The Keys and the Kingdom by Catherine Pepinster, Bloomsbury, 224pp, £16.99
The cover of this book shows a photograph of the Queen and Pope Francis, with both laughing. It isn’t clear which of them has just cracked the joke, but the Holy Father is looking the more impish. Her Majesty, who is capable of wearing a grumpy expression even while glad-handing VIPs, clearly hasn’t had so much fun since her last day at the races. The picture encapsulates Catherine Pepinster’s thesis: that relations between Britain and the Holy See are warm and getting warmer.
One of the main reasons for this, Pepinster argues, is that the Catholic Church and the British understand one another better than ever before. Partly, this is due to continuing embourgeoisement of this country’s Catholic population.
Where once Catholics tended to be Irish labourers building the M1, thanks to our wonderful schools we have progressed to the point where in our time we might be the Cabinet secretary, the editor of a national newspaper, the chancellor of Oxford University or running the National Trust. Pepinster calls this becoming “normalised”. The upshot is that when things get tricky there are plenty of influential men and women about to explain the ways of the Church to the heathens in the Foreign Office.
Another factor promoting mutual understanding, the author claims, is how well British Catholics are doing in the Curia. “If English Catholics were asked to name the most important priest from the Archdiocese of Liverpool,” Pepinster writes, “the vast majority would suggest Cardinal Vincent Nichols.” But, she continues, there is another Scouser to take into account, one who “trained as a diplomat at the elite Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy”, and as effectively “the Pope’s foreign minister” is “arguably the highest English office holder in Rome since … Pope Adrian IV in the 12th century”.
But Pepinster doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the fact that Archbishop Paul Gallagher is technically English helps in any meaningful way. Nor is it clear why the fact that the private secretary to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, is a priest from Birmingham should give Britain any particular advantage either.
Much of the time this book feels overly concerned with process at the expense of substance. Even its main contender for a newspaper headline – its exposé of quite how the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor shaped the 2013 conclave for Team Bergoglio – is in essence a process story.
For a flavour, let’s join the cardinals from the less economically developed Commonwealth nations, there to be swayed by Cardinal Cormac, at the new residence of Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See. “While it is in reality a loft apartment, it has proved a highly popular venue in Rome for receptions,” says Pepinster, “with a rooftop terrace where cardinals can sip pre-dinner cocktails as they enjoy a spectacular view of St Peter’s across the rooftops of Rome.” With the blinis and Bellinis, the determined networking, the timely facilitations of the ambassador on the terrace, there doesn’t seem to be much room to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in this account of the conclave. And one gets the impression that the author, a former editor of the Tablet, prefers to leave that sort of talk out of it.
Pepinster is coy, evasive even, when it comes to the actual substance of the issues the Church and the British people actually had to confront during the time-span of the book – from John Paul II to Pope Francis. The Church’s teaching on sexual morality and marriage is presented as problematic chiefly because of the way traditionalist Catholics choose to (mis)interpret it. There is much mention of Catholic social teaching, but only in the facile way that more or less equates it with socialism.
Pepinster repeatedly hints at similarities between the status of Muslims in Britain today and Catholics under the Elizabethan terror. Yet there is no equivalence to be drawn between someone like Anjem Choudary and Edmund Campion. There really isn’t.
Perhaps the most surprising argument Pepinster advances is that Rome nowadays looks to Britain as a model of how to adapt to secularism. This is the same Britain that has surrendered on every front to relativism, where scientism is rampant, where we are so tied up in the razor wire of equalities legislation that we cannot even call ourselves a Christian society any more, and where if you quote from the Catechism in a tweet you risk being charged with a hate crime.
Some model. The Queen and Pope Francis can enjoy their chuckle in Rome, but there is very little to laugh about at home.
Dennis Sewell is a contributing editor of the Spectator and the author of Catholics: Britain’s Largest Minority (Penguin)