Just before Christmas the American pop star Lauryn Hill caused a stir at a Vatican Christmas concert. Before she sang she read out a statement telling church officials to "repent" over the sexual abuse of children by priests. Italy's most powerful cardinal, Camillo Ruini, the papal vicar of Rome, walked out. It was an act of "great rudeness," a sidekick bishop said. Ms Hill's riposte is unrecorded.
The gap between how the Vatican sees the world, and how things look to the rest of us, is becoming increasingly wide. There was another example of it this week after the President of Germany suggested that if Muslim headscarves are to be banned in schools then crucifixes - and nun's and monk's habits - would have to go too. The Vatican waded swiftly into the debate.
Headscarves were "political" but Christian symbols were an established part of European culture, said the German cardinal, Karl Lehmann, in remarks sanctioned by the Vatican. Moreover many considered the headscarf to be a symbol of female oppression, whereas Christian symbols and habits "have not the slightest trace of political propaganda about them". In Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's doctrinal watchdog, agreed.
To all this several objections might be raised. The Catholic Church may see the cross as an unambiguous symbol of ultimate self-sacrifice. But others see it very differently, as Red Cross officials operating under constant threat in Iraq will confirm. The truth is that, though the Crusades and the Inquisition might be history so far as Rome is concerned - and Pope John Paul II has even issued limited apologies for them - they still burn fiercely in the minds of many for whom, to borrow the words of Rowan Williams, the cross represents "the language of the powerful, the excuse for oppression, the alibi for atrocity".
Nor is it to be unquestioningly accepted that the headscarf is a symbol of oppression. Speak to Muslim women, especially to white converts or to young British Muslim women who have re-embraced their faith after a secular Western upbringing, and you hear a different story. They do not see the headscarf, as French law does, as an "ostentatious" religious symbol that "constitute[s] an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda". Rather they say the hijab frees them from the pressures of fashion or of being viewed by men primarily in a sexual manner.
"You can come and go as a person, not a woman," one young Muslima told me. "I became a happier person, filled with this huge confidence." Far from being a symbol of repression they see it as one of liberation. As another said:
It says to people, deal with my intellect, not my body. What never seems to occur to feminists is that people like me have made a free and conscious choice. I have worn the kind of clothes they wear and to me theirs was a superficial freedom.
But the Vatican's attitude is disturbing for two deeper reasons - one political, the other philosophical. Politically it is part of what appears to be a new belligerence towards Islam. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who recently retired as the Vatican's foreign minister, gave an interview as he left in which he criticised Islamic countries for refusing to allow Christian minorities to build churches as Muslims in the West are allowed mosques. The Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica recently accused Islam of showing a "warlike face" throughout history. All this marks a departure from the Vatican's previous policy of simultaneously stressing both positive and negative aspects of Muslim/Christian relations.
It is also a reflection of a deeper philosophical shift which is taking place in Rome. New concerns are being raised among more conservative factions there over the language of Catholicism. On the surface this may seem arcane and even trivial. On the liturgical front revisionists want worship to revert to a more "sacred" or "transcendental" style, replacing more accessible everyday language. In ethics they want to unseat talk of "human rights", "dignity" and "values" - terms which grow out of the modern philosophical tradition - and replace them with notions of "natural law" and "truths" from the Thomism of the church's medieval past. In philosophy there is a revolt against "personalism", a Christian existentialism which insists it is through creative action that human beings realise their potential.
That may sound abstruse, but it has great significance. For the ethical language which is being challenged is that of the Second Vatican Council, which overturned Catholicism's tradition of remaining separate from the world and replaced it with an openness to finding God in "the signs of the times". And the most famous exponent of personalism throughout the 20th century has been John Paul II himself. Those who consider that even he has gone too far must want something deeply conservative when they talk of Catholicism needing to recover its sense of being "set apart" from the world's contemporary culture.
There are rumours too in Rome that the ailing Pope is now signing documents without his previous diligent scrutiny. There may be no truth in that. But that the forces of reaction are mustering in the Vatican seems beyond dispute.