In May 1493, Pope Alexander passed a bull giving all land one hundred leagues west of Cape Verde to Spain. The pope was Spanish, and close to Isabella of Castille, and his action followed the arrival of Columbus in Guanahani in the fall of 1492. Columbus had proposed the meridian line should pass through the small group of islands in West Africa, but Alexander rejected the plan, knowing it would lead to immediate war with Portugal.

In September that year, the pope declared all mainlands and islands of India as Spanish. The escalation and subsequent negotiation of the Treaty of Tordesillas ultimately gave Portugal the land of Vera Cruz—the True Cross, now called Brazil. King John II’s negotiators moved the line a further two hundred leagues west. With twenty-twenty hindsight, that was one of the Perfect Prince’s smartest moves.

It was the gold from Brazil that built the grand palaces, squares, and convents of Lisbon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—the magnificent city you see today.

You can read the details in The India Road: the politics that underpin the fifteen years between 1480 and 1495 are absolutely fascinating, but my reflections today are on the power of the papacy, then and now.

Shortly after Benedict ‘abdicated’ the UK wags asked: ‘I know you’re supposed to give something up for Lent, but hasn’t the pope gone a bit too far?’

Private Eye ran a couple of hilarious spoof stories, both of which involved Prince Charles. In the first the Prince is in the royal bath, and hears on the radio that the Queen has abdicated in favor of her son. He rushes out in excitement, dripping soap suds, only to find it is Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Predictably, the following week, he’s back in the bath and suffers another bout of misplaced joy when the wireless broadcasts that the head of the church has abdicated—of course this time it’s the head of the Catholic church. He gives up hope forlornly, leaving a large wet circle on the carpet and a bemused Camilla frowning at him in despair.

The story of Columbus illustrates the secular powers of the pope. Still today, and particularly in the developing world, the power of the church is formidable. In dictatorships, it’s one of the most feared counterweights.

John Paul II played the Catholic trump card in Poland, as the Solidarity movement brought the Communist government to its knees, and paved the way for the instability that ripped through Churchill’s Iron Curtain, ultimately tearing down the Berlin Wall and causing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In China, the organized structure of the Catholic Church is seen as an everpresent danger—a competing faith that requires absolute loyalty, provides you with a robust set of rules, commandments no less, and rewards you with life everlasting. At the same time, it’s no longer a church of fire and brimstone. The days when Jews were tortured and burned near the docks of Lisbon are long gone. That fiery spirit is now the purview of Islam, with Sharia law delivering public floggings and severing of limbs. Publix executions, lapidation (by men) of women who commit adultery—things we studiously ignore in the West as we watch TV, amuse ourselves on Facebook, and munch on horseburgers.

Between black and white, fifty shades of grey.

Between black and white, fifty shades of grey.

Catholics are forgiven their sins, and the confessional is ruled by secrecy—the priest invisible on the other side of the trellis represents the almighty, all seeing, all forgiving, a god of hope and love. Kneeling in that curtained space, you descend into the dark corners of your conscience, to reveal the twisted beasts that lurk within.

“Bless me father for I have sinned, these are my sins.”

The litany is followed by penance, delivered on the basis of trust.

ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti” the priest says, granting absolution on behalf of the Holy Trinity. Clean slate. Catholics leave the service uplifted—they’re human, and so they’ll sin again. The combination of a guilt trip, nominal punishment (a heavenly slap on the wrist), redemption, and eternal grace is heady medicine—a kind of divine facelift.

The Vatican makes policy, and it is very much a law unto itself. Anyone who takes their religion seriously is by definition a servant of god, and this god of love will not take second place. Because, as in any established system, on the other side of the carrot there is a very large stick—the gates of hell.

Betrayal is part of human life, it happens in little and big things: between colleagues, friends, husbands and wives. When you betray your country, and few do, it’s called treason. This is the most censurable of actions, in the eyes of any nation. But if you betray the Catholic church, you become a heretic. Oh, and you can throw in apostasy and blasphemy to boot. The church will forgive your smaller betrayals, but it won’t let that one pass.

Portugal’s legacy to the world is considerable and varied on the secular side, but one of the greatest exports of the discoveries was spiritual. Language and faith have endured in Angola, Goa, and Brazil. Racial harmony was part of that culture, promoted by intermixing, and although tribal conflicts in Africa have diluted that gift, no part of the world is as well integrated racially as Brazil. You only have to look at the difference from the rest of South America to understand that.

Brazil has the highest number of Catholics in the world, and has developed some esoteric versions of the faith, including the IURD, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. By targeting the underprivileged, the segment that felt disenfrachised by a snobbier, more opulent church, it developed a following and devotion reminiscent of some  US sects.

Sometime back, the IURD filled the Maracanã soccer stadium to capacity 100,000), and the pastor exhorted the faithful to cast away their spectacles, trust the lord, and their sight would be restored. The enthusiastic hurling of glasses failed to translate into a miracle, leaving in its wake crushed lenses, myopic members, and delighted optometrists.

The saying in the Vatican is that if you walk in a pope, you walk out a cardinal: such is the destiny of favorites. The front runners right now are split between Italian and others: a Brazilian and a (French) Canadian on the away team. As in soccer, the home team may have the advantage. But if the new pope is Brazilian, it’ll reflect the new world reality, and the shift of power from Europe and the U.S. to developing nations.

The conclave starts Tuesday. As luck would have it, I’ll be flying in that morning for a closer look. I’m a stone’s throw from the Vatican, and I’ll let you know what’s smokin’—be it black, white, or fifty shades of grey.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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