interpreting Biffi’s remarks as part of an unresolved struggle within the Vatican over what to do about the Church’s claims to exclusivity; it finished, "The Pope’s apostolic letter on this subject, still awaited, is expected to signal a retreat from pluralism, It is easy to interpret this debate as symptomatic of a vacuum in the Vatican, but it is equally plausible that it is part of a process of clarifying the legacy of a highly political, traditionalist, and evangelical papacy, now drawing to its close."

There were two interesting developments in the Siamese twin case. The first was the intervention of Comrac Mur-hy O’Connor, who came down unequivocally in favour of the parents, after his more equivocal exposition of Catholic doctrine on the Today show. The second was a Guardian article by Kevin Toolis, attacking the parents for not wanting to look after a disabled child and for preferring both to die rather than coping with the consequences of only one surviving, badly crippled. I think he has been listening to the wrong soundtrack: I am not sure if that is in fact their attitude, and it is quite clearly not official Catholic teaching. If anything, it was what was being broadcast by the ineffable Polly Toynbee, earlier in the week. None the less, his was an illuminating rant: "trailing among the swaddling clothes of this moral choice is the unspoken … argument of the able-bodied that the lives of those with disabilities are worthless. Jodie. ‘the alert. Bright baby’ may have to have soe form of corrective surgery to her bowel and vagina; she might be incontinent; she might have problems walking; ergo she would be better off dead

"The twins should be separated. Jodie’s life should be fought for. And, at a minimum, not squandered. And we, as a society, should have an open truthful debate about what is at astake; life, disability. Our prejudice, and the proper limits of justifiable infanticide."

The other Catholic story was the Nolan commission to examine the treatment of paedophile priests. But that story is going to blow up again fairly soon when various court cases are reported; and it will do so in a way which will dwarf these exercises in damage limitation and repentance. I have looked for true stories about the Church of England, as is my unceasing delight; but the only one I have found is a report of Gordon Brown’s wedding party, which reports that Dr Carey was among the guests. I’m sure the other guests learnt much.

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