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Pope’s interview cannot be unsaid

27 September 2013


THERE is one astonishing fact about Pope Francis's interview last week that won't be obvious to civilians: it was the record of a conversation between two men who were interested in elucidating the truth. There are occasional interviews, it's true, where one party or another has this as their main aim. But it is really unusual when both have.

The resulting text had an extraordinary vivid clarity. The length and breadth of the interview made entirely obvious what he did not say. It was impossible to draw from it passages to countermand the thrust of his remarks, or to suggest that he wasn't reversing the attitude of the past 20 years.

I particularly liked the squashing of the pretence that nothing much had changed at Vatican II. "Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the gospel from a concrete historical situation.

"Yes, there are hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity, but one thing is clear: the dynamic of reading the gospel, actualising its message for today - which was typical of Vatican II - is absolutely irreversible."

Note that he puts the hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity on a par with each other. So much for the orthodoxy of the previous regime, under which it was only "continuity" that was acceptable. There could not be a clearer marker against the flirtations with the Lefebvrists that characterised the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

The passages about art and music were fascinating again, because they were an example of someone talking not to market themselves but to explain themselves.

The other point, which media minders should consider and shudder at, is that, releasing a really carefully worked-out text, translated by five people and rigorously checked, made it impossible for the Vatican spokesdroids to explain that the Holy Father had not meant what he very clearly had said.

MUCH of the British coverage was really disgraceful. Nick Squires, in the Telegraph, described as "characteristically startling" the Pope's announcement that he was himself a sinner. You would have thought it more startling if he had said he wasn't one - but I suspect that the figure of the "cleric" in the public imagination is meant to be sinless.

The Mail was even more confused, making "Pope opposes abortion" into a news story: "A day after telling Catholics not to obsess with abortion, the Pope encourages doctors NOT to perform abortions."

ON THURSDAY last week, I went to a panel discussion on the media's treatment of the Middle East and of the plight of Christians there. It was organised by Lapido Media and Douglas Murray, of the Centre for Social Cohesion, a body regarded with great suspicion by all the Muslims I know. It brought up issues that have resurfaced in the light of the Peshawar and Nairobi bombings. In particular, why is it that the media ignore, or seem to ignore, Islamist violence directed at Christians?

This is a good question, but the answers don't actually stand up as conspiracy theories. I don't think there is any doubt that, as Tom Holland, the historian, said, we may be seeing the end of Christianity in the Middle East.

The question is what we can do about it. Since the Iraq war, which made the situation of Christians very much worse, the answer has been perfectly clear. We can do nothing to protect the Christians of the Middle East, any more than we can protect anyone else out there. Probably, angry denunciations by US politicians of the persecution of Copts in Egypt would make their persecution more likely. And no one really wants to read about disasters that they are powerless to imagine or to change.

Similar arguments apply to the way in which the Nairobi atrocity was very widely covered while the equally shocking attacks in Peshawar were not. The victims in Peshawar were murdered for going to church. The victims in Nairobi were murdered for shopping in the wrong place.

Readers, to use an old-fashioned term, are obviously going to identify with the victims who are shopping, because that's what normal people do. Besides, the pictures from Nairobi were very much more dramatic, and Westerners go on holiday there.

Once you publish on the web, you know exactly which stories interest your readers and when. You can make very well-educated guesses at why, as well. If the media ignore the sufferings of foreign Christians, this is not because of our undoubted secularism, but very largely because the Great British public prefers us to do so.

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