All done with smoke and mirrors

SO the oldest and largest dictatorship in the world has chosen its new despot. The farce of the black and white smoke is over.And what a glorious farce it was - emblematic in its way of the Roman Catholic church itself.

SO the oldest and largest dictatorship in the world has chosen its new despot. The farce of the black and white smoke is over.

And what a glorious farce it was - emblematic in its way of the Roman Catholic church itself.

"I see smoke. Is it white? It looks black - well, it looks grey - maybe it's white. Is it white? The crowd at the front are cheering, the crowd at the back are confused. Why aren't the bells ringing?"

To an outsider, it has always seemed that smoke and bells are much of what the Catholic church is about. All that's missing are the mirrors.

How utterly medieval it all is as a means of communication, how curiously out of place in a world where millions are watching the smoke and bells on TV, and hundreds of thousands have flown to be there in person.

Not there where the election was taking place, that is. Not in the room itself, but outside in the square. Looking for smoke and listening for bells.

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It is of course a matter of personal taste whether you find the medievalism charming or chilling, numinous or preposterous. Either way it seems a strange election in which 115 elderly men - all of them appointed, not elected - pick a leader for a worldwide community of more than a billion people.

Since all but two of the cardinals had been appointed by Pope John Paul II, it is little wonder the man they have chosen to succeed him is expected to follow his conservative example on key issues.

This might not matter if his edicts concerned matters of theology only. In fact they concern a great deal more than that.

There is the matter of priestly marriage. John Paul II was against it, Benedict XVI is against it. It might not matter much, but what curious example is it to the rest of the flock?

There is the question of women priests. Again, the last and latest popes have both been against. Why?

Same again on gay priests. Yet another way of cutting down the number of potential candidates for the priesthood.

More serious by far - because they concern not just priests, but the whole Catholic world - are the "conservative" stand on issues like divorce, abortion and stem-cell research.

And while millions of Catholics in Africa and elsewhere are dying of Aids, the papal position on condoms amounts to mass murder.

Great man as he undoubtedly was in some ways, there was much that was regrettable about John Paul II - and Benedict XVI will be no improvement.

How strange that most of it comes down to sex. One aspect of human life that anyone rising to this position is supposed to be more ignorant of than the average sixth-former.

I was arguing the other day with an ex-Catholic who was repelled by the adulation poured out on the late pope.

His greatest contribution to good in the world, in my view, was the hand of friendship and trust he held out to people of other religions. He is succeeded by a man who has said the Roman Catholic Church is "the only instrument of salvation" and that other faiths are "gravely deficient".

Pope Benedict should not be condemned for his past membership of the Nazi German army or the Hitler Youth. He was in his teens at the time, and anyone should be allowed to change their mind as they grow up.

More worrying are his 23 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - or, as it used to be known, the Inquisition.

While there, he campaigned against the liberation theology of mostly Latin American priests who attempted to use the church as an instrument of social reform and human rights.

He spoke out against homosexuality, linking it with the idea of "intrinsic moral evil".

He earned the nicknames, even within the church, of the Pincer Cardinal, and God's Dobermann. He's the Pincer Pope now.

If you believe in God, you must also believe He works in mysterious ways indeed.

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