A N Wilson: The defenders of the faiths

Whatever your view of the Pope, you cannot ignore his conviction that the human soul is more valuable than any system or political power base, says A N Wilson
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The Independent Online

The death of a Pope is, for Catholics, a moment of personal loss, as the death of a sovereign is for a nation. But for the rest of us it is also a solemn moment, forcing upon the consciousness the sheer survival power of that mighty institution, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Papacy at its heart. This is one of the most extraordinary of all historical phenomena. The historian Elizabeth Longford, herself a Catholic, was once discussing with me the difficulty of conducting research in the archives at Windsor Castle. It was understandable that the Royal Family guarded the privacy of those still alive, or recently dead. But, when it came to the marital secrets of George IV, or Queen Victoria, surely enough time had elapsed for scholars to be allowed free access?

The death of a Pope is, for Catholics, a moment of personal loss, as the death of a sovereign is for a nation. But for the rest of us it is also a solemn moment, forcing upon the consciousness the sheer survival power of that mighty institution, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Papacy at its heart. This is one of the most extraordinary of all historical phenomena. The historian Elizabeth Longford, herself a Catholic, was once discussing with me the difficulty of conducting research in the archives at Windsor Castle. It was understandable that the Royal Family guarded the privacy of those still alive, or recently dead. But, when it came to the marital secrets of George IV, or Queen Victoria, surely enough time had elapsed for scholars to be allowed free access?

Yet, any fact unearthed about the Royal Family has to be vetted by the guardians of royal secrets, before it can be published. I remarked that it made an odd contrast with the Vatican, where scholars have been given completely free access to archives which could quite possibly be very damaging to the historical reputation of say, Pius XII, the wartime Pope. Ah, said Elizabeth Longford, that is perfectly true. But then, you see, the Popes have been promised that the gates of hell cannot prevail against them, whereas the House of Windsor has been given no such reassurance.

Elizabeth Longford belonged to that large body of people, of all races and of all levels of intelligence, who did accept the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. To those of us outside the fold, these claims seem quite literally beyond belief. That God himself walked the Earth in human form, died and rose from the dead, is itself hard enough to imagine. But that, before the Ascension he instituted and founded the church, with St Peter at its head, to guard the faith and morals of the human race until the Last Judgement is a claim which makes the head spin.

Quite apart from the claims made by the church over the centuries, not only about the historical figure of Jesus, but about the Virgin Mary his mother, about the Eucharist, about the after-life - limbo, purgatory, heaven and hell, or about how to reduce your time spent in these putative states - there is the very simple historical fact that no proof has ever been offered that St Peter ever went to Rome, let alone that he was its first bishop. All old sources link him with the patriarchate of Antioch.

No matter. This is not a moment to be rehearsing the obvious - namely why so many million Europeans do not believe in the Catholic religion. Nor is it a moment for asking, given the extraordinarily improbable claims made by that church, how it should be able to claim moral authority over the sexual lives of its members. This is truly the most bizarre, and to many of us the most distasteful, aspect of what might be deemed the Vatican power game: its belief that it can control human beings by telling them what is legitimate in the bedroom.

Such intrusions into the lives of the poor - decreeing that it is sinful for them to limit the numbers of their families - are as distasteful as the chicanery which allows some, but not all, divorced Catholics to say that their marriages, often of long duration, had never been "true" marriages in the first instance and so are null and void. This is the sort of mumbo-jumbo which has led many in the West to abandon not merely Catholicism but any religious belief whatsoever.

In the pontificate of John Paul II, for all the tireless intellectual energy that he has devoted to the defence of the faith, for all his personal dynamism, and for all his undoubted sanctity, the rigorous insistence by the Pope upon a conservative understanding of the Catholic religion has failed to stem the tide of apostasy.

For Catholics themselves, then, this will be a moment to ask whether the church needs at this time a conservative Pope who will continue to insist on the literal truth of the old doctrines, or whether now is the time for a liberaliser to step into the apostolic throne.

Those of us who do not pretend to believe Catholic doctrine must stand back from any such debate, considering it unlikely that any candidate for the post will be so liberal as to admit that, say, homosexuality is a temperamental accident not (as the catechism decrees) one of the four sins crying to Heaven for vengeance. Nor is it very likely that they will elect a pontiff who is so conservative as to restore the glorious traditions of the old Tridentine liturgy. The secular world would hope that we might at last have a Pope who thought it was better to give out free condoms than to encourage the spread of Aids in Africa, but even this seems an unlikely possibility.

Rather, this is the moment, surely, for non-Catholics, especially if they are Europeans, to pause and consider what a powerful debt they owe to the church. The wartime Pope, Pius XII, is often lambasted these days, for failing to speak up against the Third Reich. A film such as Der Neunte Tag ("The Ninth Day") which came out in Germany last year is sufficient to remind us that, whatever the Pope did or did not say, the resistance of the ordinary Catholic faithful, their bishops and their clergy to the Nazi regime was truly heroic. Dachau was filled with thousands of priests. Hitler's Table Talk is a catalogue of denunciations of Catholicism, and he saw it, especially in Bavaria, as one of the greatest barriers to the furthering of his murderous ambitions. Stalin could at the same time scornfully ask how many divisions the Pope had. John Paul II retrospectively showed him how many. The seemingly unbudgeable monolith of eastern European Communism crumbled partly because of economic pressure and the unwieldy nature of the Soviet structures; but also because so many eastern Europeans, especially in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, believed that the Pope spoke for them. Which he did.

John Paul II will not be remembered as an old bigot who would not give condoms to Aids-ridden Africans, nor as a man who outraged American gays, feminists and liberals the world over. He will be remembered as the Pope who helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. Likewise, his creed, so improbable as it is to us invincible doubters, contains within it the powerful assurance that each and every person conceived in their mother's womb is of infinite worth, all equal before God, whether black, white, rich, poor, potentially disabled or fit. This is the greatest legacy of the Roman church. Before the conversion of Constantine, the streets of Rome had dumps where you could leave unwanted babies, rather as we have bottle banks. As soon as Constantine was converted, this custom was abandoned and Christian orphanages were opened. The shaming legacy of superstition, bigotry, philistinism, inquisitions, holy wars, crusades and the rest is not to be denied.

There will always be those who cheer on the Enlightenment when they read about it, and salute the ambition of strangling the last aristocrat with the guts of the last priest. But this is to overlook the essential humanism of the Catholic faith, its passionately held claim that the human soul, whether of king or peasant, is more valuable than any system, or political power base. This, surely, is why the Catholic church, for all its puzzling and esoteric failings, has survived and why great Popes, such as John Paul II, so often live in history when political tyrants are forgotten.

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