The recent visit of the excellent Baroness Warsi and a group of senior British government ministers to the Holy See appears to have been, generally speaking, a good thing, and it has left behind it positive feelings all round. The government representatives had a talk with Cardinal Bertone and then a meeting with the pope himself; then they issued a communiqué about their talks. These documents always make me wonder: if you really believe this one, they discussed just about every issue in world affairs in some considerable detail: that would have taken several days, if they really did. Did they really talk about all these things? Or did someone read out a statement (maybe this one) after which everyone said: “Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. That puts it all perfectly.” Here, for instance, is the section about recent developments in the Arab world, and about the Middle East in general:
With regard to the changes which have occurred in North Africa and the Middle East, the Holy See and Her Majesty’s Government stressed the importance of undertaking real reforms in the political, economic and social realms, in order better to ensure the unity and development of each nation, in responding positively to the legitimate aspirations of many people for peace and stability. In this context, reference was made to the role which Christians can play and to the importance of inter-religious dialogue. The Holy See and Her Majesty’s Government expressed the hope for a resumption of negotiations in good faith between Israelis and Palestinians so as to bring about a lasting peace. They renewed their appeal for an immediate end to violence in Syria and stressed the need for co-operation to overcome the present crisis and work towards a harmonious and united coexistence.
It’s difficult to see what either the Holy See or Her Majesty’s Government might actually do about any of that, or indeed, how they could hold any other opinion about any of it than those which they expressed in such irreproachable terms. But not everything in the communiqué is expressed in terms of such bland generality: how about this, which begins in high-flown general terms, and then comes down to earth in the most intriguing way: “There was in addition a good exchange of views on a wide range of social, economic, political and cultural issues, including on developing the UK’s collaboration with the Vatican Museums.” That must, I suppose, be a reference to the loan of the Vatican Museum’s Raphael Tapestries, to coincide with the state visit of the Pope to the UK. The exhibition, in September and October 2010, displayed four of the 10 tapestries designed by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel alongside the full-size designs for them – the seven famous Raphael Cartoons, which belong to HM The Queen, but which have been in the V&A since 1865. Sure enough, the V&A’s annual statement for 2011 tells us, the “exhibition of the Tapestries was made possible by a collaboration between the V&A and the Vatican Museums”: but the communiqué talks about actually developing that collaboration: does that mean there are plans afoot for more displays at the V&A of Vatican treasures? Or maybe a loan actually TO the Vatican museum of some of our treasures; maybe the Raphael cartoons? I really would like to know.
Inevitably, where the scope of the talks (or at least the communiqué) is so vast, there are some issues which, though agreement and good will and so on are expressed, you wonder whether the two sides really have the same views on how all that would work out in practice. Towards the end, indeed, the Vatican’s side of the conversation is expressed unilaterally, and not as something on which the two sides are in fact agreed: and this leaves me feeling somewhat uneasy, for it does look as though the Church has identified issues on which it is going to be ranged against our government.
The statement slides at one point from the mode of general anodyne agreement into a definite stance, in which the Church is clearly in heel-digging mode: “appreciation was expressed for the significant contribution which the Catholic Church, and Christians in general, have made and continue to make to the good of British society”. And then: “The Holy See emphasised the need to ensure that institutions connected with the Catholic Church can act in accordance with their own principles and convictions and stressed the necessity of safeguarding the family based on marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience.”
What is that all about? Well, we know that our Prime Minister is all in favour of marriage: but he also believes that marriage should be open to couples of the same sex. The Church emphatically does not:
The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.(3) No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.
Incidentally, I bet Baroness Warsi agrees with every word of that, even if Mr Cameron doesn’t: it’s from a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document snappily entitled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”; and it spells out very clearly that here is another area in which (if Cameron proceeds to embody what he believes in law) there is once more going to be conflict brewing between the Church and a British government over the issue of gay unions: the last time, we lost our adoption agencies; hence, perhaps, the Holy See’s unilateral insistence in the communiqué issued after the Warsi visit on “the need to ensure that institutions connected with the Catholic Church can act in accordance with their own principles and convictions”. This is, incidentally, a principle which, as I have recently written here, President Obama is presently trampling under foot in the US: and the Catholic Church in the West has probably to prepare itself for many such battles in the future. It could be worse, I suppose; at least, nobody is blowing up our churches or massacring our people, as they are in Nigeria and increasingly the Middle East.
Well, not yet.