Has someone been slipping some kind of illegal substance into the Foreign Office officials’ tea?
In preparing for the Pope’s visit to Britain later this year, British diplomats circulated a memo which put forward a bizarre and highly offensive list of ‘ideal’ ways in which Benedict XVI might occupy his time in Britain, as well as other events to mark his visit.
These included launching a range of ‘ Benedict’ condoms and inviting the Pope to open an abortion clinic or bless a gay marriage.
The diplomats also suggested he might launch a helpline for abused children, apologise for the Spanish Armada or sing a song with the Queen for charity.
Such gratuitous mockery has now created an acute diplomatic embarrassment for the British Government.
It has been forced to make a grovelling apology to the Vatican which, not surprisingly, takes an exceedingly dim view of this affair.
Indeed, the Pope’s advisers are reportedly regretting that he ever agreed to come to Britain at all.
For not only is he at the centre of raging criticism over the way the Church has dealt with paedophile priests, but he is being threatened with public protests and even arrest by militant atheists.
Given that he is also being accused of attempting to poach disaffected members of the Church of England, the papal visit is clearly a deeply sensitive matter requiring the maximum diplomatic skill.
Yet the response by the representatives of Her Majesty’s Government has been effectively the equivalent of an obscene gesture.
So what on earth has got into the normally bland-to-a-fault Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
Apparently, the proposals were made by a group of junior officials, one of whom has now been hauled over the coals. This raises more questions than it answers.
How junior is junior? The Vatican insists these officials were more senior.
The disciplined official is said to have been ‘transferred to other duties’. Other duties than what, precisely, apart from insulting the Pope? Why haven’t all the officials involved been sacked?
After all, how can diplomats who have shown such an astonishing lack of judgment or propriety, not to say an eye-watering absence of diplomatic skills, continue to be employed in their country’s foreign service?
If they’d proposed something like this about South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma or Syria’s President Assad, for example, does anyone doubt that their heels would not have been seen for dust?
So, at the highest levels in the Foreign Office — which are said to be ‘appalled’ — it would appear that insulting the Pope doesn’t really matter as much as insulting the corrupt or the tyrannical.
In any event, what does this say about the FCO that it employs people who do such a thing? Once upon a time, it recruited the brightest in Whitehall who had to pass a demanding entrance test to qualify.
Yet apart from their insults, these officials appeared to believe — vacuously — that the singer Susan Boyle was a more influential person for the Pope to meet than the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the most senior Catholic in Britain.
Some in the Catholic Church are dismissing all this as a joke, a kind of internal office prank that somehow got out of hand.
On first reading, this is certainly how it seems. After all, surely no one could have put forward in all seriousness suggestions which read like a Monty Python sketch.
One retired diplomat, commenting on the furore, has written that those who have been shocked by this document are suffering from a ‘sense of humour failure’, since this was merely the kind of in-joke that is made all the time among diplomats.
The only thing wrong with it was that, through some oversight, it was circulated too widely.
The orthodoxy is a world view in which minorities are axiomatically to be respected while Christianity is treated with contempt
But given that the Foreign Office is desperately apologising and the Vatican is now thinking of calling off the visit altogether, to call this a ‘sense of humour failure’ would seem to reflect precisely the kind of supercilious Foreign Office cynicism revealed by the document itself.
In any event, this doesn’t seem to have been an email which was sent around by accident. It was a document that was sent to a senior Foreign Office official, 10 Downing Street, the Department for International Development and the Northern Ireland Office.
And when you look at its covering note, it seems even less likely that it was meant as a joke. For it says these suggestions were ‘the product of a brainstorm which took into account even the most far-fetched of ideas’. In other words, however far-fetched they were, these ideas were apparently being offered for serious discussion.
This appears to have been a different kind of brainstorm altogether. For these suggestions could not have been more carefully and deliberately designed to be as offensive and insulting as possible. Something like this could not have happened in the past, when a very different type of mandarin — stuffy, upper-class, punctilious to a fault — typified the Foreign Office.
Such a type was hardly ideal. But then, like the rest of the Whitehall establishment, the FCO moved from one extreme to another.
A concerted effort began to recruit from beyond the ranks of the privileged — in other words, those who had a reliable standard of education because they had been to the best schools — in favour of those from every kind of disadvantage. For whom, of course, the standard had to be lowered.
Even among those educated at good schools and Oxbridge, however, the general collapse of educational and moral standards has meant public service is now populated by a certain type of young official who is callow, shallow and politically correct to a fault.
Among such people, the orthodoxy is a world view in which minorities are axiomatically to be respected while Christianity is treated with contempt. The Catholic Church in particular is to be despised because of paedophile priests and its ban on contraception and abortion.
For sure, there are troubling aspects of this papacy which should legitimately be questioned. But the double standard here — quite apart from the insolence — is breathtaking.
Of course not. But the Catholics are fair game.
This world view is by no means confined to the Foreign Office, but is widespread in fashionable circles, where bullying of Christians is rife.
While the Vatican’s failure to deal with paedophile priests offers real cause for concern, the hysteria this has provoked is wildly disproportionate.
Compare the threats to arrest the Pope with, say, the absence of similar loathing directed towards Margaret Hodge, who has been able to serve for years as a government minister despite her failure to deal with the paedophile ring at Islington council when she was its leader.
Even if the diplomats’ paper was meant to be a joke, the fact that our supposedly brightest civil servants think like this is a dismal commentary on the state of the nation, its educational standards and its values.
It shows how flippancy and shallowness coexist with a brutalised arrogance. Among those who purport to be the most liberal, educated and enlightened, minds are actually closed and display a vicious illiberalism and gross absence of respect for other points of view, particularly mainstream European religious faiths.
No wonder the Pope is having second thoughts about visiting Britain. Diplomats are popularly scoffed at for telling lies abroad for the good of their country.
But now it would seem that they are intent on showing the world the most ugly face of Britain.