The Bishops of Rome: the trouble is that exalted and mysterious god-like men can be a funny lot

The curse of the Roman Catholic Church is clericalism. Through health care and education, priests and lay people have done noble, self-sacrificing work in the poorest, most needful places. Its churches stand dressed in Gothic and Renaissance art, and house the exalted music of, inter alia, Byrd, Victoria and Palestrina. But, institutionally, it has exalted its politicians and administrators as god-like mysterious people intended to command. And god-like mysterious people can be a funny lot.

The last pope formed a cult of Padre Pio, the present one reveres the Curé of Ars. Both were mentally disturbed self-tormentors, sleeping on stone, living the lives of Poor Tom in King Lear. Popes have also been in steady denial about the male body’s reliable production of sperm. Sedulously creating a tradition of priestly child molestation, the modern Vatican seems to be inhabited by mad male spinsters.

Some chapter headings in the godless Lord Norwich’s rattlingly stylish account catch the flavour: Schism, The Renaissance, The Monsters, also Nicholas I and the Pornocracy. This last concerns the lively AD900s which charmed Edward Gibbon into his elegancies. John Julius Norwich is as dry: “A parish priest from the unfortunately named village of Priapi was elected as Leo V in 903. A cleric called Christopher overthrew him, flung Leo into prison and was proclaimed and consecrated… but he, in turn, was toppled early in 904 by an aristocratic Roman who… assumed the name Sergius III (904-11). Christopher was sent to join Leo in jail. Not long afterwards – moved as he claimed by pity – Sergius had them both strangled.”

Pope Joan was a legend, but soon after her alleged time, came “the ravishingly beautiful but sinister figure of Marozia… lover, mother and grandmother of popes.” Holy mother among the holy fathers, she became mistress of Sergius the Strangler, presenting him with the future Pope John XI! High Anglicans, facing the atrocity of women priests, proclaim the Apostolic succession. This would appear to be it!

Yet the perfectly admirable Nicholas V, Tommaso Parentucelli, 1447-55, began the Rome of the Sensibilities. As befitted someone from the Italian Riviera (Rapallo) he set about building the beautiful structures which attract tourists. He got the cattle out of the forum and the Greeks into the libraries. His jubilee year, 1450, brought in busloads of visitors, penitents and other good payers. Levity apart, Nicholas was an excellent pope, one of the first humanists. His one failure was pure luck. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he proclaimed a new crusade. But the usual pious royalty and itching younger sons had had enough. “So”, says Norwich sweetly, “he returned to the two interests of his life, books and buildings, the only things, he said, that it was worth spending money on.” A near predecessor, Martin V, had pronounced “nothing of antiquity worth preserving beyond what was contained in the works of St Augustine.” Embracing Greeks fleeing Constantinople, commissioning their translations to fling open Hellenic civilisation and creating the Vatican library, Nicholas helped the Renaissance to happen.

The papacy is a vessel accommodating serial rapists, disinterested scholars and organisation men. Sometimes it had what the Ministry of Defence calls “global reach” but, latterly, would stand in relation to secular power like New Labour to George Bush. Take a handful of Gregorys: Gregory VII, Hildebrand, 1073-85, didn’t quite have the Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow, but he made it look like that. And Canossa, where Henry submitted, is a metaphor for abjection. Witness Howard Island, off Queensland, Tony Blair’s Canossa, where the pilgrim praised Rupert Murdoch to his employees. Alas for Medieval history, the measure of Hildebrand is comparison with Murdoch.

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Story by Edward Pearce

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