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.’

Willey’s book is therefore animated by moral outrage at the activities of our 20th-century Hildebrand. In each individual case of unpleasantness, any right-thinking person must be on Willey’s side. But if God’s Politician has a fault, it is its failure to come to grips with what the Papacy and what the Roman Catholic Church stands for. I finished the book with a greater respect for the Pope than I had before. I also felt more certainly than ever that he was a force for evil, rather than for good. What I found difficult to understand was Willey’s implication that this particular pontificate was an unfortunate right-wing Polish aberration in a general history of decency and good will. By contrast, I felt that Pope John Paul was the champion of the faith itself, the very faith which David Willey professes to believe, and that without such tactics as the Pope’s it is hard to see how Roman Catholicism can retain any plausible hold on its adherents.

Take as an example the attacks made by the Pope upon heretic Catholic theologians. For any of us outside the Roman Catholic Church, it might seem extraordinary that academics should be hindered in their journey towards the truth by considerations of party dogma. The distinguished German priest and theologian Hans Küng has called into question – as well he might – the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, and for his temerity he has been summoned to appear before the Holy Office (what was once called the Inquisition) in Rome. Edward Schillebeeckx, the Belgian theologian, has written a book called Jesus – An Experiment in Christology. No dispassionate member of an English or American theology faculty would find this a very alarming book; indeed, by most standards, it is deeply conservative. But it does recognise that Christology – the idea of Jesus’s divinity – is a doctrine which emerged quite slowly and, in its initial stages, in a very ambiguous fashion. Schillebeeckx has expressed his anger at being summoned to Rome and ‘treated like a naughty schoolboy’ for expressing such views. Bernhard Haring, another eminent German theologian, now a monk in Bavaria, also found himself summoned to the Holy Office to explain his liberal views. With what must be overstatement, he told the Grand Inquisitor, Cardinal Seper, that he would rather find himself back in one of Hitler’s courts (an experience he underwent four times) than return for interrogation in the Holy Office. ‘The Hitler trials were certainly more dangerous, but they were not an offence to my honour.’

Reading such stories, I am on the side of the liberals, but only up to a point. After all, these men are Roman Catholic priests, and there can be no doubt that the ideas with which they are dabbling would, if taken to their logical confusion, undermine the Catholic religion altogether. They have held teaching posts in Catholic universities and seminaries. Unpleasant as the Holy Office might be, does it not have a responsibility to protect the pure well of Catholic doctrine? After all, there is nothing to stop Haring and Schillebeeckx and their like from abandoning a religion which they must know to be untrue and teaching in a secular institution.

All this could be seen as a fairly esoteric area. Something which is of much more general concern is the way that the Pope has chosen to uphold conventional Catholic views of sex and its place in the scheme of things. The chapter of Willey’s book entitled ‘The Population Explosion’ is the one which will have most readers’ blood boiling fastest, since this is the area, perhaps, where the Church’s view of things, and those of a modern liberal intelligence, diverge most sharply.

The Church’s starting-point, firmly upheld by the Pope, is that human beings possess immortal souls, which come into existence at the moment of their conception. These souls all have an eternal destiny and unless the parents, and more especially the mother, can, as it were get the soul past ‘Go’ in the spiritual Monopoly game, this soul will never have the chance to know and enjoy the company of Almighty God in Heaven. If the foetus cannot turn into a baby, and if the baby cannot become a Catholic by means of baptism, it will be a case of ‘Go to Jail; do not collect £200’ for ever and ever, Amen. That is why abortion is an unthinkable evil for the Pope. It involves sending an unhallowed human being to Limbo, which is one of the more benign circles of Hell, but Hell nonetheless. Since the male semen, in the Pope’s view, contains the potential to create life (and most Catholic theologians cling to the view that the woman is merely a vessel into which the seed of life is poured rather than being, as is in fact the case, a co-partner in the procreative process), it follows that men are in the most literal sense Temples of the Holy Ghost. Every ounce of semen which a man ejaculates contains a potential soul. That is why it is sinful for a Catholic man to masturbate, wrong for him to indulge in any form of sexual activity which could never result in a human conception. This rules out, of course, marital sex when methods of artificial birth control are used, as well as any form of extra-marital or non-marital sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

Since the Pope entertains these quaint views, it is not surprising that he takes an absolutely rigid view of the whole range of sexually-related ethical questions. Western liberals do not start with the premise of a ‘soul’ mythology. For those who are not of the Pope’s way of thinking, Willey’s chapter on the population explosion makes horrifying reading. The Pope claims spiritual authority over something like a billion people on this planet. But, as Willey observes, ‘he steadfastly refuses to use his influence over the world’s Roman Catholic population ... to use any artificial birth control methods to limit the sizes of their families.’ In fact, the Pope is more ‘hardline’ than any of his predecessors about this matter, even though, as Willey chronicles, he has seen for himself, on his showy world tours and during his visits to some of the poorest places in the world, the devastating effect of overpopulation in areas of great poverty.

