Glen Newey · Papal Transports
Apparently the last pope, John Paul II, didn’t much care for the term ‘Popemobile’, which lacks the gravitas of the sedia gestatoria, the flunkey-borne sedan chair, flanked by white ostrich plumes, used for bearing popes on public show until the start of Karol Wojtyła’s pontificate in 1978. Presumably the term was formed by analogy with the Batmobile, used by the Caped Crusader for his forays into Gotham City’s dark underbelly, there to do battle with the Penguin, the Joker and other badhats.
Currently, as on his recent UK tour, the pontiff trundles around in an adapted Mercedes sports utility vehicle which, one imagines, guzzles more gallons to the mile than a Prius. Partly that will be due to the Merc’s extensive body armour, including the bullet-proof glass behind which the Holy Father’s mortal crust is showcased to the gawping hordes; the hand of God is not trusted to shield his vicar on earth from the assassin’s bullet or the nutter’s cudgel.
It seems a slightly incongruous perch from which to preach the vanity of earthly glories. You can’t really imagine this much fanfare being made by worldlier figures like the Rotarian president, or the leader of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). One of my more testing experiences of student feedback came after giving a lecture on the ethics of lying, which led to a showdown between an evangelical Christian and a blue-dreadlocked druid. The Christian said that the Good Book had had something to say about the evil of bearing false witness. He was rebuked by the druid: ‘I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the Bible.’ The two came close to blows, and not in a good way. I went forth redoubled in my determination to spread the gospel of love and non-violence.
The former Cardinal Ratzinger surely does give a rat’s arse about the Bible. His views on neo-paganism are more conjectural. Even were he to warm to its message of anti-materialism, indifference to celebrity, and sparing use of chemical stimulants, it’s doubtful he would take Roman-heathen ecumenicism as far as a session in a sweat lodge. If he did, he might reflect on the absurdity of religious differences, or indeed of religion itself – but could comfort himself with the thought that for us atheists, it can only be an absurdity that the human race has visited on itself. That’s one of the things that makes the atheo-proselytising of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the rest hard to swallow, even for us desiccated Mammon-worshippers.
And therein lies the sacramental value of the papal SUV. It taunts heathens with the materialism of the Church Militant, an unignorable reminder that the gilded manacles of faith are ones we have forged for ourselves. The Ratzmobile lets daylight in on magic. It tosses a sop to Mammon and his fans in the material world – while keeping the pontifical aura safely enshrouded in a glass bubble.