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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

I sometimes wonder if the British media know anything at all about the Catholic Church

23 April 2005

12:00 AM

23 April 2005

12:00 AM

I sometimes wonder if the British media know anything at all about the Catholic Church, except that it disapproves of condoms. Every discussion of the late Pope’s reputation and of his successor, Cardinal Ratzinger, is brought back to this question. Obviously it is an important issue, but why does it dominate to the exclusion of everything else (such as Jesus, for example, the nature of redemption, and other questions that have excited the interest of billions for 2,000 years)? One answer is that the condom ban tells lots of modern people that they mustn’t do what they like doing, but this is true of a great deal of religious teaching about money as well as sex. The media don’t seek constantly to know whether Benedict XVI disapproves of owning a second home in the Algarve while millions starve (he probably does, by the way). John Cornwell, one of those professionally anti-Catholic Catholics upon whom the media depend, told the Today programme that his candidate for the triple crown was Cardinal Daneels of Belgium because he (Daneels) thinks that a spouse in a marriage where one partner has Aids should be able to use a condom. Again, a serious pastoral question, but the make-or-break for who should fill the shoes of the fisherman? Even if one accepts that the Church’s doctrine about condoms is completely wrong, surely it is not true, as a matter of fact, that it is condemning Africa to death from Aids — first because most Africans are not Catholic, second because millions anyway disobey the prohibition, third because condoms do not necessarily prevent people getting Aids, and finally because of the existence of free will. Surely this obsession with the subject is a proxy for something else — a rejection of the idea that a Church should tell people how to live. Seen from a secular point of view, this rejection is very understandable, but Catholics should not assume that if only they ‘lightened up’ about condoms they would therefore start filling the pews in Western Europe and the United States. The concession would only provoke the demand for the next one — abortion, premarital sex, bigamy, whatever. The Church of England, after all, seems quite happy with condoms, yet doesn’t get any hits at the box office as a result.

What protection does democracy afford against intimidation and murder? I ask because three democracies — Ireland, Britain and the United States — have committed themselves to supporting the family of the murdered Robert McCartney, and yet his killers, known to all in the Short Strand area of Belfast, are still free, and the party with which those killers are linked — Sinn Fein — is likely to continue at the election as the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Last week a republican mob shouted obscenities at the McCartney sisters in the street, probably in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get them to react physically and be photographed doing so. Then Paula McCartney received a midnight visit from a female relation of one of the suspects, telling her to leave the area. It seems a very long time since last month, when every door in Washington was open to the sisters. Not, of course, that America can do much if Britain does not ask it to. The murder took place in the United Kingdom, but so far, in this election, the hand of history seems to be steering Tony Blair well clear of the Short Strand. Good news that Professor Liam Kennedy, who has made a study of IRA ‘punishment’ beatings, is bravely standing in the name of human rights against Gerry Adams in West Belfast.


The first and only time I met Adrian Hilton was in late February, when he had just been selected by Slough Conservatives as their candidate. Since then he has been described as a bigot by the Catholic Herald because he supported the Protestant Succession and criticised Catholic power in the EU in this paper two years ago. Because of this he was dismissed as a candidate by Conservative HQ, against Slough’s wishes. Now he has lost a court case when he protested about his treatment. He is therefore no longer a candidate, has had his reputation unjustly trashed, and is £15,000 poorer, all in the space of less than two months. Why does any sane person nowadays want to stand for Parliament?

As a father, I have whatever is the opposite of fellow feeling when politicians start talking about their lovely little babies. There is something arrogant in their implication that they are the first people in human history to have produced a child, showing off in their trumpeting of their tiredness, and hypocritical because, if their children really came first, they would vanish from the public scene. If I believed that I would have to end up paying Charles Kennedy’s local income tax, I should be furious that he was too dozy, following the birth of little Donald, to know what it would cost me. As it is, I simply feel confirmed in my belief that he is a loser. Why do people want a top politician to be ‘a fully paid-up human being’? Any study of the front rank of politics shows that it is not possible — a political leader has to concentrate and work and fight in a way that normal people never would, and must therefore, among other things, neglect his or her children. This doesn’t mean that our leaders should be inhuman or subhuman — they should certainly defer to the importance of human normality and try to do their best for their children — but they should not invite us to admire them for what is, history so often shows, their weakest point. I admired Michael Howard for emphasising that he was not going to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Two things which, if they appear in an article, disincline you to read on: 1) the words ‘I kid you not’; 2) the setting of a (usually unpleasant) scene followed by the phrase ‘Welcome to …’ (insert ‘Tony Blair’s Britain’, ‘free Iraq’, ‘an inner-London comprehensive’, or whatever it is that is upsetting the author). Both devices appeared on the same page of the Times this week.

Because of the election, various Bills were dropped in the parliamentary ‘wash-up’. One that made it to the statute book was the Mental Incapacity Bill, which provides for certain types of euthanasia. I had dinner that night with an MP who had just voted against it. ‘We’ve just voted tonight to be free to starve old ladies to death,’ he said. ‘If any of us did that to a dog, we’d be thrown out of the House of Commons.’ Indeed, but dogs don’t own houses worth hundreds of thousands a year which will pass to their heirs on their death. I have a growing theory that high property prices are the cause of every moral ill in this country.


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