The Death of Diplomacy

In the northern hemisphere people may not be much aware, if at all, of the storm brewing in our cappuccino cups in Australia. Since I am in Australia at the moment it is difficult to escape it. What follows is written on the far south coast of New South Wales, in a small town. 

President Trump rang the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull last Sunday. The scheduled hour-long call was, apparently, abruptly terminated by Trump, who, having harangued Mr Turnbull, then hung up on him at the 25-minute mark. Mr Trump, employing his gift for the most superlative of superlatives (no one has superlatives like him, he has the best superlatives), called it the worst call he has made so far to a world leader.

Donald Trump, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence, Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn

At issue was the deal made by the Obama administration to accept between 1,000 and 2,000 illegal immigrants detained on Manus Island and Nauru. Given his recent moratorium on receiving refugees from certain countries, many of which are represented in these two island-camps, the deal was obviously an awkward one for him. Mr Trump has Tweeted (of course) that it was a dumb deal. One suspects that the Australian PM, also a conservative businessman, reminded Mr Trump that a deal was a deal. One can imagine Mr Trump saying that it was not his deal.

The spokesmen are saying this was a robust conversation, a diplomacy-speak admission that Mr Trump did shout at Mr Turnbull. Australia is arguably the staunchest of US allies, and the Phonegate affair has put this historical relationship in some doubt going forward. This is not the way to treat long-term loyal allies.

Of course, in the Catholic Church, we have become accustomed to (if not quite used to) hearing Pope Francis launch his own tirades, against the curia, the pharisaical upholders of the moral law, airport bishops, promethean neo-Pelagians, et al. While Pope Francis does not use Twitter in the same way as Mr Trump, he does have a similar terse, minimalist style that packs a lot of shock-and-awe into a few choice words.


Both Francis and Trump have a lot in common. Both are set on over-turning the status quo in the running of their institutions, not least by by-passing the established channels. Pope Francis and President Trump have surrounded themselves with special advisers rather than the established officials. Francis will sack and re-assign at will (the CDF 3 for example), much as Trump uses executive orders and sacks acting attorneys-general who do not play ball by his rules. Both by-pass the usual channels for getting their message out: Francis uses his daily Mass homilettes and Trump uses Twitter. While Francis has now re-fashioned the Vatican press office to his own ends to get these homilettes out, Trump’s use of Twitter subverts the mainstream media by addressing people directly through social media, and the mainstream media must play catch-up. It is very clever; there is method in his madness.

We are watching a revolution in politics and governance, both in Church and state. Sir Humphrey Appleby’s day is done. Perhaps this was inevitable. Diplomacy and its rhetorical apparatus of understatement or verbose non-statement worked in an era when time was needed for the behind-the-scenes working out of deals and negotiations. Diplomacy speak, and the professionals who spoke it, bought leaders this time, and could control the release of of news in their own time. Today news breaks in real time, Twitter can break news before CNN, and the management of information is thereby taken out of the professionals’ hands. Trump, and to a lesser extent Francis, both seek to embed this new reality.

This brave new world order has implications we have yet to see develop. When negotiations and stratagems are played out in real time before the face of the world there is a reduced capacity to control reactions. Australian politicians of all stripes are mortified by Trump’s treatment of the Australian Prime Minister. But their reactions will be nothing compared to those of many John and Jane Citizens as they see this sad saga played out before them. Why should we cow-tow to the USA?, they might ask; why should we host their military bases, listening posts and other secret installations when they treat us with such scant respect? We can be sure China will act in some way to take advantage of this contretemps. They may succeed to some degree.

Perhaps we are seeing, paradoxically, the simultaneous death of democracy in the form we have known it, and the reassertion of papal monarchy in the guise of populism and pastoral primacy. Or, more precisely perhaps, we are witnessing the emergency of an interventionist, elected monarchy in both Church and state. Either way, we should be worried. Popes have traditionally been rarely seen, and more rarely heard. They were above the cut and thrust of ecclesial politics, at least in the eyes of the faithful, and this went a long way to ensuring the respect and veneration accorded their august office. Likewise, state leaders tended to be, or at least strived to be, statesmen, presenting to their people calm and crafted words that reflected the consensus arrived at in the often stormy scenes behind closed doors. The people did not need to see the storm talks; what mattered was the more or less calm and enduring results.

