No offense. He was just being racist.
You would think that the very least a Vatican emissary would be is diplomatic. After all, it’s not as though the Vatican has the power to determine who should be king anymore. It no longer mediates where the dividing line between Spanish and Portuguese possessions should lie. Hell, even most fascist parties don’t want the Vatican’s help anymore. So, since it doesn’t have any substance to worry about, shouldn’t whoever is in charge of the Vatican’s foreign affairs department be constantly emphasizing style or at least courtesy?
That was why I assumed that the fluff up over Cardinal Walter Kasper was some sort of British over-reaction to some obscure 18th century custom that the British are particularly fond of bringing up just to embarrass you because you had never heard of it. Same thing with their accent. As if they know how to speak English better than you do! So I tried not to read about any of it (really, what would it accomplish?), but the BBC kept forcing it on me. After a quick read, all I knew was that His Eminence was declining to visit the UK after he said that arriving at Heathrow Airport was like landing in a Third World country.
Now, I’ve landed in Third World countries more than enough times that I thought I knew what he had on his mind. Maybe the absurd security. The lines. The forms that smell of mimeograph paper because they don’t have any Xerox™ machines. He was probably not referring to teenage soldiers in combat fatigues with automatic weapons everywhere you look; British security is not that heavy-handed. He could have been referring to the thing that irks me the most: having to exchange your money for some contemptible currency that you don’t understand just so taxicab drivers can rip you off. I don’t care if the paper does have an engraving of the Queen on it; you cannot convince me that anyone really knows how many half-farthings are in a shilling or what a crown is. This inexplicable “money” system they have is really why there were so many poor people in Dickens’ day.
I didn’t think any of that warranted making up an excuse not to go to the UK, however. Especially an excuse like “My gout is acting up!” In fact, if he really did have the gout, going to the UK would be the best thing that could ever have happened to him. In England there is none of that rich food that the bigwigs in the Vatican chow down on. In fact, you generally have to eat Indian or Thai or Chinese or some other kind of non-English food because British cuisine (if you can call it that) is so dreadful. So it really is just like being in some Third World country with your chopsticks and looking for potable water, right?
Then I heard the whole story about how British Airways a while back would not allow a stewardess to wear a crucifix on duty. This seemed to bother His Eminence, even though British Airways no longer has the rule. But he apparently said: “You are discriminated against when you wear a cross on British Airways.” I had heard that one time he was boarding a BA plane and once inside he saw all the stewardesses start whispering to each other. They made him stow his suitcase under the seat in front of him rather than in the overhead compartment like they allowed all the Protestants. They even announced before takeoff that all rosaries had to be stowed so as not to create a risk of strangulation in the event of an emergency landing. I’m pretty sure, though, they did that all in good fun simply to make him feel comfortable.
But even if he was offended by that, aren’t there other carriers that fly into London? I’m pretty sure he could use the Internet to look up the schedule for Lufthansa. Or if he happened to be outside of Germany at the time, he might try Alitalia. He could even go to France and take the Chunnel. Oh, but that French food would probably be bad for his gout.
Then I read the BBC account. If it is true, the issue wasn’t about some fun-loving British stewardesses. It turns out that he told a German magazine that the UK was marked by “a new and aggressive atheism.” OK. But I’m not really sure why anyone would be offended by that. Don’t American preachers say that all the time? In the South they say it about the church across the street. They say it about any public school that teaches biology. They’ve said it about every good university in the country for as long as I can remember. The Republican Party says it about the Democrats all the time. So I think there must be something more to this story.
The fact that the Vatican got so embarrassed about this suggests to me that this German cardinal, close adviser to the German Pope, had inadvertently disclosed a subject that he and the Pope talk about secretly all the time. They probably harbor a deep resentment against the British. But over what? Deposing James II? How Henry II treated Thomas Becket? Supporting the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor? Catherine of Aragon? Siding with Poland in 1939? Whatever it is, the Church felt it best to keep the Cardinal at home and not stir up things, figuring that it could probably not expect help from the Spanish Armada and the French would probably not again expel the Huguenots on command in the event the diplomatic squabble between the Holy See and Her Britannic Majesty took an ugly turn.
So the Vatican tried to put a positive spin on it. He didn’t mean anything offensive by the remark about the Third World, “various sources” told the BBC: “They also said his ‘Third World’ comment referred to the UK’s multicultural society.” No offense there. He wasn’t saying that every Brit was a goddam Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens spewing out hate and evolution and demanding that every priest who ever buggered some choir boy go to jail. No. He was just saying that the number of dark-skinned people in London naturally made a good German cardinal a little uncomfortable. Like as though he were in Chad or Somalia or some other God-forsaken Third World country. See? Now I really feel foolish wasting my time over something with such a simple, reasonable explanation.