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Press: Roman Catholics rage, but Anglicans grumble  

15 May 2020


Pope Francis during the weekly audience in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, on Wednesday

Pope Francis during the weekly audience in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, on Wednesday

LIFE is too short to live without prejudice, ob­­vi­ously, but what is it that bundles some prej­u­dices together in distinctive groups? I am fascinated by the way in which apparently unrelated attitudes are held together by social bonds, and opinions become markers of be­­longing. There are still cities in Britain where you can tell someone’s parents’ religion by the football team that they support. In the 1930s, belief in eugenics marked you out as pro­gres­sive; in the 1980s, it marked you as a crypto-fascist. And, now, it appears that atti­tudes to vaccination correlate with opinions about Pope Francis.

The German Catholic Bishops’ Conference has taken the unusual step of denouncing a manifesto signed by one of its own Cardinals, Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until he was sacked by Pope Francis. The animating spirit appears to be Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò (again), whose political trajec­tory has taken him from caring so much about abused children that he demanded Pope Francis resign over the issue (Comment, 31 August 2018) to denouncing campaigns to vaccinate them against measles as part of a satanic conspiracy.

It’s not just vaccination: “Citizens must be given the opportunity to refuse these restrict­ions on personal freedom, without any penalty whatsoever being imposed on those who do not wish to use vaccines, contact tracking or any other similar tool. . . The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government be­­yond all control.”

So, now we have the merger of ultramon­tane Roman Catholicism with American liber­tarianism. This is inexplicable, unless you ask who is funding the opposition to the Pope. Or, perhaps, there is no intellectual content at all, and it is just a cry of rage from old and disappointed men who have discovered that, on top of all their other humiliations, they are going to have to learn to use their iPhones.


THE Anglican grumbling was rather less ex­­treme. I still think that the story was impor­tant, as a marker in the slow social disestab­lishment of the Church.

You would expect the Telegraph and the Mail to chunter, but it was the interest of The Times which marked a significant shift in opinion. That was the paper to which 800 sig­natories wrote to denounce the policy of ex­­clud­ing clergy from their churches. The Arch­bishops caved in on that the next day (News, 8 May). Later in the week, there was a Times leader that managed to avoid some of the traditional clichés and still call coherently for some forms of public worship to be allowed.

“Churches offer a place of sanctuary and community, a space in which Christians can mourn loved ones. . . The government en­­sured supermarkets and plenty of other shops stayed open so that no one starved or couldn’t feed their pets, but by keeping churches closed, the church has allowed the spiritual to go hun­gry just when they were most in need.

“There need not be an instant return to usual service. . . However, limited numbers could safely enter churches at any one time, with tape used to mark social distancing on pews, in much the same way that MPs have re­­sumed attendance at the House of Com­mons.”

I’m not sure what a service without com­munion, and with all the responses muffled by masks, would amount to: it seems to involve nothing much beyond listening to the sermon. There may be rather less of an appetite for that than either The Times or the preachers ima­gine.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, did his best to counter this, first with a letter to The Times denouncing the leader as “rather mean-spirited”, and then with a comment piece in the Telegraph (had The Times rejected it?), which elaborately missed the point of the original protests: “During the coronavirus crisis, the Church of England has been accused of vacating the public square or of being absent. It was even implied that the decision to close churches for public worship was made by the Church, not the Government. Of course it wasn’t. The Church is following government guidance.” But there was no gov­ernment demand that clergy be barred from their own churches.


A SLIGHTLY different note was struck by a letter from the historian Gillian Tindall to Prospect magazine. “Fifty years ago a set fu­­­neral, arranged according to religious affilia­tion even for those with no noticeable beliefs, was near universal. Professionally conducted, it did not require any creative efforts from the family and thus left them free to grieve. . . A funeral is the solemn transformation of a loved body into something to be disposed of. The modern notion that the occasion should be a ‘celebration’ of a life seems too often based on a squeamish reluctance to accept the reality.

“Perhaps the bleak, immediate-family-only funerals that coronavirus has imposed on us will cause a useful rethink.”

Clive James, who asked for a plain Prayer Book funeral, would have agreed — but it’s hardly what the mass market cries out for.

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