The Holy See

Two Popes John XXIII

Pius XII - Hitler's Pope &

Karol Wojtyla

Cardinal Ratzinger

Addendum Easter 2013


Barbara Smoker
Lecture to the Ethical Society, 13 January 2008

THE word Faces in my title covers the human faces of succeeding popes and their acolytes, as well as the various aspects of Vatican power, based on three distinct legal faculties. Its Unholy Trinity, of Church, worldwide diplomatic power, and city state, is interchangeable whenever it suits the Vatican to switch from one persona to another.

In its ecclesiastical role, the Roman Catholic Church not only dictates the morals and life-style of its own adherents, numbering about a billion - a sixth of the world's population - but also claims moral authority over the Eastern Christian rites, which it recognises as having retained the apostolic succession and therefore valid sacraments; as well as, paradoxically, over all Protestant sects, which have broken the line of apostolic succession.

Most of the known Catholic MPs in this country obey the Vatican rather than reflect the views of their constituents in Parliament whenever a vote is taken in the House on some such ethical issue as abortion or euthanasia. In fact, when Tony Blair was finally received into the Church of Rome, he was castigated by fellow Catholic convert Ann Widdecombe, MP, for not having followed the papal line when he was Prime Minister, since he must have been aware even then that it was the one true and infallible faith.

The Holy See

In its second role, of international politics, the Vatican is known as `the Holy See' - derived from the Latin word sedes, meaning `seat'. As such it deploys 179 ambassadorial `nuncios' to individual states around the world, receiving 166 in return. This despite the fact that the geographical Vatican has, since 1929 - the year Conway Hall was built - been reduced through the Lateran Treaty, negotiated with the fascist Mussolini, to 108 acres, with a native resident population of only about 600. However, its contriving to remain neutral in both world wars did give it the useful function of enabling enemy nations to make contact through their envoys at the papal court.

The present nuncio to the Court of St James - in other words, the UK - is a 67year-old Spanish archbishop, who lives in a large house in Wimbledon, called the Apostolic Nunciature. A trained lawyer before joining the Vatican diplomatic service in 1970, he has been described by the Catholic paper the Tablet as `a man who believes in the Christian faith asserting itself in the market-place where decisions are taken'. He was thus in his element in the job that he held before this one, when heading the permanent mission of the Holy See to the European Union in Brussels, where he was closely involved in the drafting of the EU's Constitution, recently signed by Gordon Brown under its revised title of the European Treaty.

The third legal role of the Vatican, thanks to the 1929 Lateran Treaty, is that of an independent Italian city state, with sovereign power and influence, internal and external, out of all proportion to its miniscule size.

This whole tripartite set-up, embodied in the autocratic rule of the papacy, is completely centralised. Even its regional cardinals and bishops are no more than local branch managers in a multi-national corporation, having to obey directives from the top without question; and they will have been selected by the Vatican on the basis of frequent reports from the nuncio as to members of the national clergy meriting promotion - that is, echoing the Pope's own views.

The Second Vatican Council, mustered by Pope John XXIII in 1962 `to open up the windows of the Church', gave promise of more democratic consultation and decentralisation, called `collegiality', but this has been steadily eroded under each subsequent pope.

Two Popes John XXIII

The entry in Joseph McCabe's Rationalist Encyclopedia under the name John XXIII, describing him as the most licentious and brutal of all the many wicked popes, puzzles many people who have come across it; but the explanation, of course, is that two very different men, nearly six centuries apart, chose the same name and number on being elected pope. Anyway, McCabe died three years before the second event.

As the high number 23 shows, the name John was the most popular papal name until the 15th century. Then, having been sullied, it was boycotted until 1958, when Angelo Roncalli not only rehabilitated it - partly because Giovanni had been his own father's name - but decided to repeat the previous number, so as to confirm that its earlier bearer had, as the Catholic commentators maintained, never been truly pope.

The imperialist totalitarianism of the papacy was first established in the 5th century, when the Bishop of Rome began to lord it over all the other bishops and centralise the power of the Church - eventually acquiring for himself such arrogant titles as 'His Holiness' and `the Vicar of Christ', to reflect an assumed intimate relationship with the deity.

Famously Described by Hobbes as `the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof', the papacy is not comparable, for instance, with a constitutional monarchy, but commands supreme authority over the entire Catholic Church.

From the 8th century, in addition to its existing unique ecclesiastical power, the Vatican acquired its `temporal power', meaning vast territorial possessions in central Italy, known as the Papal States. In an Italian plebiscite in the 19th century, an overwhelming majority of residents in every province voted for transfer of its sovereignty from the papacy to the kingdom of Italy. Even then, the Italian government awarded the papacy £120,000 a year in compensation, just as American slave-owners were being compensated for the abolition of slavery.

