That Old Thing

A.N. Wilson

  • God’s Politician: John Paul at the Vatican by David Willey
    Faber, 249 pp, £14.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 571 16180 4

The Pope is the most interesting public figure in the Western world, because, among all the presidents and premiers who exercise power from Washington to the borders of the old Russian Empire, he seems to be the only figure guided by a sense of history. The Euro-ideals of Kohl, Mitterrand, Major and the rest are based on the presumption that it is more polite to behave as if the past had never happened: the Third Reich, the Pétain regime in France and the near-anarchy which followed it; the forty years when Spain kowtowed to the Generalisimo; the equally long period of happy fascism in Portugal; the ups and downs of Italy before, during and after the revival of the Roman Empire under the Duce; the Athens of the Colonels – these are not easy years for democrats to remember. And it is not surprising that the Delors plan seems attractive to those whose political history is so shady.

For that unique individual, a Slavic Pope, the idea of Europe is very different. Since his student days in Kracow he has imbibed the political ideals of Leo XIII, which were anti-totalitarian and anti-capitalist – ideas which in a most remarkable manner have in recent times found their hour. Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Pope said, in October 1988: ‘My wish, knowing the aspirations of the Slav people, is that one day, through the creation of free institutions with sovereign power, Europe may once again cover its true geographical, and even more important, historical dimensions.’ He wants nothing less than a restoration of the Holy Roman Empire, and, in the absence of any obvious candidate for the Imperial Throne, it is clear that in his mind the Papacy will be able to exercise more power in the world than it has done since the days of Hildebrand, when – in the simple phrase of another Leo XIII devotee, Hilaire Belloc, ‘the faith was Europe and Europe was the faith.’

This Pope, however, has enough political nose to realise that the re-establishment of such a theocracy need not limit itself to the boundaries of the old Carolingian world. When he visited Maynooth in 1982 the students greeted him with the song, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.’ He made no protest as they sang the words. As liberalised Western Catholics, particularly in the United States and in Northern Europe, disobey his teachings in relation to birth control, it is essential, if his plans for world-domination are to be successful, that he should appear as the Holy Father to the Africans, to the South Americans and to the Asians, whose theologians have not yet confronted the untenability of the Christian religion, and whose uneducated populations are more easily persuaded to multiply the ranks of the Papal battalions.

These are big ambitions, but Karol Wojtyla is a big man. Once one recognises what he is up to, all the paradoxes of his character fall into place. David Willey has written a fascinating book, and has done so from the point of view of an agonised catholic liberal. ‘My faith in God is intact,’ he tells his readers by way of preface, ‘but my allegiance to the Roman Church has been suspended while I examine this brief Polish interlude in its long history.’

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