Time will tell if this is all for the good. For now, my optimism is very, very muted at best.

Discerning the Shades of Grey

Discerning the Shades of Grey

The older I get the harder it is to make the long flight from London to Sydney in one trip. It is not that the planes are not getting better and the flights a little quicker. They are. Rather, the long-haul jet-set life is for the younger or at least the more acclimated.

One request fulfilled in my coming is to bring some relief to my family from the extraordinary heatwave of the past couple of weeks in Sydney. It was with pleasure that I saw the plane emerge to land from grey cloud, and to find on the ground a far more temperate temperature. Grey is not always bad; in some contexts it can be a relief. Continue reading “Discerning the Shades of Grey”

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and Amoris Latetitia

As you know, in a monastery the monk–priests take turns as principal celebrants of the conventual Mass. At Douai most of us usually offer a few words of reflection, a homilette, of a greater or lesser degree of depth according to the monk involved. (nb depth is not always a virtue!) So this morning I was slated for the Mass, and I was struck by the gospel Mark 3:22–30:

The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

It is a dense and not particularly clear passage at first reading, or even second. But it merits extended reflection in light of the current crisis over the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Continue reading “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and Amoris Latetitia”

Sin and sinners

Sin and sinners

The clerical equivalent of a busman’s holiday in the Bailiwick of Jersey, with the only obligation being the offering of Masses, allows one time to read in the comfortable and hospitably fraternal presybtery at La Cathédrale in St Helier. So while here I have devoured Roger Peyrefitte’s The Knights of Malta, so alarmingly prophetic of the current trials faced by the sovereign order even in the finer details; and Robert Harris’ Conclave (purchased at half price on Jersey, this hardback copy being different to all the others on sale having black-edged pages and a page-marking ribbon) which, despite all the author’s protestations to the contrary, clearly represents some aspects of the modern ecclesiastical reality (and the last twist of which is so absurd as almost to ruin what is otherwise an excellent read; that and his curious translation of the endings of prayers “For Christ our Lord, Amen.” Google Translate?); and just finished minutes ago, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, a hardback purchased on sale at Postscript books online. Continue reading “Sin and sinners”

Octave Thoughts

Octave Thoughts

Happy new year! Below a little something to mull over with a beaker of what you fancy. You will probably guess for what it was written. Continue reading “Octave Thoughts”

What Amoris Laetitia lacks: the Marian Solution

In a recent post on the vexed issue of the cardinals’ dubia and their alleged dissent, a deal of discussion was prompted, and this is no bad thing. It merits being talked through sanely and sagely, without hysterics or histrionics.

Lost, or at least potentially so, is a brief but very helpful comment from Fr Mark Kirby OSB, Prior of Silverstream, a new and thriving Benedictine community north of Dublin. In his comment he points us to a post on his blog, Vultus Christi. Acknowledging the perennial nature of “difficult pastoral situations” of the sort Amoris Laetitia seeks to address, he laments that in the current debate so little is said of prayer, grace and Mary in offering strategies for what is now being called “pastoral accompaniment”. Continue reading “What Amoris Laetitia lacks: the Marian Solution”

God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany

This past Autumn Last Testment in his own words, an interview of Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald was released in its English translation. It is full of fascinating and tantalising, almost teasing, tidbits. Scattered through the book are several passing comments on the Church in Germany, Benedict’s native land. Put them together and one finds a sobering reflection on this powerhouse of European Catholicism.

First, a quick reminder of the German Church. It has proved aggressively liberal, not least in some of its most prominent prelates, such as Cardinals Marx, Lehmann and Kasper. They cam into their own at Vatican II when they successfully pushed their liberal agenda onto the Council by means of their wealth and organisational savvy. The title alone of the classic (and approving!) contemporary history of the Council, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, reveals that perfectly. Continue reading “God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany”