Papal elections are God’s Olympics. The splendour, the global publicity, the weeping crowds, the human drama, the race to the finish, all dazzle the senses and beg interpretive meaning. There is none. The conclave is showmanship. Those who believe the pope to be God’s minister on Earth must regard his choice as no more than an act of God. Those who believe otherwise see him as leader of a large but declining conservative sect, a genial figurehead but with a baleful influence on the societies over which he claims authority. It is in the latter respect that his election matters.
Catholic theology remains obscure. Was this week’s happening in the Sistine Chapel a political manoeuvre, in which cunning cardinals judged the needs of a scandal-ridden 21st century church? Or was it a celestial Ouija board, in which God amused himself pushing 115 voting slips this way and that for a couple of days? Were the cardinals free agents, or not?
There are times when Rome would have done well to concede the Albigensian heresy, that the world is a place of good and evil in perpetual contention. By declaring God’s omnipotence and, later, the church’s infallibility, Catholicism has come to tarnish the Almighty with paedophilia, money laundering and support for dodgy dictatorships, from which no amount of prayer seems able to liberate Him, or it.
Many Catholics find such point-scoring distasteful. To them the new pope is an icon of piety, chastity and poverty, to be placed above the sordid politics of the Roman curia. That would be fine were so many aspects of the papacy not clearly of concern to non-Catholics. The fact that various candidates for the papacy were declared liberal or conservative mocked their status as mouthpieces for celestial authority. The reality is that these are modern, unelected politicians. Their views purport to regulate the ordinary lives of 1.2 billion adherents round the globe and should be subjected to democratic scrutiny.
The new pope is on record as opposing abortion, contraception, euthanasia and homosexuality. Priests must remain celibate while same-sex marriage, he writes, “is a destructive pretension against the plan of God”. These opinions are held with none of the take-it-or-leave-it ambiguity of the Anglican church. To Catholics they are not just matters of civil law or societal behaviour. They are ex cathedra, dressed in the glorious raiment of godly authority. Catholics are expected to live, breed and vote according to the dictates of the church.
The mental agony of Catholic policy on contraception, abortion and divorce and the ostracism of homosexuals suggest not a pious movement but a reactionary sect, unwilling to update its attitudes. It can hardly claim its views are divinely ordained and thus immutable since it changes its mind, over time. While Catholicism may lack the implacable outlook of the ayatollahs, it can seem just as primitive to outsiders, with its heaven and hell, its saints, angels, martyrs, transubstantiation and mortification of the flesh.
Catholic commentators on Wednesday doffed their caps to the “holy and humble man who loves the poor”. It is good that any figure of global standing should be thus. But what of the misery his beliefs offer those over whom he claims dominance? This church is entitled to the tolerance owed to all beliefs. But when it chooses such painfully reactionary leadership, it can hardly complain if democrats criticise it and its adherents shrug, and walk away.