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13 March 2000

The devil’s in the details of your diet

Peter Stanford predicts schism as a potential Pope declares that the Antichrist is among us

By Peter Stanford

I am the Antichrist. I confess and ask for absolution. Despite wearing out the kneeler at mass (almost) every Sunday, choosing a Catholic education for my children and keeping my impure thoughts to the bare minimum necessary to get by, it has been revealed to me from on high that I am in fact the ghastly beast of the Book of Revelation. This is the same Antichrist who is the great bogeyman of the Good Book.

The case against me is damning, at least if the God-fearing messenger who conveyed the news is to be believed. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the Archbishop of Bologna and one of that select group of ecclesiastical bigwigs who carry the tag “papabile” (meaning he is a possible successor to the Pope), has announced that the Antichrist is alive and well and stalking the Earth. According to Revelation, this means that the end is nigh – so stop paying into those pension plans and swap nicotine patches for 20 Silk Cut.

You can spot the Antichrist, the good cardinal informs us, by his or her concern for human rights, for the environment and for ecumenism. Guilty on all three counts. Moreover, if the suspect doesn’t eat meat and gives money to charity, his identity is a foregone conclusion. I put my hands up. Hand me over to the Spanish Inquisition.

My only hope of avoiding the rack and eternal damnation rests on two minor points. First, Cardinal Biffi says that the aforementioned Antichrist will have a “fascinating personality”. Though in my vainer moments I’d happily plead guilty to that as well, I’m sure I could convince a jury otherwise. And, second, there are undoubtedly millions of us Antichrists around the globe, so there is going to be a very long queue for the chamber of horrors.

It is tempting to write off such intemperate outbursts as yet more of the same old gumpf that elderly clerics keep trotting out in an effort to make the Catholic Church look foolish and superstitious. You could, I suppose, argue the point on human rights: the Pope, after all, gave the Vatican’s equivalent of a knighthood to that well-known upholder of the principle “Kill first and then ask questions”, General Augusto Pinochet.

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But, if you start condemning vegetarians and philanthropists, the next thing you know, the late Mother Teresa will be stoking the fires of hell.

What makes Biffi’s outburst more worrying than laughable, however, is that this is the man who may any day be Pope. John Paul II looks ever more frail, while the electoral college that will choose his successor – the Conclave of Cardinals – is stuffed with deeply traditionalist elderly men who hanker after a return to the habit – undisturbed for 455 years until the advent of the Polish Karol Wojtyla – of having an Italian in charge of their Church.

Biffi fits the bill perfectly. He is not only Italian but stands to the right of the current Pope, having let it be known recently that he opposes the mea culpa being issued on the Church’s behalf by John Paul II for such medieval bloodbaths as the Crusades.

Indeed, Biffi’s brand of Catholicism is very similar to American Christian fundamentalism. In the standard view of the world of Christianity, you have time- honoured Catholicism and Orthodoxy at one end of the spectrum, wishy-washy Anglicans and Nonconformists in the middle, and the new kids on the block, Bible-bashing evangelicals, at the other. But Biffi’s words turn this line into a circle, for you’d be hard-pressed to slip a mass-card between his view of the Antichrist and that of the fundamentalists on America’s religious broadcasting networks.

In Texas, the buckle on the American Bible belt, you have disc jockeys such as Texe Marrs who fill their shows with items entitled “25 ways to spot the Antichrist”. This manhunt is part of a wider belief among an estimated 40 million Americans that the words of the Book of Revelation, the last and most puzzling of the Bible texts, are literally true. Revelation recounts in detail the end of the world, preceded by a millennium of direct rule by God from heaven. By confusing this thousand-year period with the current calendar millennium, fundamentalists have concocted a Doomsday scenario which has led them effectively to opt out of this world in the sure and fervent hope that it is about to end.

That Cardinal Biffi should buy into – or even cosy up to – this sort of madness should start alarm bells ringing throughout the Catholic Church. At the very least, it goes completely against Pope John Paul II’s express instructions on how the millennium should be regarded. If Biffi were a progressive theologian, he would be drummed out of the Church by the Vatican bureaucracy. But he is one of the traditionalists and they are, under the current regime, allowed to dissent from papal teaching as much as they like.

For mild-mannered Antichrists such as me, however, the notion of our Church sliding towards fundamentalism and presided over by a Cardinal Biffi suggests that the time has come for a mass exodus. The haemorrhage of the faithful in the wake of the 1968 encyclical humanae vitae and the upholding of the ban on artificial contraception will be nothing in comparison. If the leadership of Catholicism is to embrace extremism and Bible literalism, the silent schism that currently divides the world’s largest denomination between progressives and traditionalists will be silent no more. The Church will split. And if Cardinal Biffi presides over this as Pope, I wonder who will then have the best claim on the title of Antichrist.

Peter Stanford’s “Bronwen Astor: her life and times” is published this month by HarperCollins

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