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WikiLeaks reveals that Britain’s first Catholic ambassador to the Holy See just wasn’t well informed

We urgently need a more substantial replacement

By on Monday, 13 December 2010

Francis Campbell, Britain's first Catholic ambassador to the Holy See

Francis Campbell, Britain's first Catholic ambassador to the Holy See

The WikiLeaks revelation late last week of the contents of part of the conversation at a dinner in Rome held by Francis Campbell, now (thank heavens) former British ambassador to the Vatican, shows among much else how important it is that he be replaced by someone who understands a little more about what is and has been going on between Rome, Britain and (among other things) the Church of England.

The dinner, in honour of Rowan Williams during one of his periodic courtesy trips to Rome (for that is all they can be after the Church of England – having been repeatedly warned over more than half a century by Pope Paul and then by Pope John Paul of the consequences of women’s ordination – pulled out the rug from any further ecumenical progress nearly 20 years ago by doing it anyway), was attended by assorted Vatican officials and diplomats, including the American ambassador to the Vatican. Here is the WikiLeaks cable:

After [Archbishop] Williams’s departure, Campbell said that Anglican-Vatican relations were facing their worst crisis in 150 years as a result of the Pope’s decision [to establish Ordinariates]. The Vatican decision seems to have been aimed primarily at Anglicans in the US and Australia with little thought given to how it would affect the centre of Anglicanism, England, or the Archbishop of Canterbury [this is just wrong: the whole thing was in the first place a response to an initiative by English Anglo-Catholic bishops].

Benedict XVI, Campbell said, had put Williams in an impossible situation. If Williams reacted more forcefully, he would destroy decades of work on ecumenical dialogue [actually virtually non-existent for 20 years]; by not reacting more harshly, he has lost support among angry Anglicans. The crisis is also worrisome for England’s small, mostly Irish-origin Catholic minority. There is still latent anti-Catholicism in some parts of England and it may not take much to set it off. The outcome could be discrimination or, in isolated cases, even violence [what??] against this minority. As for the Pope’s visit to England the following year [the conversation took place in 2009] Campbell said he now expected a chilly reception, especially from the Royal family – which was not a great supporter of ecumenical dialogue even before the crisis.

Well, parts of that have obviously enough been simply falsified by events. The Pope did not receive a chilly reception, either from the British public or the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Queen. There has been no violence against Catholics as a result of the Ordinariate, nor under any remotely imaginable circumstance will there be: this, surely is the most grotesque misjudgment of all. Also, incidentally, it isn’t just Catholics who are a small minority in England: all Christians now are. (If we’re talking about practising Catholics, there are more of them in church on a Sunday than there are Anglicans).

The point about Campbell’s analysis is not just that it’s a little wide of the mark here or there: it’s utterly wrong and pig-ignorant in every particular. There is nothing he has got right. For instance, according to the American ambassador, Campbell “believes the Vatican’s move shifted the goal of the Catholic-Anglican ecumenical dialogue from true unity to mere co-operation”.

But the Ordinariate had nothing to do with that particular shift, which, as I have pointed out, happened nearly 20 years ago, with the decision to “ordain” women. Women’s ordination didn’t just in itself prevent any further advance: it demonstrated beyond peradventure that the two Churches live in such utterly different theological dimensions that “true unity” was then, and always had been, a fond illusion. George Weigel has interestingly commented that he “discovered when researching the biography of Pope John Paul II, [that] a theological Rubicon seems to have been crossed in a 1984-86 exchange of letters among Dr Robert Runcie, the Anglican primate, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the pope”. Weigel said:

“John Paul and Willebrands made quite clear to Dr Runcie that the bright hope of ecclesial reconciliation would be severely damaged were the Church of England to engage in a practice that the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox churches) believed was unauthorised by apostolic tradition, and in fact contradicted that tradition. While admirably candid, Dr Runcie’s attempt to explain why the Church of England believed it could proceed to the ordination of women demonstrated that Anglicanism and Catholicism were living in two distinct universes of discourse, one theological, the other sociological. For Runcie advanced no theological arguments as to why apostolic tradition could be understood to authorise the innovation he and many of his Anglican colleagues proposed; rather, he cited the expanding roles of women in society as the crucial issue. Sociological trends, Dr Runcie’s letter implied, trumped apostolic tradition – which was not, of course, something the Catholic Church could accept.”

