Matthew Norman: Why the cardinals chose the Rottweiler

Progressives miss the point: a Pope is direct heir to the Vicar of Christ, not the Vicar of Dibley

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If this sounds like the opening to a northern club comic's gag, few are laughing at the punchline. There were these three cardinals running for Pope, see (or rather Holy See) - a Jew, a black man and a Hitler Youth ... and the Vatican took about five minutes to choose the Hitler Youth! One odd thing about the election of Joseph Ratzinger is the Fawlteian quality of the reaction. The war has been mentioned, it's true, but in such a cursory way that he has undeniably got away with.

If this sounds like the opening to a northern club comic's gag, few are laughing at the punchline. There were these three cardinals running for Pope, see (or rather Holy See) - a Jew, a black man and a Hitler Youth ... and the Vatican took about five minutes to choose the Hitler Youth! One odd thing about the election of Joseph Ratzinger is the Fawlteian quality of the reaction. The war has been mentioned, it's true, but in such a cursory way that he has undeniably got away with.

Admittedly, the 14-year-old Joseph had no choice but to join the Nazi youth movement, and later to serve as auxiliary in the Luftwaffe. However, the strict Catholic orthodoxy of which he is so muscular a defender teaches that lack of personal blame in the commission of a sin, or even in a sin of omission, is no defence. Those not baptised into the faith through no fault of their own - being born a Sikh, for example, or a Zoroastrian - are eternally denied the Kingdom of Heaven.

What a blessing for the Pontiff that the leniency denied the planet's 5 billion non-Catholics has been shown to him.

At first glance, two other ante-post favourites for the Papacy had stronger historical claims. The French cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger was born a Jew, and there is the precedent of a Jewish boy switching sides, much like Denis Law, and then relegating his former team to the Global Religious Championship (formerly the League of Faiths, Division Two). As for Francis Arinze from Nigeria, in skin colour at least he is probably a lot closer to the Son of God than a pallid Bavarian.

However, a Bishop of Rome is the literal successor not to Jesus but to St Peter, and the doctrinal successor to St Paul, the first of God's Enforcers, and the true spiritual father of Roman Catholicism. A brutal misogynist with a profound distaste for all things female ("remember whence you came," he admonished humanity, "the region of urine and excreta"), Paul was a fearsome reactionary who insisted that it is wrong, under any circumstances, for a slave to rise up against his master. So it is a bit faux-naif of outsiders to affect amazement that the Vatican has once again plumped for a hyper-authoritarian autocratic centralist.

The last Pope who hinted at wishing to shake up the Church was, of course, John Paul I, whose death within a month of the white smoke has given conspiracy theorists such endless fun. We'll never know for sure whether his colleagues gave him a helpful nudge toward the Almighty, but it says enough about the popular perception of the Vatican that untold millions assume JP I was bumped off the moment his reformist ambitions became clear.

In the week of Benedict XVI's accession, it is a cute coincidence that Dan Brown won a literary award for The Da Vinci Code. Mr Brown has sold 2.4 million paperbacks in Britain, less through a prose style that makes Jeffrey Archer read like Flaubert and more because he tapped into a general sense that there is something thrillingly sinister about the Vatican; that its senior inhabitants will stop at nothing, certainly not murder, to protect its wealth, status and raw power.

Strip away the albino Opus Dei hit man, filter out the enticing guff about Jesus having a child by Mary Magdalen, and The Da Vinci Code's core appeal is identical to that which made Graham Yallop's examination of JP I's death, In God's Name, a smash hit a quarter century ago. We adore being titillated by the portrayal of the centre of Roman Catholic power as a vipers' nest of ruthless intriguing and doctrinally-driven human wickedness.

Yet even those who hate the Vatican for its wartime accommodation with Hitler, its tolerance of priestly paedophilia, its long-term harbouring of Jan Marcinkus, the Archbishop from Chicago wanted for fraud by countless police forces, must acknowledge the magnificence of its psychological hold over a billion people. That many true believers ignore its instructions on birth control (Italy has Europe's lowest birth rate, with Ireland close behind) is irrelevant.

What matters is that they literally believe that the bread they swallow at Mass is the body of Christ, the wine His blood. It is surely a genuine miracle that intelligent, educated people remain yoked to so primitive, almost animist, a tenet of faith while genetic science stands on the threshold of completing its usurpation of the greatest of God's functions, the creation of life.

Whether consciously or instinctively, the cardinals, like the Islamic theocrats who despise all technological progress, understand that their true enemy is neither immorality nor the relativism so despised of Benedict XVI , but science. Once medicine has perfected cloning and stem cell techniques, it will defeat theological sophistry to explain what conceivable function God has left. They know that the business's mid-to long-term growth potential is not encouraging (which is why they replicate failing 1960s British car manufacturers by exporting the basic model to the developing world), and that the only way to shore up the core vote, as Michael Howard would agree, is through fear and simplicity.

A pope is the direct heir of the Vicar of Christ, not the Vicar of Dibley, and complaints from progressive Anglicans such as the Bishop of Oxford about Benedict XVI's rigid opposition to birth control and female priests wilfully miss the point. What makes Roman Catholicism so enduring is the very thing that the Anglican faith lacks, to its terminal cost: absolute, simplistic certainty about complex moral issues.

Catholicism is not a metaphorical faith. It may speaks of hell fire less than it did, but the burning fiery furnace bubbles away. Beneath the beautiful robes and even more beautiful music we saw and heard at the recent funeral is an unchanging message: do exactly as you're told, or be damned.

To many of us, it is a terrible, terrifying creed, responsible now as ever for much of the needless suffering that afflicts the world, and an incomprehensible one. How an omniscient, all-loving God can create human beings knowing they are condemned, by the accident of their birth, to earthy excruciation and eternal damnation is something no theologian has come close to answering by reference to free will or anything else.

It is, however, true to itself, and only by remaining so and crushing dissent can it eke out its global power until the test tube and DNA map diminish and finally destroy it.

Pope Benedict XVI, erstwhile head of what was known until recently as "the Inquisition", must comprehend this better than anyone alive. A Jewish pope would have been wonderful, a black one more wonderful still. But as defenders of their faith, the cardinals were absolutely right to go for the Hitler Youth.

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