HUER’S CALL BY MIKE SAGAR-FENTON: Welcome to my first Pontiff's Call column
I'm trying to cut down my spare-time activities, but I must admit I gave some thought to applying to become Pope. On the surface it looks quite fun. I'd be the leader of 1.6 billion believers. I could live in the beautiful Vatican Palace and have my tea in the Sistine Chapel. Above all I'd be infallible, every columnist's dream.
The job description seems to be: say a lot of prayers, travel the world, wave a lot, bless people. Your staff wouldn't mind if you were a bit forgetful or lazy, because Popes are traditionally old and doddery and leave the real work to the cardinals. I'd even have my own customised only-one-in-the-world transport (eat your heart out Jeremy Clarkson), on the slow side but handy in the rain.
It's true that parts of my CV could count against me. For example I achieved no more than a bare pass in O-level Latin, and the idea of trying to chat in a language that has 36 different words for "this" but no word for "yes" or "no" is a bit daunting. The existence of my wife and children could be a problem, but I'd only have to conceal them until after I was elected and then just say being married was OK. That's the nice thing about infallibility.
I'm also actually an agnostic, but unless the Catholic Church has changed that would probably count against me less than the fact that I was brought up in the Anglican tradition. Ever since medieval times a Christian's worst enemy has been another Christian, and though I was christened and confirmed in the C of E, as far as the Church of Rome is officially concerned – though they're now trying to be awfully nice about it – I'm not even part of the family. And if I was part of that family I'd never be welcome in our own royal family. In these misty and arcane cloisters such things still matter, though the rest of us couldn't care less.
It would be nice to make a few changes. Quite a few actually. I'd start by telling my flock in my incontrovertible way something they already know, that you can have too much of a good thing where children are concerned. The Catholic Church has pulled a few dirty tricks in its time, and one is to ensure by fear and guilt that there are more little Catholics around than anyone else. The Papal denial of birth control to the poor and overcrowded is the crudest of social growth formulae – check that Latin plural form – which causes misery and suffering all around the globe. So I'd whip out a quick Bull in favour of contraception the minute I'd been fitted with my Fisherman's Ring.
Talking of fear, guilt and crude superstition, I'd abolish Purgatory. Just like that. They did away with Limbo in 2007, agreeing at last that innocent babies who'd died unbaptised wouldn't have to howl on the edge of Hell until Judgment Day. Purgatory is even cleverer, a state of torment where you remain trapped after death until your sins have been purged. That will take a while, but can be influenced from either side of the grave. Your good deeds and repentance in life give you some credits, but the prayers and especially the financial donations to the Church made by your family and friends after you die can buy you years of time off (though the beauty of remissions is that you're never told off what). It has worked brilliantly for the Church's wealth for centuries but it is a big con, so I'd just tell everyone it was over.
After that I'd have to get a move on because the red hats of the cardinals would be nodding in corners all around the Vatican and my faithful food-taster would suddenly have been replaced without explanation. So the ordination of a thousand women cardinals would have to be hurried up. That would be my first ever Papal Cow, an acknowledgement that without equality for women no religion can even pretend to shake hands with truth and justice. And I might just have time to improve the lives of thousands of future altar-boys by allowing priests to marry and gay priests to come out, before whatever mysterious illness or unforeseen accident carried me off. It might be the shortest Pontificate ever, but I think they'd remember Pope Mike The First.