Francis Campbell, the first Catholic British ambassador to the Holy See, appears to have been wholly ignorant of all that. I’m sorry that Ann Widdecombe has turned down the job as his successor. Was it ever offered to John Gummer (now Lord Deben) or Lord Alton? If not, why not? We urgently need someone more substantial, less woefully ill-informed than Campbell as our ambassador to the Holy See. And if that means a non-Catholic, so be it.

  • SS1

    I think this article is overly harsh on Mr Campbell. The success of the Papal Visit, and the fact that it happened at all, must be partly due to his diligent work behind the scenes. He's also a man who takes his Catholic Faith seriously, and is distinguished by his humble and patient approach. He seems to have got things wrong on this occasion (if, and it's a big if, he has been accurately quoted) but that doesn't entitle us to dismiss him or his work as the UK's man in the Vatican.

    I hope his successor will be up to the task of filling his shoes.

  • Freedom Fighter

    I agree with SS1.

    I have to say, I also thought that there would be a harsher reaction from the media, and the political class, to the Pope's visit (I never expected the Royal Family to be anything other than professional – though I gather Prince Charles turned down a meeting with the Pope).

    Without suggesting that the Pope's visit was not a success, it is notable that in comparison with John Paul II's visit, far fewer people turned up; and part of the reason for the 'success' of the visit must surely be that the Pope 'toned down' the contents of his pastoral message to the bare minimum (so that one can reasonably debate exactly what – by the full measure of the Magisterium – was uniquely Catholic about his message).

    One can only speculate that perhaps it might have been the diplomatic intervention of Ambassador Campbell himself that rescued the event from the 'PR disaster' that would have undoubtedly arisen, with indeed, perhaps anti-Catholic riots, had the Pope delivered a stronger message, beyond the warm words that few can remember now.

    I do think that such a message is necessary, but it would need to be the end result of years of preparation, not least from the local bishops. Sadly, the country is now so pagan, most do not even understand that preaching a Gospel of repentance is an act of charity.

    I do disagree with Ambassador Campbell on his analysis that the Ordinariate somehow torpedoed Catholic-Anglican relations. As Mr. Oddie himself states, “Archbishop” Williams has been trekking to Rome on a regular basis for years. Why? Doesn't he know what the Church thinks about the ecclesial reality of the Anglican Communion, and its orders? If not, why not? This is manifest failure of communication (not to say charity) on behalf of the Church that finds its genesis in the Council (and here, one must say the mistake that Campbell makes in blaming the current Curial regime is one that most other Vatican watchers of a liberal bent also make).

    But despite that (minor) issue, I think Great Britain has been enormously well-served by having someone such as Campbell's talent representing it (and that Campbell should be very proud of his record); and I do think that a big-hitter such as John Gummer or David Alton has to be the way to go from here.

  • paulpriest

    Sorry SS1 – but in what way would Mr Campbell be involved in the Papal visit?
    It's quite apparent given the unmitigated chaos which ensued only a few months before The Pope arrived, that Mr Campbell was hardly consulted at all and the new Cameron Government left decidedly 'outside the loop'. It took the Spectator article by Damian Thompson for the Government to intervene.

    All credit to Mr Campbell's leaking of the deplorable FCO memo [such a pity that Conference and their lackeys [think Jack Valero's 'eesajoke!'] did not utilise it ! …the ambitious never seek to rock the boat of a potential future employer or benefactor]

    …but Mr Campbell was never au fait with the Roman scene, sought information and procedural data from fellow countrymen ; and thus inadvertently allowed himself to be indoctrinated into the Magic Circle's interpretation of things via the English College [Cormac's left hand].
    So was our illustrious ambassador spoonfed all the apophenic hostility to anglicanorum coetibus?

