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Hope springs .

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Press

 

I NATURALLY LOATHE those who describe their profession as “communications”.

 

It is difficult to be certain how much of this is due to a disinterested love of language and how much is journalistic self-interest.

 

 In this instance, the two are intimately joined: “communications”, in its technical sense, is the craft of concealing things and ensuring that they are not communicated.

 

This came out beautifully in a comment in the Sven-Göran Ericsson saga in Tuesday’s Guardian.

 

An anonymous expert was quoted as saying: “It just goes to show that the FA needs a proper PR: a skilled communications director who is driven to keep things out of the paper.”

 

THIS HAS not been the prime motivation of Rob Marshall in his years as a PR, nor even when he was working as a priest.

 

Part of his reward came at the weekend with huge coverage for Dr David Hope’s decision to ease into retirement via parish ministry, a story that Fr Marshall had already got into the papers at least four times in the last couple of years.

 

He could hardly have got more coverage had he enlisted the help of a secretary at the Football Association.

 

But it wasn’t really a tribute to “communications” at all. The person who made it a story was Dr Hope himself, because he was acting entirely in character.

 

It was straightforward, brave and modest. Even hardened religious correspondents are ready to believe well of him, in the main, once they have met him.

 

The vivid picture that almost all the papers used brought out these qualities nicely. It showed the Archbishop scrambling into the churchyard over a low wall: at first it looked as if he had fallen in an undignified way.

 

Then you realised he was just trying to get on with the job of being photographed in the quickest way possible. It would be cruel to enlarge on the contrast this makes with the self-importance of the last archbishop to retire.

 

CARDINAL RATZINGER’s letter on feminism was the other big religious story of the week. It made an interesting test of journalistic accuracy.

 

The first test was the authorship. Most papers attributed it to the Pope, on the grounds that he must have approved it, and, in any case, people had heard of him. It’s astonishing how careless journalists are of other people’s bylines.

 

Now, the Pope’s views on women are something so well known that nobody needs to check what they actually are.

 

This is just as well, since the prose of Vatican pronouncements is usually so opaque that they make sense only in an internal context, when it requires the special skills of national Bishop’s Conferences to obscure them again and get on with whatever the bishops in question were doing before being so rudely interrupted.

 

So the release of this document was, for the vast majority of papers around the world, a story about the Vatican’s opposition to feminism.

 

They took their cue from the wire-service copy, of which Reuters’ lead was the best example: “Modern feminism’s fight for power and gender equality is undermining the traditional concept of family and creating a climate where gay marriages are seen as acceptable, the Vatican says.”

 

This is what happens when a secular person first reads a Vatican document looking for a sensational quote.

 

For Roman Catholic women, however, who have spent their entire adult lives in a post-feminist world, the message that came out was entirely different: that the Vatican had at last come to understand that they were right to work outside the home.

 

Cristina Odone had a tremendous rant in The Times on what she called “The Pope’s letter”.

 

Its attitude to factual truth was as gloriously cavalier as anything she splashed on the front page of the Catholic Herald when she was its editor: “Women belong at the top of the professional ladder. Motherhood is not the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence. Women are better than men at finding innovative solutions to economic and social problems. The words are those of Pope John Paul II. His letter to the bishops, On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, published this week, marks a turning point in this papacy: the man who for 25 years has been condemned by the liberal establishment as a misogynist emerges as a born-again feminist.”

 

It’s hard to quarrel with this, except to say that the words are not the Pope’s, but Odone’s paraphrase of Ratzinger; and that they don’t mark a turning point in the papacy.

 

Still, they are probably closer to the truth than the lazy liberal dismissal of the document as restating the Vatican ’s standard position.

 

The idea that the Pope is a feminist — born again or not — has a lot to recommend it.

 

As Odone went on to point out, and Catherine Pepister wrote in several articles, the document does make it clear that Roman Catholic women have the right to rise to the top of their professions; and, while this may not come as news to Cherie Blair or Mary Robinson, it is still a contested position in large parts of Latin America. The Pope’s signing up for it might make a difference there.

 

This matters a great deal more than what happens where broadsheet-newspaper readers live, none of whom take any notice of the Vatican ’s teachings anyway.

 

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