Visions on the bus to Damascus

Absolute Truth: The Catholic Church in the World Today by Edward Stourton Viking pounds 20
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Liberal Catholics are fond of remarking that the church's social teaching is both its greatest asset and its best-kept secret. It is a neat formula and one that can get you out of dealing with tough questions about other unjustifiable sections of the Catholic canon.

The old Penny Catechism used to be fond of providing previous generations of Catholics with word-perfect rebuttals for the taunts that supposedly awaited them when they had to share a bus seat with a Protestant or worse still an atheist. In a contemporary variation of this advice, Catholics, when challenged with the absurdities of the traditionalist pope's directions on contraception, point instead to the marvellous work that is done in the church's name in run-down housing estates in this country and the shanty towns of the developing world.

Given how little publicity this mission gets, any listener is guaranteed to be impressed. The only problem in my experience is the dearth of hecklers on bus journeys. It is doubtless another incontrovertible sign of our secular times.

The choice of the title Absolute Truth made me think that newscaster Edward Stourton was going to be as fiercely and unfashionably loyal to the less palatable parts of the papal line as were his Stourton ancestors. Recusant Catholics to the end, this venerable family in the post- Reformation period endured harsh penal laws and taxations and even death rather than give up the old faith and their link with Rome.

The preface bears out my fear, for the author embarks on his investigation into the modern Catholic Church and its billion adherents around the globe with the suggestion that there is a single, commonly held agenda around which we all are united. But to his credit, as his pilgrimage takes him far and wide, he soon abandons any notion of uniformity and begins instead to celebrate the pluralism that makes up the practice of Catholicism on the ground.

Over the 200 pages, he has his own road to Damascus experience thanks to figures like Sister Leonia, a Polish nun in Zambia who runs one of Africa's only AIDS hospices. In a country where 1.5 million out of a total population of nine million is HIV positive, she takes a pragmatic line on the use of condoms - explicitly forbidden by Catholic teaching. I only hope that the publicity she is courting by appearing in this book will not mean she is hauled up before the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the modern-day inquisition.

Another key figure for Stourton is Father Tony Terry, an Irish missionary in Brazil. He has fallen out with his local archbishop, a recent appointee from Rome, because the new man has tried to abandon the local church's commitment to human rights and social justice. Tony Terry has been kicked out of his shanty-town parish for sticking to this mission, but undeterred he has set up on his own and the people have gone with him.

It is a potent symbol of how, when religion is used for positive purposes, no institution - be it the Vatican bureaucracy or authoritarian governments - can stand in its way. By focusing on the Sister Leonias and Tony Terrys of the Catholic world, Stourton provides a celebration not just of its pluralism and relevance, but all that is best in the church.

He also, of course, implicitly reveals how out of touch Rome is with its regions, but this is not a point he chooses to labour. Perhaps the ghosts of Stourtons past have come to haunt him. In the same way that Absolute Truth works to find the brightest possible angle on the church's global activities, it also hits on John Paul II's charisma and political importance to proclaim him, regardless of his flaws, as a man who will leave his mark on history.

If this makes Absolute Truth sound a little too much like a sop to Stourton's colleague Martyn Lewis and his well-publicised demand for a diet of good news, then so be it. This is a book that does not even concern itself with rebutting any anti-Catholic positions. There is an underlying assumption that the church is per se a good thing.

Perhaps this close focus is the result of Absolute Truth being linked to a television series of the same title - though it is very definitely a book in its own right rather than a souvenir edition for delighted viewers. Television does tend to like its history served up in neat, all-inclusive packages.

The television link though does account for an irritating degree of false naivety in the text. Stourton gives a good impression of being surprised at the pluralism he finds. Yet he is a news reporter, an intelligent man who handles large chunks of history with a deft touch, and a thoughtful believer. Surely he was well-aware of Catholicism's diversity before he put pen to paper. The posturing does at least, I suppose, give the book and the series a sense of there being a story.

But there are many more redeeming features to this hugely enjoyable book than sins crying out to heaven for vengeance. You sense all along that Stourton has a healthy grasp both on the limitations of what he is trying to do - draw in a wider, unchurchy audience - and of the ambiguities of his own position.

The reason the BBC has spent a fortune flying him around the globe on this series is because he is, in Hello! terms, a celebrity. With a range of names from Melinda Messenger to Melvyn Bragg currently identifying religion as a form of self-promotion, there must have been a temptation for Stourton to play up his own character and spiritual journey and turn the whole venture into an effort at self-promotion.

With commendable - and very Catholic - modesty, he restricts the use of the personal pronoun and only occasionally and almost unconsciously allows glimpses inside his soul. When awoken on Sunday mornings by the bells of his quaint local Anglican church, he lets slip that he feels a mixture of resentment - that English Catholicism lost its property portfolio in the Reformation and now makes do with aircraft hangers and Swedish saunas - and longing to be part of the national church rather than a minority some diehards still regard as fifth-columnists owing allegiance to a foreign power.

Stourton also casts interesting light on the conflicting pressures of being both a believer and a journalist. "The journalistic habit of mind is to treat everything with scepticism and to test every claim against evidence and counter-argument. Faith requires the acceptance of facts even when they fly in the face of reason." This is why religion tends to get such a rough deal in media schedules.

For Stourton himself, the way out of this dilemma was to split the professional and the personal. After a brief burst of covering religious topics for ITN, he avoided churchy stories despite being well-qualified to tackle them. However, in Absolute Truth he has returned to the battleground and the resulting tensions give the book its particular charm.

As he writes of his own efforts to deal with John Paul's role in Eastern Europe: "I realised there are two parallel interpretations of what happened and they never quite meet. In one which belongs to the arena of journalistic truth, the Pope features as one factor among many in the collapse of communism and his role is analysed as a historical, not a spiritual phenomenon. In the other, he is the instrument of divine providence by which Catholicism has vanquished communism."

Stourton's gift is to struggle to include both views. So we have Mikhail Gorbachev praising John Paul the politician and - odd choice of words - "humanist", followed by Lech Walesa justifying his own actions in the period by his fear of hell.

Elsewhere balancing secular and spiritual is harder, but on the whole Stourton succeeds. In the process he has pulled off a rare double whammy - a book that should both warm the cockles of the heart of all devout mass-goers and, despite its note of optimism, enthral even the most sceptical observers of a unique institution.

8 Peter Stanford's 'The She-Pope' is published by Heinemann