There is widespread confusion over the extraordinary Foreign Office "brainstorming" memo entitled "The ideal visit would see . . .", and it has caused huge diplomatic tensions between the UK and the Holy See, which have enjoyed unprecedentedly strong relations in recent years -- until now.
People think it is a joke. That is to say, that it was written as a joke. This is not surprising, given the range of suggestions, which include a form of contraception named after the Pope, the Pope opening an abortion clinic, and the Pope overseeing a homosexual wedding.
In fact, I am reliably told by a senior Whitehall source: "This was not written as a joke. It was meant to be a serious brainstorming by various people [and was] designed for a meeting. I know it is hard to believe, but it is serious."
In which case, the memo says more about the mindset of what one official calls the "aggressive secular fundamentalism" that is entrenched in the Foreign Office than it does about the papal visit, which, for all the Vatican's faults, remains a good thing.
Don't get me wrong. I deplore the sick culture of child abuse that has been unearthed in the Roman Catholic Church. And I will upset some Catholic friends by saying that I have some sympathy with the view that the Pope should show leadership, take overall responsibility and "resign" over the issue.
Even before that grotesque scandal was reported, I didn't have much time for a Pope who is into Gucci shoes and iPods.
However, much work has been put in by the British embassy in the Vatican -- and by ministers who should not be blamed -- to improve relations with the centre of a religion followed by millions. In an age when interfaith recognition is vital, that is very important work indeed.
That this memo has been setback, caused by the childish and frankly idiotic provocations of sniggering officials with too much time on their hands, is an embarrassment to Britain. Secularists should offer faiths the same freedom of thought that they hold so dear.
I will be returning to this subject.
UPDATE: A query I submitted to the Foreign Office about whether or not the document is a joke has not had a response (2 May).