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

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.