Editor to quit as furore rocks Catholic Church

A novelist's attack on a dead archbishop has brought into the open a dispute between religious liberals and conservatives.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The crisis at the Catholic Herald, the religious newspaper at the centre of a highly emotive dispute between liberals and fundamentalists over the soul of the Church of Rome, will deepen next week when staff will hear that its editor is planning to leave.

Cristina Odone, the sharp-suited Italian-American who made the weekly paper the favoured publication for fashionable Roman Catholics, has privately told her managers that she will not be coming back after a long sabbatical.

The present furore at the paper is over a column by the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, which was published 10 days ago. Miss Thomas Ellis, a fundamentalist Catholic, savaged the reputation of a progressive, liberal Catholic, the late Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock. She accused him of presiding over a collapse in attendances in Liverpool and weakening the faith by being too friendly with Protestants.

Miss Thomas Ellis was fired last week after the newspaper received dozens of complaints from priests.

Ms Odone's resignation is being kept quiet so that it will not appear the paper is in chaos because of criticism from the church hierarchy. Indeed, the paper's formal version of events is that neither woman's departure is to do with criticism of the late archbishop.

But the departures have added to the sulphurous atmosphere around the Herald. The storm at the small paper is even being seen as a microcosm of the struggle for English Catholicism. At stake are the vacancy left by the death of Archbishop Worlock and the one that will be created when Cardinal Basil Hume, the 72-year-old Archbishop of Westminster, retires.

Will they be succeeded by other ecumenical liberals, or will the Vatican impose conservative candidates who would win the approval of the stern Miss Thomas Ellis?

The fury that Miss Thomas Ellis's comments unleashed was borne by Harry Coen, the Herald's acting editor, who passed the contentious column for publication. Mr Coen is an amiable and respected Fleet Street veteran. His friends say that his biggest mistake was not to realise just how unchristian religious journalism could be when he left the comparatively genteel world of the national press to cover for Ms Odone earlier this year.

Mr Coen said that the decision to dismiss Miss Thomas Ellis had been made for financial reasons before the article appeared. She does not believe him.

Mr Coen, in any case, is reported to have said that he is only a stopgap editor and that he never had any intention of staying at the paper for more than a few months.

It will have been a dramatic few months. There are reports of bishops phoning up the Herald and issuing anathemas like medieval clerics faced with particularly obdurate heretics. There are rumours of Mr Coen being slandered in Liverpool.

The Catholic Herald is an independent newspaper that sells about 22,000 copies a week. Under Ms Odone's editorship, it attracted prominent right- wingers. Conrad Black, the owner of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and Rocco Forte are directors of the paper. Paul Johnson, the Labour journalist who converted to Conservatism and back again, and William Oddie, the Anglican priest who converted to conservative Catholicism and is still with the Church, are among its fans.

But all the newspaper's metropolitan support and financial independence could not protect it from the fury of the Church. As soon as news of Miss Thomas Ellis's article spread, parish priests rang up to complain. Churches are the main selling outlets for the paper and, if priests refused to stock it, sales would collapse. Faced with these pressures, the Herald decided that it had no option but to apologise on its front page for "an error of judgement".

"We just had to eat humble pie and we'll probably have to go on eating it," said one insider.

Journalists are in despair about the decision to apologise. One regular contributor said. "We feel shellshocked. We have seen the authoritarian side of the liberals who have always hated conservatives who can attack them with wit and flair."

But Miss Thomas Ellis and her supporters appeared last week to be relishing the fight. She refused to accept that her dismissal and her article were unrelated but added that the affair had at least brought the tensions inside the Church to light.

"I'm very glad it's happened," she said."The lid has been kept on for too long. Now I've opened up a can of worms. The Church is split but they're trying to deny it. They're trying to say it's all right - but it isn't.

"Catholic doctrine is being eroded; there is no Catholic teaching in Catholic schools. We need more honesty from the English hierarchy. They don't want to admit to any problems. They want to pretend that everything is fine and dandy. They will not listen to protest."

Unlike Salman Rushdie with his Satanic Verses, Miss Thomas Ellis cheerfully admitted that she knew what she was doing when she launched her assault.

She said she realised as she wrote the article that her opponents would come "screaming out of the woodwork".

Her only regrets were for Mr Coen, who she said "didn't know what he was walking into" when he went to the Catholic Herald.

Piers Paul Read, the traditionalist Catholic novelist and commentator, also sees the row as part of a wider struggle. The sacking of Miss Thomas Ellis marked an open and damaging breach between leading Catholic writers, such as Mr Johnson and Mr Oddie, and the church hierarchy, he said.

"I think most of the flock aren't aware of what's going on. They are just rather dismayed when their children leave the Church, but they leave the Church because the religion is so anodyne and uninspiring."

The vacancy in Liverpool, the most Roman Catholic city in Britain, was crucial, he added. There was a chance to turn back the tide of ecumenicism and social concern and to emphasise the sacramental.

In the long run, he thought, his side would win. He warned the liberals that the next generation of Catholic priests was far more orthodox and added that the English hierarchy could not count on the support of a conservative Pope.

"People in Rome are aware of the problem," he said ominously.