The most important and controversial topics in world religion, thoroughly dissected by a range of high profile guests. Presented by Damian Thompson.
Is Pope Francis's Vatican turning into Richard Nixon's White House?
There was a point in the Watergate scandal when revelations came so thick and fast that journalists struggled to keep up with them. And we seem to have reached an equivalent point in respect to the scandals engulfing Pope Francis's Vatican.
Last week I interviewed Vatican expert Ed Condon about the sacking of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, accused by the Pope of stealing or misusing unimaginable sums of Church money, something he denies. Since Ed and I spoke, there have been two developments, both in their own way hard to believe.
First, Angelo Becciu is now accused of overseeing the transfer of large amounts of money to Australia during the trial on fabricated sex abuse charges of his arch-adversary Cardinal George Pell, who had rumbled him.
Second, the Pope has announced the setting up of a commission to decide which Vatican financial transactions should remain confidential. And, incredibly, the man he has asked to run it is Cardinal Kevin Farrell, formerly one of the closest associates of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the pathological sex abuser who was for many years Archbishop of Washington.
To quote the title of Lionel Shriver's celebrated novel, we really need to talk about Kevin. Listen to this episode to discover why.
The humiliation of Becciu and the return of Pell
The Vatican is this week in the grip of a paranoia reminiscent of the days when Renaissance popes (and their dinner guests) were forced to employ food-tasters.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, until 2018 the sostenuto at the Secretariat of State – that is, the Pope's hugely powerful chief of staff – has been sacked by Francis, who has accused him of stealing vast amounts of money. The Pope, who once showered him with favours, stripped Becciu of all the privileges associated with the position of cardinal – a twist of the knife worthy of a Netflix drama, or perhaps one of the Godfather films.
And now, in an equally extraordinary sequel, Becciu's arch-foe Cardinal George Pell, until recently languishing in an Australian jail cell, is heading back to Rome to advise Francis on resuming the Pell financial reforms that Becciu torpedoed.
My guest for this episode of Holy Smoke is the journalist who can take the most credit for uncovering Becciu's activities: Ed Condon, Washington Bureau Chief of the Catholic News Agency.
Is it time for Christianity to go underground?
Boris Johnson's package of Covid restrictions announced this week included a rule that weddings will be limited to 15 people and funerals to 30 – numbers plucked out of thin air that will have questionable effect on the transmission of the virus.
You might think that a ruling that affects only weddings and funerals isn't such a big deal for the churches, but that is to underestimate the fanatical zeal of their leaders for implementing, and expanding, restrictions on their own worship. The control-freak Archbishop of Canterbury, predictably, seemed quite thrilled (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/25-september/news/uk/weddings-shrink-again-as-new-covid-rules-kick-in) by the government's intervention.
My own reaction, informed by conversations with many clergy outraged by their bishops' baffling willingness to accept any curtailment of church life, was to wonder whether some Christians will be forced to 'go underground' – that is, find a way of worshipping that quietly disobeys their own leaders. To an extent this is already happening: at the height of the pandemic, Catholics were holding secret Masses that reminded me of their ancestors' defiance of Protestant penal laws. I didn't report it because I didn't want them hunted down by their own 'fathers in God', the local bishops.
So that's the subject of this week's Holy Smoke, a very wide-ranging conversation with Dr Gavin Ashenden of the sort that you would never hear on the BBC.
Westminster Cathedral and an act of spiritual vandalism
The row over the evisceration of Westminster Cathedral Choir has erupted again. The cathedral's excellent music administrator, Madeline Smith, has resigned from her post, accusing the choir school – which, incredibly, is the ultimate source of the threat to the choir's musical standards – of misleading parents and creating a 'toxic' atmosphere that drove out the master of music, Martin Baker.
This week's Holy Smoke gives you the background to the story and argues that the downgrading of Westminster Cathedral Choir is an act of spiritual as well as musical vandalism. There's a powerful contribution from Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former chaplain to the Queen and former chorister at Canterbury Cathedral.
The choir isn't singing at the moment, because of Covid: Westminster Cathedral has been predictably craven in its response to the pandemic, embracing and adding to the Government's control-freakery. When services resume, we can expect the long-planned dumbing down of the world's premier Catholic choir to be blamed on the virus. Don't believe a word of it – and please listen to the podcast.
Are the Habsburgs evidence of Catholicism's relevance today?
Damian Thompson is joined by Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, Hungary's ambassador to the Holy See. A member of one of Europe's most historically influential families, Eduard explains how his religious practices have adapted to the acceleration of new technologies, and tells Damian how the Habsburgs keep in contact.
The Vatican's sinister deal with Beijing
Next month, the Vatican will talk to Beijing about renewing its 2018 deal with the Chinese Communist Party that effectively allowed President Xi to choose the country's Catholic bishops. He has used this power to force Catholics loyal to Rome to join the puppet Catholic church set up by Chairman Mao in the 1950s. They can no longer refuse on the grounds that they recognise only the Pope's Church because Francis himself has validated the orders of Xi's party stooges.
But the Holy Father has done more than that: he has ostentatiously failed to condemn China's savage assaults on human rights, the worst of which is its attempt to eradicate the country's Muslim Uyghurs ethnic minority by herding them into concentration camps and forcing Uighur women to have abortions.
As I say in this episode of Holy Smoke, the Pope's behaviour is not just a disgrace but also a mystery. The Catholic Church has gained nothing from the 2018 pact. On the contrary, it has given Beijing a handy excuse to intensify its harassment of Catholics. So why is the Vatican apparently keen to renew a deal that so badly reflects on it?
One plausible explanation is money. Rome hasn't got any. China enjoys nothing more than buying influence. This year, claims surfaced that the Communist Party is quietly slipping the Vatican £1.6 billion a year in order to buy the Pope's silence about the Uyghurs, the subjugation of Hong Kong and the demolition of churches. But no evidence has been produced to support this conspiracy theory.
My guests are the journalist Catherine Lafferty and Fr Benedict Kiely, a campaigner on behalf of persecuted religious minorities.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Enjoyable, intelligent and thought-provoking. More of Carmel please.
Worth a listen
Refreshing entertaining and informative not afraid to have an opinion and standby it
Very enlightening, an eye opening podcast
I truly enjoy listening to Holly Smoke, I learn a lot through these podcasts and discussions as we, Roman Catholics, are not ‘trained’ to see beyond what our Church tells us.
That is why I’m no longer a practising Catholic, because of the hypocrisy of our Church leaders and the way the ‘Vatican State’ is run.
Thank you for the podcasts and please have them more often. I sometimes listen twice as I find them very informative, an eye opener.