The devil will walk amongst you, with great wrath
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th March 2000.
I think I might be The Antichrist. Last Sunday Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, one of the contenders to become the next Pope, revealed that the Beast is currently “walking among us”. He does not, the cardinal warned, have seven heads and ten horns, but is an environmentalist with a concern for human rights, who has some knowledge of the Bible but substitutes “feelgood causes” such as humanitarian aid for “true religion”. The BBC rang, with the proposition that he was referring to me. Perhaps the Vatican took exception to a column I wrote for this page a few months ago, claiming that the Pope was assisting the spread of AIDS in Africa by injuncting his flock against the use of condoms.
There seems, however, to be some competition for the post. Others have suggested that the cardinal might have been referring to Prince Charles, or the environmentalist with the curious mark on his forehead, Mikhael Gorbachev. But if Rupert Murdoch and Sir Tom Farmer, the head of Kwik-fit, can be made papal knights, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be Antichrist.
If elected, I will seduce your servants and commit fornication. I will kill with the sword, with hunger and with the beasts of the earth. As your candidate, I will open the bottomless pit, darkening the sun and the air, and make war with the remnant of your seed. I will blaspheme against God and his tabernacle and make fire come down from heaven in the sight of men. I will maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow and part-privatise the London Underground. I will have the ear of Government.
But whether I receive your vote or not, my manifesto is in good hands, for plenty of others are already busy smiting the earth. Among them, of course, is the Vatican, and especially the faction to which the visionary Cardinal Biffi belongs. Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities. With the exception of the horrors of state communism, the Vatican has attended upon almost every major atrocity of the last millennium: the crusades, the conquista, the inquisition, slavery, fascism, the Holocaust and the perennial war against women.
This Sunday, in a special penitential service, the Pope will ask God to pardon the Catholic Church for its past faults, or, to be precise, some of them. But the proclivities of some of his cardinals suggest that his church is still quite capable of committing the same atrocities, all over again.
Cardinal Biffi belongs to the Church’s mediaevelist wing, a Taliban-like chapter which hankers for the values of the Dark Ages: unquestioning trust in authority, religious sectarianism, the crushing of women, the triumph of dogma over human rights and the elision of church and state. This faction, as the reinstated doctrine of papal infallibility suggests, is not a small one. It appears still to preside over many of the fundamental creeds of the Church. This is why, for example, the Vatican condemned the issue of morning-after pills to women raped by Serb soldiers in Kosovo as “murder”. It is why the Pope has offered unconditional support to General Pinochet, both while he was in power and while he was facing extradition charges. It is why he continues to preach against the use of condoms, undermining the efforts of many African priests to help control the spread of AIDS. It is why the Vatican still plans to canonise Pope Pius XII, despite compelling evidence that he was an active Nazi collaborator.
The mediaevelists, thank God, do not, of course, represent the whole Church. The Pope has spoken out against Third World debt and, doubtless to Cardinal Biffi’s holy fury, has campaigned for “feelgood causes” like humanitarian aid. Priests all over the world seek to relieve human suffering in this life, rather than leaving the distribution of justice to the next. Liberation theologists continue to confront the apartheid regimes of Latin America. But whenever radicals raise their heads, the Vatican seeks to slap them down. In Brazil its war against the liberationists has had disastrous consequences. Dioceses from which the Church has withdrawn its radical priests have been invaded by American-backed protestant fundamentalists, who instruct their flocks that the meek will inherit the earth: if they try to confront the ranchers and politicians seizing their lands, for example, they will cease to be blessed in the sight of God.
It is easy for us, inhabitants of a largely godless nation, to scoff at the papal bull the Vatican produces, but Rome remains the sole arbiter of belief for hundreds of millions of people. Among the illiterate, the power of the Book in the hands of the schooled is still unchallengeable. As literacy rates in the poorest parts of the world collapse, reactionaries extend their authority by preying on the vulnerability of unschooled people. Biffi’s latest edict has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with stamping out the threats he perceives to the absolute control of a papal aristocracy.
With people like Cardinal Biffi representing God on earth, I worry that the post for which I am applying will soon be made redundant.