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Cold-call Pope

10 October 2014


ONE of the most popular comic articles doing the rounds of Italian journalists recently has been "Top-ten tips for when the Pope phones." And the fact that his unexpected calls to his lowly flock are not merely an orchestrated stunt comes in the form of an answerphone message left for some Spanish nuns who were praying when the call came.

Whether this represents a revolution in the papacy was the subject of James Harding's The Report (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), which began with the tale of an unusual friendship between Pope Francis and the prominent atheist Eugenio Scalfari.

There is something of the Don Camillo about the set-up, which must appeal to the Italian appetite; but the lack of journalistic rigour in Scalfari's recollections of the meetings, and the recent admissions of misquotation of the Pope's declarations make one wonder. That Scalfari has invited the Pope to bless his family suggests that this is a narrative constructed by the reporter rather than the reportee.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Vatican's PR machine initially did not know whether to acknowledge it on its website. And for conservative Roman Catholics, active on the blogosphere, it has taken a while to get the measure of the Pope. Clare Short, of the site Faith in Our Families, admits to doubts about the Pope's "Who am I to judge?" line on sexuality.

Yet she and others are coming to the conclusion that this is a pope whose revolution is one of tone rather than doctrine. We should not expect great theological shifts to emerge from the synod that is soon to convene: just a little less finger-wagging.

Whether this means that Pope Francis will end up as an Obama - creating expectations he cannot fulfil - time will tell. What is certain is that, as John Allen of the Boston Globe put it, if Benedict was the Velcro Pope, to which everything stuck, Francis is currently enjoying his Teflon period.

Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week) routinely gathers political commentators together to tell us in what manner of handcart we are being conveyed to hell. Last week, there was a kind of competitive pessimism in operation as Karen Armstrong, Justin Marozzi, and Christopher Coker ruminated over religion and war, and the human need for violence.

Of course, all had a book to plug, although Tom Sutcliffe ensures that this is no easy promotional platform, taking a challenging line with Karen Armstrong and her assertion - necessary for her book to have any relevance - that a number of people think that all wars are caused by religion. It is, of course, one of those things that people say as a kind of polemical shorthand, but who believes this in any coherent way? "Taxi drivers," was Armstrong's response. So her publishers know where to market the book, then.

In the end, Coker won the award for most depressing contributor, asserting that war was part of the human condition, and could indeed be useful. For one thing, it stopped young men getting bored. And he left us with one quotation, courtesy of George Orwell: that of all the "isms" that will endure in human history, pessimism will outlast them all.

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