Equally, the Pope’s attitude to the Aids crisis would dismay any dispassionate, common-sense observer. American Catholics produced a harmless little document called ‘The Many Faces of Aids: A Gospel Response’. It did not ‘advocate the use of prophylactics, merely providing information that is part of the factual picture’. That information was, of course, that if you indulge in sexual activity with strangers in today’s world, you are playing Russian roulette, not only with your own life but with the lives of other people. The Vatican’s immediate response was to ban this pamphlet. Mere mention of condoms was ‘unseemly’. The correct way for a Catholic to avoid contracting Aids was to lead a chaste life.

This might very well be true. But the lack of realism, like the Pope’s lack of realism about the population explosion, leads to potentially cataclysmic results. In November 1989 the Vatican sponsored its own Aids conference. As had happened during the Sixties when Pope Paul VI summoned experts to advise him about the pill, the Papacy listened to all the expert advice and then ignored it. The head of Aids research in the US Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Redfield, told the conference that Aids had become the leading cause of death in the American Armed Forces. A priest who had Aids, John White, held up a banner during the conference which contained the words: ‘The Church has Aids.’ He was frogmarched out of the room by Vatican heavies. In spite of all the advice he received during the conference, at the end of it the Pope issued a directive that there were no circumstances in which it might be justifiable for a man to wear a condom.

It is easy to see why decent-minded men like David Willey are disgusted by the Pope. And this book builds up a formidable case against John Paul, not only as a spiritual dictator, but also as a despot whose extravagant world tours and high-handed impatience with petty administration has left the Vatican itself in a state of chaos and near-bankruptcy.

What will happen to the Catholic Church when the Pope dies? Will he be seen as a mere eccentric Polish episode in the history of the Church as it marches towards the sort of theological liberalism which has undermined (some would say destroyed) the Protestant Churches? Or will he be seen as a latterday Athanasius, defending the faith against the false encroachments of the secular powers? Nearly 130 years ago, John Henry Newman wrote, ‘there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the half-way house on the one side, and Liberalism is the half-way house on the other.’ Any Jew or Muslim who reads the words could rightly scorn them, but in the context of recent Christian history, it is impossible to resist their force. The Pope may be a monster, but if so, he is a monster with a recognisable intellectual pedigree. The premises from which he argues might be wrong: but if they are accepted, then he must be right to battle stubbornly for the maintenance of the faith. The liberal position that of Küng, Shillebeeckx and presumably David Willey, is that the premise is roughly speaking right, but that John Paul is wrong to uphold it. If you do not believe that God made the world, and that as an Incarnate Being He chose to institute the Catholic Church, then what is the point of being a Catholic? This is the essence of the faith, and it is hardly surprising if, when the secular world throws doubt on the idea, a battle-hardened Pope should fight back with all the weapons in his armoury. We see what happens in the Church of England, when prelates abandon the faith and begin to accommodate themselves to the wisdom of the age. They lack the intellectual courage to recognise the logical conclusion of their liberalism. The Bishop of Durham has told us that he does not believe in Hell and he does not believe in the Virginal Conception of Christ. Probably, like the majority of Anglicans, he only hazily believes in the Resurrection or Divinity of Jesus. He and his like are simply wishy-washy liberals in fancy dress and their opinions do not count for anything.

The Pope, by contrast, remains a figure of immense power and significance in the world. People listen to him, and pay heed to him, not merely because he is an actor with a powerful charismatic presence. They know instinctively that he is fighting for an old and cherished idea. It is the idea on which Europe itself was founded: that God once walked the earth, and that when He parted from it into the clouds, He left his representative and mouthpiece here in the person of the Vicar of Christ. As the Legend of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor reminds us, this is in fact one of the most pernicious and horrible ideas which has ever seized the human imagination. But it is a paradox of the history of Catholicism that, while it is founded on falsehood, it has nurtured many magnificent human lives, as well as great books, great cathedrals, and social systems which contain within them more potential for justice than some of the atheistic alternatives which have arisen since 1789. In the person of John Paul II, this old idea, the Catholic thing, is having an airing once more. It would be premature to suggest that it is in its death-throes. With the collapse of Communism, and the absolute moral and intellectual vacancy of the post-Protestant Liberal West, there is life in the old dog yet.