Every succeeding pope, however, disdainfully rejected the annual award until Pius XI, in my own childhood, accepted the accumulated sum and interest on it, along with independence for the Vatican State, under the Lateran Treaty - a 'concordat' in all but name.

A concordat is an often secret pact made by the Vatican with a foreign government, to secure special privileges for the Church in that country. It is generally signed by the resident papal nuncio, and since he enjoys the status of an ambassador (including the title `Excellency'), the nuncio's signature has the backing of international law, so can actually override national legislation. Even if a duly elected parliament tried later to modify the provisions of a concordat, it could not do so legally without the consent of the Holy See.

Pius XII - Hitler's Pope

Pius XI was succeeded in 1939 by Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII, who has been dubbed `Hitler's Pope'. In 1914, as a young priest-lawyer in the Vatican's diplomatic service he had drafted and negotiated a concordat with Serbia, causing Austro-Hungarian retaliation that made the Great War inevitable.

It was also he who, in 1933, as the Vatican Secretary of State, six years before becoming pope, had negotiated a concordat with the emergent Nazi Germany. This not only prevented him from condemning the wartime Final Solution but still bolsters Vatican policies to this day - helping to enforce Canon Law, which is virtually the Catholic version of Sharia.

The man expected to become pope on the death of Pius XII in 1958 was the austere Cardinal Montini, known as a progressive intellectual, keen on social justice. He was eventually to become Pope Paul VI - but not for another five years, for strategic voting against him in the 1958 conclave was sufficient to pass him over and elect the elderly, rustic, avuncular Roncalli, supposedly as a harmless stop-gap.

The Birth Control Commission

On the contrary, in his short reign as John XXIII, he managed to bring about more changes in the Church and its liturgy than had been achieved since the Council of Trent exactly four centuries earlier.

Had he lived another year he would probably have allowed artificial contraception, by implementing the report of the Birth Control Commission that he had set up, but by that time Paul VI had come to the papal throne, and he was too dithery to countenance such a move away from the allegedly infallible strictures of past pontificates, especially after receiving a written warning against it in inexorable terms from the Polish cardinal recognised as the Church's chief expert on sexual matters - though no one could have guessed that this young man was destined in the following decade himself to become pope: the first non-Italian pope for 450 years.

The reason that he had to send his views on the birth-control issue to Rome in writing was that, though he had attended the Second Vatican Council as the Archbishop of Cracow in 1962, he was now refused permission by the Soviet authorities to repeat the journey for a personal meeting with Pope Paul. In retrospect, this may have been of momentous significance, for his written views were reflected, and even quoted verbatim, in Paul's 1968 prohibitory encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

By the time that encyclical came out, many fertile Catholic women in the developed world, assuming that the Pill was about to be sanctioned, had jumped the gun - and few of them were willing to go back to `Vatican roulette'. This had far-reaching effects, either calamitous or salutary, according to one's standpoint, since it weakened papal authority for good. After all, once you have disobeyed the Pope in one matter, it becomes less shocking to defy him in anything else.

The year 1978 was an unusual one in the annals of the Catholic Church: it had three popes - something that had not occurred since the Middle Ages. Paul VI, who had been in the top job for fifteen years, died in July and was succeeded by Albino Luciani - a smiling, unassuming, pastoral sort of cardinal, conservative in doctrine but politically naive. He chose the name John Paul (the first double-barrelled name in papal history), to indicate that he intended to follow in the footsteps of his last two predecessors - a perplexing intention, since John and Paul were so different.

Then he did something else unusual: he died (or was murdered) after only 33 days in office - an apparent blunder on the part of the Holy Spirit, who supposedly guides the election of popes. The second 1978 conclave, which entailed a hefty expense for the Vatican, took care to choose a man renowned for his physical fitness.

Karol Wojtyla

Thus it was that, on the eighth ballot, the compromise choice of Karol Wojtyla made him the first Polish pope ever and the first non-Italian for 450 years, which horrified some of the older Italian cardinals. There were also murmurings that, aged only 58, the new pope could well remain in office too long - and how right that proved to be! His pontificate of 26'/2 years was the third longest of the supposed 264 popes, and he blocked many much-needed reforms.

In his youth, Karol Wojtyla had been a courageous opponent of both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships in Poland, and only escaped imprisonment under the Nazis by becoming a labourer in a stone quarry. In 1942, as an act of rebellion, he joined Cracow's underground seminary, to embark on secret part-time training for the priesthood; and in 1946, equally against the new Soviet regime, he was ordained. It is ironic that his staunch opposition to the two totalitarian regimes was to culminate in himself becoming the world's most pervasive totalitarian despot.

