Christopher Hitchens on the death of Pope Paul VI

"To judge by the tide of uncritical sentimentality which swept over the British press ... you might have thought that the Reformation had never taken place".

The Pope, the Flesh and the Devil

To judge by the tide of uncritical sentimentality which swept over the British press at the death of Pope Paul, and the way in which the Palace announced that flags on public buildings would be flown at half mast, you might have thought that the Reformation had never taken place. De mortuis … may be a good enough motto, but surely our journals of record can rise above the level of Lisbon or Limerick. After all, it is only a few weeks since they bemoaned his uncharitable veto on a Catholic marriage for Prince Michael of Kent.

Pope Paul's incumbency, so far from being a continuum with that of John, or a period of innovation and statesmanship (vide anybody this week from Rees-Mogg's Times to Paul Johnson in the Daily Mail) was a period in which ancient and threatened superstitions were actually entrenched and re-affirmed. It was only in Lent last year that the Pope insisted, in case of doubt among the flock, that the devil was an actual being, who dominated the temporal creation of God. During the same period of fasting he told the faithful that “you have heard a great deal about laicism, secularism, anti-clericalism and atheism. This is the world of Satan” (italics mine). Christian Democrats rejoiced.

The threat of the Evil One was a favourite of the obscurantist Paul. In 1973, admonishing the dissident cardinals who challenged his inflexibility, he solemnly intoned that “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God”. This was all of a piece with his alongside his controversial visit to Fatima, a Portuguese shrine which is looked on even by the most devout believers as a trifle doubtful and meretricious. His claim that he made the pilgrimage at the direct request of the Virgin only reminded some believers of the gap which Pope John had left.

Even the most sycophantic obituarists were in some difficulty with Pope Paul's stated and adamantine views on the use of contraception and the need for priests to be celibate. Here he was deaf to argument (and so many would-be critics preferred to hurry on and recall his absurd dispute with Archbishop Lefebvre). Less often recalled (and in the case of The Times recalled not at all) was the notorious Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics, published by his order in January 1976. This astonishing document outlawed pre-or extra-marital sex, condemned homosexuality and categorically forebad masturbation (charmingly known in Vatican circles as solitaria voluptas). “Every genital act” said the statement “must be within the framework of marriage”. As for homosexuals, “in sacred scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God”. Those given to solitaria voluptas were reminded that “the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty”.

One wonders how he knew enough to draft such gibberish. It is, of course, untrue to say, as so many papers did, that his tenure was totally untroubled by scandal. Shortly after that deathly 1976 edict received the imprimatur, Roger Peyrefitte published a detailed allegation of a relationship between Paul and a well-known actor during Paul's earlier sojourn as Archbishop of Milan. The Pope went so far as to deny the rumour in St Peter's Square (“our humble person has been made the object of derision and calumny . . .”). But let it pass.

In terms of internal and external Roman Catholic politics, Paul was dismally reactionary. He several times reaffirmed the doctrine of his own infallibility (a strictly mundane and temporal concept), especially when he ran out of arguments in rebuking dissenters. And in 1969, discussing the reunification of the Christian Church, he made a deliberate point of emphasising the doctrine of papal primacy, hardly an ecumenical or tolerant idea. On infallibility he was especially lyrical, describing it as “a beneficent lighthouse which guides the Church to its unrenounceable conquest: the truth of salvation”. Hard, in that case, to imagine how for so many centuries the Church got along without it. After this, his refusal to allow the synod of bishops a more democratic role was altogether unsurprising.

Obviously, he was a natural and instinctive conservative in secular terms as well. His period as Archbishop of Milan in the fifties is still remembered for its virulent crusade against the Communist Party and the unions. It is no accident that his announced “favourite” for the succession is the ultra-rightist Cardinal Benelli, who was seen this year with Franz-Joseph Strauss at a gathering of Euro-conservatives. The Catholic Church is a conservative institution, but seldom has its symbolic figure put such little distance between himself and the claims of medieval guilt and Italian expediency.

11 August 1978

Pope Paul VI in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.