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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".

Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

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