    You can count on it!

    He's purported to be the most affable of gentlemen – charming , graceful, endearingly mischievous which allows others to infer they're on better terms with him than they really are.

    But anyone in such a position unless they are wise enough and talented enough to remain true unto themselves?
    Will become a scoundrel.
    I think Mr Campbell. especially towards the end; crossed a line where he thought he was in a 'quid pro quo' arrangement with our Magic Circle; thinking he was using them to gain Roman connections and influence and sources of information – and all it cost was adopting a few ostensibly 'inoffensive, innocuous' positions – when in reality our people in Rome are very far from trusted, nowhere remotely to be considered as confidantes or reliable insiders – they're a busted flush!
    Mr Campbell thought he was a player.
    He was inadvertently always being played!

    A new ambassador?
    David Cameron should throw a few incentives in Ms Widdecombe's direction and go down on bended knee a beg for her to take the job.

    What Cameron MUST NOT DO is choose a liberal Catholic of the Chris Patten ilk ; nor a 'too much a game' Edward Leigh-type [I've seen him on committee]

    If I were DC I'd pick an absolute innocent abroad – someone utterly uncontaminated by Magic Circle influences – someone completely alien to its environs and ideologies – someone who would tell the truth – and be able to be sincere enough to give and receive messages – there is one thing about His Holiness and Bertone – they recognise 'decent' people and will treat them and engage with them accordingly.
    Pick an orthodox devout Catholic – or pick someone who's an orthodox devout anything!

    …he could always send me? [wink!]

  • paulpriest

    Sorry FF – But frankly you're talking baloney!
    That there are far fewer practising Catholics in this country compared with 1982 must be a due consideration ; the causes of this lapsation are blatantly obvious – Many may have jumped: But many were pushed!
    Disenfranchisement [a decimation of sunday masses - now absent after 11a.m over most non-metropolitan areas], alienation [liturgical ostracism], secularisation[our so called 'Catholic' education] and syncretist relativist populism [everything that comes from the mouth of conference and its quangocracies - and this pragmatising is subsumed onto a diocesan level]
    A systemic elimination of unique Catholic identity and praxis…

    Obviously you didn't listen to His Holiness's speeches, addresses and homilies while here – they were very distinctly Catholic in form and content – there was no accommodating 'watering down' of the message…

    Maybe you have forgotten his words because our hierarchy should prefer you forget them?
    [Have you perchance read Verbum Domini ?
    Conference, the CCN and our elitist professional clergy and laity would much prefer if you didn't!!!!]

    Regarding Dr Williams: Did you hear or read his virulently loathsome and downright offensive speech in Rome only a few months ago – it was a very direct expression of anger and contempt at the Holy Father's Ordinariate initiative?
    That they might be all smiles, handshakes and express a modicum of 'mutual intellectual appreciation' does not remove the 'spoilt brat' act of Dr Williams and his spewing vitriol [albeit in the most diplomatic language - it was jaw-droppingly vituperative for those who understood the 'Roman vernacular'] ; and it is obvious his fury and outrage was fed for a long period by our very own Magic Circle.

    Francis Campbell 'preparing the way' ?
    FF – do you honestly think Rome works like that ? That Campbell could be a consultant?!!
    That's as ridiculous as the insidious mendacious rumour from the beginning of the year that +Vin was telling the Pope what he could or could not say in his Sermons while here 'so as not to cause offence'!

    If you get a chance – watch again the Papal Mass at Westminster and take a look at the Pope's face when +Vin gives his little speech of welcome, 'we love you Holy Faaaather' etc.
    Those eyes say one thing: “I'm sorry – but you don't!”
    What might we infer from it ? Maybe a secondary:
    “I truly wish you did! Then you might be able to help! But at present you're part of the problem” ?

