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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 Curรฉ 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.

Gregory XIII, Ugo Boncompagni, 1572-85, promulgated the Gregorian Calendar - which was rational and fine. He also put out a contract on the lives of Protestant leaders, notably Elizabeth I, "the Jezebel of the North", and celebrated the 20,000 dead massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve 1571 with a Te Deum - neither of which quite were. Gregory XVI, Mauro Cappelari, 1831-46, much the nicest, had no power at all, and no illusions. His reach went no further than Vienna, where he agreed at all times with Chancellor Metternich, whose troops kept Rome secure against the terrible constitutionalists. Full member of the Reactionary International, Gregory unreservedly endorsed Czar Nicholas 1's ferocious suppression of the (Catholic) Poles.

The 16th century was rougher: it brought a theology and morality as ferocious as anything in modern Tehran. Paul IV, Gianpietro Carafa, 1555-59, hating the Jews, created the Roman ghetto, imposed yellow hats and drove half of them out. Still, never narrow-minded, he hated the Spaniards just as much. A Neapolitan aristocrat, he burned away, created the Index of Forbidden Books and never missed a weekly meeting of the Holy Inquisition. Pius V, Michele Ghislieri, 1556-62, tried to make adultery a capital offence, settling for a compromise - "all unmarried prostitutes must be whipped and all men convicted of sodomy burned at the stake." (Oddly, in the cool of the Baroque, 1712, when the church was supporting William III against the persecuting Catholic, Louis XIV, Pius would become Saint Pius). Another irony is the Sistine Chapel, named for Sixtus V, Felice Peretti, 1585-90, who put down brigandage with 7,000 executions, a head on every spike in town.

For these popes, private repression and religious persecution were the running, ferocious norm with unforeseen consequences far away. The hard times of English Catholics, modest compared with St Bartholomew's Eve, followed directly, quiet English Catholics being seen here as subjects of the latest, murder-commissioning, godly monster.

The 19th century was much less fun as the church's relationship with secular power came thoroughly unstuck. Italian unification, so popular in England, and Italy, threatened the papal states, tranches of central Italy misgoverned by the gendarmerie of their Holinesses. Pius IX was a thoroughly nice man, humorous, kindly, without vanity or pride. However, when events took this real estate away, he reacted like a taxed banker. As for Italy incorporating Rome, it was monstrous, intolerable, an affront to Holy Mother Church, to God! He retreated to the Vatican to fulminate for the rest of his life. Having lost the territory, he attempted a sort of spiritual imperialism. His Syllabus of Errors denied that liberalism to Catholics and, in 1870, against fierce resistance, Pius proclaimed papal infallibility "unbounded pretensions to absolute control over the souls and bodies of mankind" said the British representative. While John Henry Newman, now, ironically a saint, lamented: 'We are shrinking into ourselves."

Not entirely. In 1891, Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum, though deploring the class war, recognised that it was going on. Flatly "a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke which is very little better than slavery itself." Yet, says Norwich, "Leo insisted that all his visitors should kneel throughout the audience... and not once in 25 years did he address a single word to his coachman." The curse of clerical grandeur shone hard on a great pope.

With Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, 1939-58, the church touched bottom. Anti-Semitic, seeing Hitler as a bastion against communism, comfortable with Slav Catholic Nazis like Pavelic in Croatia and (the priest) Tiso in Slovakia, and abandoning the rescue of Jews in Hungary to unauthorised local clergy, Pius faced heaven with cell injections. Later, in an ecstasy of Mariolatry he proclaimed the Virgin Mother virgin-born.
Command has defined the papacy since the embrace of Constantine. When command has been threatened - by the cheerful light of Garibaldi or the bottomless evil of Hitler - the Church has commonly not known the sensible or right or moral thing to do.