It should come as no surprise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been echoing to howls of laughter coming from the readers of a witty little memo about Pope Benedict's visit in September. A junior offical indulged in what they are calling 'blue-sky' thinking - update: now, it appears, with the help of a senior civil servant called Anjoum Noorani - about possible activities for the Roman Pontiff to undertake while in the UK. You can see a copy of the proposals here, but they include:
* launching a 'Benedict condom'
* blessing a civil partnership
* opening an abortion ward
Oh dear, how very funny, and yet, how very offensive for Catholic sensibilities. So the FCO had to do the British thing and apologize quick. In fact all the newspapers report this. Their angle on the story is not the presence of purblind and juvenile anti-Catholic bile among civil servants but rather that the FCO has already 'apologized' - apologized while most of us were still in bed, as if they expected the Vatican to get up and read the British newspapers before going to chapel (well, don't they? no? what a very odd religion). A slap on the wrist for the young official involved has been administered and he was sent to bed without any supper for a week, the naughty boy. If a civil servant had written a memo suggesting that a visiting Israeli president open a pork-pie factory or that President Obama be asked to chair the next BNP convention, I take it he would have been dealt with with equal leniency. We're all equal now, you know.
Now, while it is the "offended-sensibilities" reading of this memo which strikes one the hardest - in fact, this is the angle that all the journalists are taking this morning - the oddest thing about this memo are the other suggestions. I happen to know someone who went through a selection process for the FCO, and it is not easy to get in there. You have to speak at least one slightly exotic language for a start (my acquaintance spoke Czech). Moreover, it has been reported that the official responsible for this memo was an Oxbridge graduate, though to what end I can only speculate. Perhaps because he's one of the country's finest - for we accept as a cornerstone of our civilization that not only does Oxbridge give the country nothing but the finest, but that the finest are to be found nowhere else but Oxbridge - we must be more lenient with him, as the judge was with Sebastian Flyte: 'Young Marquis unused to drink', or rather, 'Young Oxbridge graduate unused to power'. Give him a ten bob fine, wag a monitory finger at him, and give him 'other duties'. Anyway, coming to my point, what struck me about the other suggestions was that only an ignoramus could call them the fruit of 'blue-sky' thinking. There was nothing azure, celestial or thoughtful about them at all. Have a look at the suggestions (my comments in brackets):
* give a speech on equality (the Pope often does)
* training course for all bishops on child abuse allegations (the English clergy have been doing this for years)
* Vatican sponsorship for network of AIDS clinics (the Church is one of, if not the greatest, provider of care for AIDS suffers)
* announce whistle blowing system for child abuse cases (that is what Cardinal Ratzinger did)
* debate on abortion (the Pope is a professional academic and likes few things more than debate)
* speech on democracy (he often speaks on democracy)
* Vatican and CofE funded committee on dialogue (this has been going on for decades)
So, there you have it, staring out at you from the page. The real scandal about this memo, the thing the FCO ought really to be apologizing for is not that its officials have been caught in flagrante delicto of anti-Catholic prejudice - we expect as much - but that in this case their deep prejudice has led to the exposure of profound ignorance about what the Catholic Church does on a daily basis. The scandal is not the anti-Catholic prejudice (though that is bad enough); the scandal is what this incident could be symptomatic of in terms of diplomacy. What this young man really needs - a[art from a good spiritual advisor - is a serious lecture about the obligations of an FCO official to study and understand 'foreigners'. If he cannot love his enemy, the very least he can do is to learn to know his enemy, and not make the necessity of despising Catholicism - surely, one of the growing number of important reflexes in those who wish to get ahead in Britain - into a virtue.
If he must be nasty, must he have done it so stupidly? Really! Stupid boy.