    People who read His Holiness are not so stupid as to merely dismiss Him as a clinical desiccated academic with little pastoral experience.
    The man has the profoundest empathy and understanding of the human condition.
    And he evokes loathing and adoration…
    Many said 'I like John Paul II'
    But with Benedict you invariably find there's either a hatred or a love – few are lukewarm.

    Gummer or Alton ? In the name of all sanity why ?

    Alton's famous for being a professional Catholic MP when there was a distinct dearth of them – yes he did plenty for Life-issues and worked strenuously with and against the Catholic hierarchy….
    But he would be a nominal ambassador – he wouldn't be trusted to go anything but native – he'd be a figurehead while the real diplomacy was done elsewhere…and Rome would realise it and treat him with the utmost affable decorous politeness – but they wouldn't use him for diplomatic means.

    Gummer ?
    Well I'm old enough to remember when he was a loudmouth tinpot oik doing the question-time regional tv discusson programmes; sneering and jeering – which turned to simpering and whimpering when he got into power and cabinet and then? with the Anglican thing he seemed to grow up?
    He has most definitely matured, but in what way ? He's fantastic on parliamentary committee – he's very much become his own man – but what gives him any diplomatic credentials ?

    If you're going to go down those lines and want a politician rather than a diplomat – why should Catholicism come into the issue – there are some bloody brilliant parliamentarians out there who are very much their own person and not going to be swayed with either 'lombardi-esque' obfuscation or magic circle banalities and spin ?
    If I wanted that sort of person I'd go down the route of maybe a Richard Shepherd-type – excellent debater, strategist and highly independently minded…

    But if you want a Catholic MP or ex-MP who isn't totally antipathetic to the Cameron regime – the only one worth their salt has to be Widdecombe – which is quite sad when one thinks of it….
    Sure she may have a detached retina – but if I were Cameron I'd throw every incentive and sweetener in her direction – offer her as much assistance as possible to make sure her health worries are the least of her worries…

    Francis Campbell went native in the wrong camp – bitterly ironic as he did exactly what Nuncios do here – fall into the thrall of the Magic Circle.
    Was it intellectual laziness?
    More concern over the immediate duties of the job rather than the responsibility of the job itself?
    Maybe it was so much easier – so much less hassle and less grief – to just go along with the Magic Circle understanding of things?
    Maybe because the Magic Circle was so much more 'apparently' conducive to the Blair/Cameron way of things that 'my enemy's enemy' might not be a friend but maybe an entity with whom one can do business?

    For me – I think the polish hid something distasteful – I don't think he cared enough and I don't think he was in any way clever enough to understand what was going on…
    This country – and His Holiness – maybe didn't need a 'better man' ; but perhaps a more interested one?

    The next ambassador?
    Someone who can keep their eyes open !
    Someone who can gain friends and contacts – even amongst ideological opponents -by integrity and sincerity.
    Someone wise enough to realise that the enemy is not necessarily one's opponent!

  • nytor

    He wasn’t uninformed, he is just a Tabletista and he puts a Tabletista spin on things. What we need is a non-Tabletista replacement.

  • W Oddie


  • paulpriest

    I think you might be misunderstanding me nytor.
    I mean uninformed by default – the facts may be staring him in the face; he might have had a network of informants and contacts – but without understanding or an ability to decypher or empathise – they become meaningless; especially when one already has a tabletista 'bent' and relies upon the analyses and scrying of cynical fellow diplomats, tabletista journalists and the magic circle.

  • SS1

    Further to my comment on Monday, this article in the Daily Telegraph today might be of interest. I stand by my earlier remarks, except that it may well be that Francis Campbell did not “get things wrong on this occasion”.…/

  • Sigfridii

    Campbell's inanity is of epic proportions. The most terrifying thing about Wikileaks is that it is revealing the extent of diplomatic inanity the world over. We used to say that politicians started the wars, but it seems more likely that they are the result of the absurd “elite” recruited to staff the FCO.

  • paulpriest

    …and I'll refer you to my several comments there.

  • TK75

    Give the man a break for heaven's sake. He's done more for British-Holy See relations than you can imagine.