Though his chosen name, John Paul II, gave little indication of his intentions, his immediate predecessor having had no time to make his mark, the second John Paul soon emerged as a hard man, determined to put a brake on `the runaway Church' set in motion by John XXIII: At the same time, his 'charisma' and acting ability endeared him to the laity and ordinary priests (less so to many bishops, whose authority he curtailed) and to millions of non-Catholics around the world.

After half-a-century suffering oppression by foreign powers - first the Nazi occupation and then the Soviet `liberators' - Poland spearheaded the collapse of communism in 1989, the pope being credited with its impetus. It is true that his support for the rebellion of trade-unionist Lech Walesa (who himself attended the papal funeral sixteen years later, and who surely deserves more credit than the pope) awakened the Catholic chauvinism that galavanised the Polish people to mass defiance of their oppressors; but totalitarian Marxism was on the verge of collapse anyway, throughout eastern Europe, from the internal failures of its fiscal and social regime.

Too Effectual On Sexual Issues

Karol Wojtyla was , a consistent pro-lifer - not only implacably opposed to contraception, abortion, and voluntary euthanasia, but also (unlike many other prolifers) to war and capital punishment. Right up to the end, he rebuked Bush and Blair for the war in Iraq, and he opposed the retention of the death penalty in some American states. Other enlightened strands of his papacy included his goodwill gestures towards other religions and his castigation of capitalist greed and Third World debt - though he berated the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America as being too Marxist.

However, he proved ineffectual on the more liberal of his policies, while all too effectual, especially in the developing world, on sexual issues - most perniciously, his ban on the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of AIDS. Also, ecclesiastically, on the celibacy of priests and the exclusion of women from the priesthood.

Twelve days after his demise, I visited a local Catholic church to. pick up a copy of their weekly newsletter. The editorial began: `As he reached his last breath the Holy Father uttered his final word, `Amen', and bowing his head he gave up the spirit.' A miracle, indeed! - for he was by then physically incapable of uttering any word.

The holy spin-doctors hardly needed such obvious fiction when they had on their side the televised fact of millions of pilgrims to the lying-in-state and then to the biggest, most celebrity-spangled, funeral ever staged.

However, it is instructive to analyse the motives of those millions. Many - perhaps most - were there out of mere curiosity and the urge to be present on a special occasion with such a great gathering of the world's rulers, royals, and religious luminaries. Even those with genuine tears in their eyes (hand-picked by the television cameras) were there out of an emotional veneration for the messenger while generally rejecting his message - for we know, statistically, that very few Western Catholics obey his strictures on contraception.

As for the preponderant Polish mourners, their prime motive was nationalistic rather than religious, since they credited John Paul with having rescued their own sovereign country from Soviet control. One of their number, interviewed on TV, said that he was not just their national hero - he was their national redeemer: and this Christlike terminology was symptomatic of the general emotional confusion.

Cardinal Ratzinger

The main responsibility for officiating at the uniquely public funeral fell to Cardinal Ratzinger, and he had obviously rehearsed his part well. He came over as another charismatic figure - worthy, in spite of his advanced age, of succeeding the pope he was burying. He was duly elected. Taking the name Benedict, after the pope who, elected in September 1914, opposed the first world war, he presumably intended to take a stand against present-day warfare, but his known conservatism did not betoken much in the way of radical reforms in any of the three aspects of the Vatican. `Collegiality', ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, only to be eroded by John Paul II, is being further eroded by his successor.

It was hoped at first that he would make priestly celibacy optional because of the practical problem of too few `vocations' to the priesthood in most countries - not to mention the scandal of paedophilia among sex-starved priests but he may fear widespread anger among existing priests if they feel they have been subjected to lifelong celibacy without reason. As for sanctioning the ordination of women, even to relieve the critical shortage of priests, that would probably go too much against the grain of his male chauvinism.

Faced with the appalling escalation of AIDS in Africa, Benedict could well allow condoms to be used for euphemistic therapeutic purposes, though the liberalisation of other sexual and social prohibitions (contraception, abortion, IVF, gay sex, divorce, and voluntary euthanasia) is extremely unlikely during his pontificate. However, he will find it difficult to stem the current flouting of them by Catholics in developed countries, and this is bound to spread gradually to poorer areas of the world, with authoritarian attempts to discipline them causing wholesale defections from the Church.

It may well be, therefore, that the colossal power of the Vatican has already passed its peak.

Addendum, Easter 2013

The personal culpability of Benedict XVI (ne Ratzinger) in the global-cover-up of the clerical child-abuse scandal, not only during his eight -year papacy but throughout the two decades preceding it, finally forced him to abdicate.

    The cardinals faced with electing his successor have fallen back on a bland, naive 76-year-old candidate who is obvioursly merely a stop-gap pope, to allow time for the scandals to simmer down.While his simplicity of style is welcome, his ingrained conservative theology makes any positive reforms - even those initiated fifty years ago by John XXIII - a forlorn hope.

Ethical Record, January 2008