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
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
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.