I am not a Roman Catholic but I find the Church endlessly fascinating. The Pope’s recent ‘clarification’ of the Church’s position on condoms, for instance. We learn that the prohibition on condoms is not as absolute as we all thought. But we should not be too surprised. Catholics have worked out the real position for some years now. And they must suspect that it all depends on who the Pope is at any given time.
Paul VI, for instance: that driven, sensitive man to whom fell the task of making sure that Vatican II happened set up a commission to look into the whole issue of contraception. A majority of the commission’s members, who included a married couple, gave Paul a draft report which indicated how the Church could get out of its position of prohibition of birth control. Paul considered the proposition carefully. But he was no match for Cardinal Ottaviani, the then Secretary of the Holy Office and leader of the conservatives amongst the College of Cardinals. This blind, imperious old man made sure that the Pope did not stray from the straight and narrow. One can be sure that a mensch like John Paul II would not have given ground to any of his Cardinals, however overbearing.
Harold Macmillan, meeting Pius XII during the last stages of World War II, described him as “at once tremendous and pathetic.” Pius’ naivety, pietism and traditionalism were effectively skewered by the French diplomat and controversialist Roger Peyrefitte in his satirical novel Les Cles de Saint Pierre (1953). He it was who, two decades later, alleged that Paul VI was a closet gay.
So it matters who the occupant of the Throne of St Peter is. He is, after all, a human being, subject to the same fears and assumptions that afflict of all of us. But a weak, otherworldly pontiff does the Church no favours.
According to the prophecies of St Malachy, the next Pope will also be the last. Let us hope that he will be a man in touch with the modern world, aware of the human predicament, and merciful. And strong. Viva il Papa.