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.

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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser