The Keys and the Kingdom

by Catherine Pepinster, Bloomsbury, 224pp, £16.99

The cover of this book shows a photograph of the Queen and Pope Francis, with both laughing. It isn’t clear which of them has just cracked the joke, but the Holy Father is looking the more impish. Her Majesty, who is capable of wearing a grumpy expression even while glad-handing VIPs, clearly hasn’t had so much fun since her last day at the races. The picture encapsulates Catherine Pepinster’s thesis: that relations between Britain and the Holy See are warm and getting warmer.

One of the main reasons for this, Pepinster argues, is that the Catholic Church and the British understand one another better than ever before. Partly, this is due to continuing embourgeoisement of this country’s Catholic population.

Where once Catholics tended to be Irish labourers building the M1, thanks to our wonderful schools we have progressed to the point where in our time we might be the Cabinet secretary, the editor of a national newspaper, the chancellor of Oxford University or running the National Trust. Pepinster calls this becoming “normalised”. The upshot is that when things get tricky there are plenty of influential men and women about to explain the ways of the Church to the heathens in the Foreign Office.

Another factor promoting mutual understanding, the author claims, is how well British Catholics are doing in the Curia. “If English Catholics were asked to name the most important priest from the Archdiocese of Liverpool,” Pepinster writes, “the vast majority would suggest Cardinal Vincent Nichols.” But, she continues, there is another Scouser to take into account, one who “trained as a diplomat at the elite Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy”, and as effectively “the Pope’s foreign minister” is “arguably the highest English office holder in Rome since … Pope Adrian IV in the 12th century”.

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