All this pope-tastic news coverage is making me miss Christopher Hitchens more than ever. What this underarm bowling, this cheesy media love-in needs is a great dissenting voice, the other side of the story, some righteous indignation, a devil’s advocate (a role that Hitchens actually took on for the Vatican, as detailed in his book Love, Poverty & War). What the world needs now is reason, sweet reason.
On Tuesday the rolling-news channels covered, with a cloying holiday humour, the inauguration of the new pope. St Peter’s looked like it had been taken over by the wet-knickered Justin Bieber faithful. The crowd of cooing Catholics were clearly enraptured and rightly so: there are fewer bigger days than this for cats that dig transubstantiation, smells’n’bells and pulling out.
It’s a big day and – yay! – let’s celebrate. But it’s been a pretty poor show by the news. There’s been talk of the “challenges” that lie ahead for Pope Francis. It’s as if he’s a football manager contending with an overenfranchised dressing room and an unenviable position at the bottom of the league (indeed, many cardinals and Catholic commentators see Pope Francis as a sort of holy Harry Redknapp – an oft-hired English saviour-manager – but here’s a Houdini in robes rather than an Umbro parka). In fact, these Catholic “challenges” are a messed-up attitude to contraception, homosexuality, child abuse and, seemingly, the entire continent of Africa. “Challenge” is a mega-euphemism in this case; it’s as if the very Vatican itself is the rock that Francis must forever roll up the hill, overcoming these Catholic disorders is a Sisyphean task.
I’m not sure what Hitch would say but I think the man who described Mother Teresa (he might even place that description in inverted commas, as according to Hitchens she styled herself “Mother” Theresa) as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud” would have been a formidable, enlightening and entertaining commentator on goings-on in thought and dialogue outside of St Peter’s Square. And there is a lot of world and a lot of thought and dialogue outside of St Peter’s Square.
My bullshit detector squealed into the red last week when the man who was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was chosen and was seen to have played a blinder on the Vatican balcony by greeting the simpering with buona notte instead of... what? Something in Latin, presumably. “Ahhh, he’s just so human,” the media toadishly concurred. God, the queen of England pretended to jump out of a helicopter for a comedy sketch at the Olympics last year – get with the unfogeyising-of-fogeyish-offices programme you squares! Cannily, the pope then went on to thank the world’s media for its interest in the Papal process in English, the language of the world’s media, which was gratefully, slavishly recorded as if they’d touched the hem of his garment or something, just by being addressed in the impersonal third-person plural. Really, Papa, thank you – we’re not worthy.
Christopher Hitchens, the great essayist, interlocutor, to-task-taker and keeper of the tinderbox with which to reignite the flame of reason, would have been a good sport on this cosy scrum of docility. While Francis gets used to a life of not cooking his own meals and not riding the bus to work, and therefore presumably not nattering to the other oldies in dresses down at the launderette, the civilised world misses Hitch.
Robert Bound is Monocle's culture editor.