Captain Moonlight: Left-footers are back]

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The Independent Online
MOMENTOUS. Historic. A turning of the circle. It is fair to say that Cristina Odone, editor of the Catholic Herald, is excited by the Duchess of Kent's arrival at Rome. For her, the duchess is a crucial figure, an emblem of Englishness and the Establishment who will lend all manner of legitimacy to British Catholicism. What the duchess has finally done, declares Miss Odone, is to remove that slight foreign scent the Catholic Church has had to suffer under since the Reformation.

Miss Odone smoothes her short skirt and tosses her hair. There is more than a slight foreign scent about her, too: Italian father, Swedish mother, and an American upbringing which has left her torturing vowels in the manner of Loyd Grossman. The fight to cure her half-brother, a sufferer from a rare degenerative disease, was the basis for the recent film Lorenzo's Oil. She is 33. When she took up this job, 18 months ago, the Guardian, carried away, thought the sight of the skirt might drive 'Bishops to burgle the statue restoration funds'. 'I'm just a little Catholic girl,' said Miss Odone, then.

It is not a line she repeats now. She is also a little embarrassed by her immediate reaction to the duchess's decision, a ringing soundbite that the 'conversion of England' was under way. This is not a line relished by all Catholics. The reassertiveness that inspired the Italianate grandeur of Westminster Cathedral has been much tempered. Rousing choruses of Faith of Our Fathers are no longer heard in the brick and concrete Catholic churches of the land. Cardinal Hume's way has been English, ecumenical and gentle. He has, according to report, turned down several offers of a seat in the Lords.

The smart talk, instead, has been of a 'velvet gunpowder plot'. People have pointed to the prominence and profusion of Catholics in the media - from John Birt to Lord Rees-Mogg - and in politics - from the Pattens, John and Chris, to Sarah Hogg and Tessa Keswick, advisers to Nos 10 and 11.

Catholicism has recently been declared fashionable in a way not seen since the days of Waugh and Greene, a trend reinforced by the supposed dalliances of both the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Anglican desertions over women clergy. Left-footers are in. Harpers & Queen and the like talk about growing numbers of young Catholic nobility, the fruit of foreign marriages and an insistence on a Romish upbringing, peering devoutly through the incense to the sound of the old Latin at the Brompton Oratory, the best Catholic show in London. (Farm Street, the Jesuit church, has lost the palm by being a touch too cerebral.)

Miss Odone worships at the Oratory, but she is not fey. She does not believe in 'pussy- footing' or 'tip-toeing' about her religion. She believes its attraction is one of moral certainty and responsibility 'at a time when so many people are shaken by the quicksand morality that pervades not only this country but Western society. To find a rock is attractive - and I think that's what the Duchess of Kent's vote of confidence was all about - and that's why people more than ever are looking to the Catholic Church.'

There is no escape from 'back to basics', I'm afraid. Miss Odone applauds John Major's initiative and regrets his retreat. But she hails the Pope as the true author, in his recent encyclical Veritatis Splendor: 'He has an extraordinary sense of certainty . . . (he says) you can't set your own moral agenda . . .'

Her respect for the Pope and his certainties is not universally shared in the Catholic Church; it is rather more in vogue at the Brompton Oratory than it is with the other 99 per cent of British Catholics, mostly of Irish extraction, characterised by Miss Odone as 'Northern, and fans of the down-to-earth, so-called fish- and-chip bishops'. Their idea of the perfect priest, she says, is more of a social worker than Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the legendary becloaked nonagenarian now in retirement and residence at the Travellers' Club, feted as much as anything for his Englishness.

Nor would they be as robust about the Church of England as Miss Odone: 'For Pete's sake, it started when one man decided he wanted to take on another wife]' She also has little time for the Bishop of Durham or for vicars who don't believe in God. 'Perhaps this is not what I should be saying,' she says, 'but I'm just telling you what I think.'

She also thinks the English should learn to take more pleasure in their faith, and try to forget that intensity, spirituality, and interest in abstractions and absolutes are signs of ill-breeding. Pace the duchess, the conversion of England may still be an uphill struggle.

(Photograph omitted)