The inconvenient lessons of papal history

Pope Gregory XVI declared in 1832 that freedom of the press was 'heretical vomit'

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The question no one seems willing to ask is why the cardinals picked someone so old. It's hardly worth their while going home as they'll all be back again in a few weeks to pick the next one. Maybe if they keep popping back every few months they get a cheap deal with the hotel.

The question no one seems willing to ask is why the cardinals picked someone so old. It's hardly worth their while going home as they'll all be back again in a few weeks to pick the next one. Maybe if they keep popping back every few months they get a cheap deal with the hotel.

One spokesman for the Catholic Church, replying to someone who suggested the new Pope's attitudes were a tad medieval, said, "What we do know is he's a man of holiness and prayer." It's just as well they picked him then. It would have been embarrassing if they'd sent him out to do mass and he'd said "I've never really seen the point in praying. Anyway, I don't do Sunday mornings 'cos that's my day for playing snooker."

Supporters of the new pontiff insist his aim is to preserve "eternal truths" handed down from Jesus, guidance that can't be compromised by changes in human society. For example, there can be no reversal of the ban on celibacy for priests. Except that this rule wasn't introduced until the 11th century, so for the first thousand years of the church the heathen bastards were ignoring their traditional values, until they got a grip and invented them. Even the first Pope, Saint Peter himself, was married. So hopefully the new Pope Benedict will atone for that by having St Peter's Square hosed down every day with holy water, dirty filthy sinful concourse that it is.

Then there's the tradition introduced by Pope John XXII. Various movements had been set up in opposition to the church hierarchy, which had become grotesquely and publicly decadent. The new churches insisted the priesthood should live humble lives among the poor, in accordance with the methods of Jesus. So the Pope declared it was heresy to suggest Jesus was poor. Sermons under his rule must have been brilliant. "Jesus looked upon the famished thousands and sayeth unto them, 'Fear not for thou shall be fed'. Then he rang Fortnum & Mason and ordered two van-loads of loaves and fishes. 'Sticketh it on the American Express card,' he sayeth."

Or there were two members of the Borgia family that made it to Pope. Leonardo da Vinci worked for one of them, but became concerned when, as his colleague wrote, "All Rome was trembling. Each day there are at least four murders." Eventually Leonardo fled when the Pope had his best friend strangled. I wonder how the Vatican squared that with "Thou Shalt Not Kill". They must have answered it like a politician - "Look, at the time that commandment was written we had no intention of killing. But then it became clear that, in order to fulfil our other commitments, and recover from the mess left by the previous government, there would have to be a small rise in strangling. And if you read the whole of that original tablet of stone you'll find Moses did actually make provision for modest levels of garrotting."

Perhaps the ceaseless tradition the new Pope will adhere to includes the doctrine of Pope Gregory XVI, who declared in 1832 that democracy was sinful, and freedom of the press was "heretical vomit". And decreed that any Jew who insulted Catholicism should be killed. Or maybe the rules of Pope Urban II, who had priests' wives sold into slavery.

Then there was the vilification of science, the persecution of Galileo and attitudes that led Isaac Newton to believe the Pope was the anti-Christ. All these rules were based on eternal principles. So if the new Pope's going to stick to papal traditions, he could manage to be the one person in history of whom it could be said as a child he was in the Hitler Youth, but once he grew up he went further to the right.

The Catholic Church has proved ingenious at adapting its eternal truths, finally giving in to the real world but not until it's succeeded in holding back social advancement for three or four centuries. Just as eventually they'll have to come to terms with divorce, women priests and condoms. It seems the one thing that never changes is their involvement in child abuse. It must be worth them formalising this by writing it into a canonical doctrine, so a priest comes out and reads" "Kiddius fiddlus our little secretum," and makes the sign of the cross.

No other institution could get away with revering such a record, or of choosing its leader in such an archaic manner. Couldn't they be prosecuted under an equal opportunities act for advertising a job to Catholics only? Surely there must be Jews, Muslims and atheists capable of doing the work. And there's the health and safety issue of what would happen if there was a real fire in the Vatican while the cardinals were choosing the Pope. They'd all be screaming for help, but the crowd outside would be cheering the smoke and trying to interpret its colour.

But this Pope could settle the social debate about what is natural, as ordained by God. Take a new born baby, isolate it from all human, and therefore sinful contact, and as it grows up, see what comes naturally to it first - transubstantiation or tossing itself off.

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