BY GERARD NOEL
Two Pope Pauls and an Index of change
TO SPEAK OF the "private lives" of the Popes is thought, though wrongly, to be a contradiction in terms. It is true that most of the Popes are known chiefly through their public personae, but their inner characters and private selves have often had a much greater influence on history than is generally imagined.
Many of the Popes of the late Renaissance and immediately pre-Reformation period, for example, considered such things as sex and violence as the commonplaces of life, to say nothing of excessive food and drink, as their own lives often illustrated. But this did not stop their being assiduous, sometimes to the point of fanaticism and ferocity, in the extirpation of heresy.
Their main weapon in achieving this object was the Inquisition, part of whose job was to protect the faithful from any literary work judged to be injurious to their faith. Ever since the seventh century the principle of such protection had existed and the practice had grown up of disallowing specific pieces of writing as and when they appeared. It was not until 1559, however, that the body of writing this accumulated c'me to be codified, on the orders of Pope Paul IV.
This fiery Neapolitan, who glares down at one over a luxuriant beard from his bust in St Peter's, instructed the Congregation of the Inqisinon to make a full list of all the books that should he disallowed. It was catalogued in alphabetical order to be topped up from time to time as required and thus became known officially as the Index of Forbidden Books. Its original edition was described in the Oxford Dictionary of the Popes as having been "of unprecedented and quite unrealistic severity". It was abolished on the advice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) 30 years ago today.
Its raison d'être for four centuries and the thinking behind its scrapping in modem times exactly mirror the coming of age, with slowness however painful, of Roman Catholicism. It illustrates, in fact, what John XXIII called "the signs of the times." The Index, moreover, was not concerned, as is modem censorship, such as it is, with moral behaviour but solely with dogmatic integrity.
It came into existence futhermore as part of the Church's militant proclamation of its role as mankind's sole legitimate teacher in matters of religious belief. Its abolition was, in the fullness of time, a natural consequence of the Church's abandonment of this claim in the wake of Vatican II. Its inception was as in keeping with the character of Paul IV as its final discontinuance was with that of Paul VI.
If anyone, however, were to witness Paul IV tucking his way in gourmand (as opposed to gourmet) fashion through a gargantuan, three-hour meal, he might never suspect him to have been the scholarly and refined patrician he was, uncivilised only as to the extemity of his heresy-hunting (not necessarily a crime in the mind of most of his contemporaries). Equally, an estimate of Paul VI based on the increasing lack of confidence of his later years would clash with that of him in his more vigorous and reforming earlier period.
iT IS A1.1. TOO easy, however, to miss the main clues in the life of any Pope whether through too ready an acceptance of the conventional view or too hasty a judgment of external evidence. I freely confess to having done so myself with Pope John Paul I in connection with the hook about him by John Cornwell called A Thief in the Night. It was only later, when re-reading it in conjunction with other evidence, that I came to recognise it as the best availble account of that tragic
Rope's short pontificate and his mysterious, premature death.
He was indeed murdered but not by anything so crude as the administration of poison. It was, as Cornwell so persuasively demonstrates, "neglect and lack of love" that brought about "a death that might have been avoided."
I mention all this here because it exemplifies the psychological gulf which, time and again, but in quite different ways, has existed between the Bishop of Rome and his supposedly most trusted collaborators.
The potentially reforming zeal of many Renaissance curialists, for example, paled under the awe inspired by a succession of unbendingly autocratic Popes. The potentially liberalising insights of John XXIII and Paul VI paled, in turn, under the subtly reactionary tactics of some of their chief advisers.
That was how, though in different ways, the Index came into such disproportionate prominence in the sixteenth century and proved so difficult to scrap in its entirely in the twentieth. It was, of course, the Vatican Council that at last persuaded even die-hards that the Index of Forbidden Books had outlived its usefulness. But before consigning it for ever to the embers of history, it may be instructive to consider the character and motivations of the man who, in 1559, first brought it into official existence, Pope Paul IV.
CONSIDER TWO different accounts of him, the first by a chronicler of his own time, Navigero: "He [Paul IV] admits of no contradiction; for not only does he consider that as Pontiff his word must be law even to kings and emperors; but he is acutely conscious of his superior learning, his exalted birth and the rectitude of his conduct. He consults no one, treating the Cardinals as dust beneath his feet. He is keen on all his pursuits, but on none as much as the Inquisition. He has no fixed time for meals. He dines whenever he chooses, often in the middle of the night, and expects to be served, with the greatest luxury and punctilio, a number of courses never inferior to twenty-five. He drinks freely and always a coarse Neapolitian wine as thick as broth. At dessert he washes out his mouth with Malmsey... He is dilatory in all affairs but in those of the Inqusition. Nothing is ever allowed to interfere with the weekly conference he holds on the Thursday with the Inquisitors which seems his greatest interest in life."
In the more modern estimate of Valerie Pine, "he was scarcely sane on the subject of his omniscience; as to heresy: it was to be crushed at all costs and the inhuman methods of Torquemada [Grand Inquisitor] naturally appealed to his inexorable nature, ie fire, torture and death."
IT MAY BE THOUGHT that the Index of Forbidden Books was a mild measure in comparison. So it was, in one sense, except that its basic principle was that men have no right to think for themselves in matters of belief. The Church must do all their thinking for them.
The reversal of this principle in modern times involves a paradox which is inherent in much post-conciliar Catholic reasoning. The Church has not, at least in theory, abandoned its claim to be God's chosen custodian of dogmatic truth.
But for the first time ever, it recognised the claims of other faiths in a manner that was never previously admitted.
The abolition of the Index was an important symbol of this change of heart. It did not mean that the Church, made up of those of the True Faith, was now wrong to be right. But it did mean that those in other Churches, of good faith, had a right to be "wrong". Or, in the characteristically subtle Jesuit distinction, error, as such, has no rights, but people in error have.