E Jane Dickson: I'm not keen to discuss condoms at tea-time

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"Smoking's bad, Mum, isn't it?"

"Smoking's bad, Mum, isn't it?"

"Certainly it is," I tell Conor. "It's an incredibly foolish thing to do."

I can tell from my son's expository tone, however, and from the way he's pacing backwards and forwards on the rug, that this is far from the end of the argument.

"So how come the Pope smokes, then?"

"Does he?" I ask, slightly heartened to learn this humanising detail about the unbending former Cardinal Ratzinger's private life.

The children have been watching coverage of the papal election on the six o'clock news, while I get tea ready; have I missed exciting footage of the new pontiff enjoying a sneaky puff on the balcony?

"Yup, he smokes all right," says Con. "They all do. All the vicars - they had to smoke like mad when they were making up their minds . That's how the people knew they'd got a new pope."

I rather like the idea of the cardinals emerging, spluttering like schoolboys behind a bike shed, from the conclave, but I set Con right on the business of the Vatican's smoke signals.

"All the same," he says, "I think I'd like to be a pope."

"Tell him, Mum," groans Clara. "Tell Conor he can't be the Pope."

It does, I agree, seem an unlikely career choice for a boy, who, as yet, shows no great signs of piety. "Well, for a start you'd need to be Catholic," I explain.

"OK," says Con.

"And then," says Clara, "you'd have to spend your whole life going to church."

Conor considers this carefully. "But I'd be the boss. I'd get to make up all the rules wouldn't I?"

I can see, I tell him, laughing, that the infallibility side of things might appeal. "What's inflebility?" Clara wants to know. It's a tricky notion to explain, but I do my best.

Conor has no problem with the idea of being infallible - if anything, it strengthens his priestly ambition - but Clara's Puritan soul wrestles with the concept.

"You'd have to be a bit of a big head to think you were never, ever wrong about anything," she argues. "What do you think, Mum? Do you think the Pope's right about everything?"

As it happens, there are quite a few issues I'd be taking up in a one-to-one with Benedict XIV, but I'm not keen to enter into discussion on the rights and wrongs of condoms etc with a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old at the tea table (and I'd as soon the children didn't rush to their school church assembly tomorrow spouting their mother's bolshie views; it was bad enough when Conor denounced the Queen as "a greedy old woman" on the day of the Golden Jubilee).

"Every religion has some ideas that other religions don't agree with," I witter smoothly. "That's why there are different faiths in the world."

"So which one's right?" presses Clara, but I am already breaking out the Muller Rices.

"Habemus Pudding!" I announce. And that, for now, is enough to be getting on with.

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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