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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A general election means Jeremy Corbyn's euroscepticism is finally an asset

The Labour leader's track record means he can connect with Remain and Leave voters alike. 

The first anti-establishment party leader to offer true ideological opposition and alternative to the Thatcher consensus in a generation is staring down the barrel of a 20 point polling deficit at the start of this snap election race. This leader has filled halls; galvanised hundreds of thousands and consistently voted on the side of freedom, progress and justice. So just why has he been abandoned by those who should support him?

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has rightly been held to account, the criticisms have been, at times, unfairly amplified both by hostile MPs and a condescending press. With the election just over 40 days away, the left must now realise the severity of the task at hand, and question whether its constant attacks are helping to create the monstrous Tory landslide we all so fear. In the run-in, Corbyn will need unified backing by all those who oppose austerity, inequality and injustice, in a way he’s so far failed to receive.

The votes for Brexit and Donald Trump show the sheer disillusionment with the extreme centre governments of the last decades, that have given rise to mass inequality, caused global instability and brought terrorism to our doors. While Corbyn’s policies – on nationalising railways, foreign intervention, supporting the NHS, tuition fees, and more – are overwhelmingly supported by the public, he has so far lacked the communicative edge to ride the wave of this new age of populism. Whereas policy-lite Trump romped home with the mere repetition of eight syllables, Corbyn often misses opportunities to sell the bright, inclusive future needed to inspire the British public. He needs to create the punchy soundbite that sells his vision, in one, short sentence what a future Britain can look like, and how it stands in stark contrast to that of the Tories.

Throughout his spell at the helm of the Labour Party, Corbyn’s style has constantly been ridiculed; from his dress sense to tone of voice. So what do we really value in a leader and how should they act?

As PM, David Cameron regularly hit home in Parliament, brashly mocking opponents with quips and digs. He stood smug and unrepentant as deeply damaging cuts were enforced. But while he was once considered a strong and stately leader, history now judges him quite differently. For inflicting austerity, and leaving behind a heavily divided Britain, he’s now recognised as one of the worst. Theresa May’s brief stint at leadership has already seen a humiliating u-turn, dodged live debate and false election date promises, all while cruelly playing with the lives of millions of EU nationals.

Meanwhile, Corbyn, who at times has been unfairly lambasted for his approach has consistently displayed personal and professional dedication to championing pro-people politics for over 30 years, undeterred by spin and political games. Compassion, equality, fairness - surely these leadership traits hold equal worth.

In an election based primarily on Brexit, Corbyn can take real and emboldened ownership. A lifelong eurosceptic, Corbyn has the chance to offer a people-led Brexit that works for the majority, reaching out to Leave and Remain voters alike.

Much of the Remain protest movement and post-referendum activism revolves around fears of Britain becoming racist, hostile and isolationist in its approach to would-be migrants, and EU nationals. In negotiations, if a deal on immigration is to be struck, Corbyn’s historically compassionate views on migrants and refugees could create the most fair, humane solution possible. In his move today, he’s sought to reassure EU nationals of a future far removed from May’s brutal nationalistic games. And in Corbyn’s lifelong championing of workers’ rights, and redistribution of wealth, he can at last speak to the working-class heartlands freely of an inclusive and beneficial post-Brexit future.

While there can be shortcomings in Corbyn’s communication, and occasionally muted approach; criticisms can frequently seem unbalanced. His inability to shout about recent budgetary u-turns, for instance, made headlines over the actual climbdown itself. The time has surely come to focus on the severity of the alternative.

Throughout his leadership, Corbyn has been targeted by all corners of the press, with focus poured on his character over providing a real and important platform to explore his policies. When he refused mass media engagement he was dubbed cranky and weak, yet we’ve largely let May off the hook for dodging much-needed live debate. Written off by Westminster, mocked and condemned by the media. A principled voice fighting for equality, inclusion and fairness. Not much has changed in 30 years.

While we must hold his leadership to account, there is a sense that we, on the left are at times helping to fuel the massive Tory victory we apparently dread. So now is the time to remind ourselves, and others, who and what we’re up against. The "go-home illegal immigrants" vans circulated, and then pulled by May; her election u-turn, reinvention and uncompromising hard-Brexit approach. A party of callous, brutal decisions that have caused despair and plunged many into poverty. A snapshot of their comparative voting records alone should be enough to put the choice ahead of us into stark perspective.

And just to reiterate Corbyn’s largely swallowed, forgotten record during his rebranding as meaningless, lost and ineffectual. He was right on sad, regrettable wars; he passionately protested apartheid, championed workers rights and equal pay, and has consistently stood up for the NHS – against party line.

That’s a name, record and leader many will be proud to put an inked endorsement by on 8 June 2017. 

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