David Twiston Davies
The decision to reduce Britain’s diplomatic representation to the Holy See may be part of a belttightening operation, but it does not indicate much long-term thinking by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or add to British prestige.
At least since the invention of the telegraph there has been a desire to bring our representatives abroad under closer control from home; and it is right that diplomats should reflect as far as possible the kind of lifestyle enjoyed at home. However, there have been too many examples of buildings around the world being abandoned for new premises that have turned out too small or too expensive for there to be universal confidence in such measures. Like the Church, the Foreign Office is faced by the uncomfortable truth that while cutting anything conveying an aura of wealth and power may earn a nod of approval, it can also create feelings of contempt that can encourage more aggressive attitudes. Three former ambassadors to the Holy See did not refer to this when they wrote to The Times recently. But they protested that downgrading the embassy was “cheeseparing in the extreme”, since the embassy was one of the cheaper postings. Moreover, the decision has come at a time when Pope Benedict is seeking closer relations with Britain, and when the present Government and the Holy See share views on international poverty, development and aid relief which are supported by the G8 countries; all regard the location as “a good listening post”. The trio further pointed out that by giving up the splendid offices overlooking the Spanish Steps for a room in the compound of its Italian embassy Britain was breaking the terms of the 1929 Lateran Pact.
Naturally the new Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Munoz, will not have caused any embarrassment by mentioning this when he recently presented his credentials to the Queen. But, as he was being driven by landau to St James’s Palace, he must have been aware of the implicit snub: while he enjoyed full ambassadorial status his opposite number in the Holy City was being reduced to a mere minister; something that seems all the odder considering that the posts were only raised to full ambassadorial rank in 1982.
The FCO’s justification for the decision reflects all the guff spouted by their political masters. The last ambassador was the first woman in the post, and now that it is being publicly advertised, it could go to a Catholic because the Human Rights Act says that the post must be open to Catholics. This demonstrates that the FCO is becoming “more modern, open and diverse”, according to one spokesman. Little thought, one suspects, has been given to the fact that any Catholic who takes his faith seriously could encounter some personal difficulties in the job; and, if he does not, the press will monitor his activities carefully. The most plausible explanation for the decision is that the exercise is being conducted on the understanding that the Government “don’t do religion” (Alastair Campbell’s words), and that moral issues take second place to political and scientific considerations.
Of course, there is no suggestion of any anti-Catholicism involved. But interference with mandarins’ priorities could be another matter. Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet in the days before it became the standard-bearer for post-conciliar liberalism, once examined the Foreign Office papers relating to the canonisations of Thomas More and John Fisher in 1935. Whether the British Government should be officially represented at the ceremony was the ticklish problem. On being told that Pope Pius IX wanted to please the English, an assistant under-secretary tersely wrote that, if that were true, he could have chosen some less controversial Englishman, such as the Venerable Bede, whose canonisation in 1899 the official seemed to have missed. The FO was further annoyed to learn that the King wanted to be personally represented by the Duke of Norfolk. This prompted a reminder that the two saints had been executed for treason. Finally, the Home Secretary minuted that the minister concerned could give a party afterwards if he wished – at his own expense. Did this add to Britain’s prestige?
David Twiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph