OFF the rails. Loopy. Gone too far this time. Parkinson's taking its toll. The initial response from liberal Catholics to the Pope's latest pronouncements last week on what constitutes binding Catholic belief has ranged from tremulous indignation to flat assertion that the poor old man, at the age of 78, has finally lost the plot.
But what's all the fuss about? To all appearances, what the Pope has said is that fornication and prostitution and euthanasia are un- Catholic things and that he is against the ordination of women. "Pope Condemns Prostitution Shock" is hardly the sort of thing to set people rocking on their heels. As for euthanasia, he has condemned it for years. In 1995, he issued an apostolic letter declaring that: "The Church has no authority whatever to confer priestly ordinations on women."
So what's new?
Last week's apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem (On the Defence of the Faith), is a clarification of a profession of faith which was produced in 1989. That divides Catholic belief into three categories, according to the extent to which they are binding on believers: so, belief in Jesus as God and Man is more significant than, say, the Pope's teaching on nuclear weapons. What this letter does is to raise certain issues to the point where Catholics, and particularly teachers of Catholic theology, must give them allegiance or "obsequium". So euthanasia is now defined as something which cannot be supported by a Catholic who wishes to remain in communion with the Church. And no Catholic theologian can advocate the ordination of women.
It is the last of these which causes alarm. Sister Lavinia Byrne, a well-known voice on Thought for the Day on Radio 4, wrote a book advocating women's ordination, called Woman at the Altar. Even though it gives full space to the Pope's pronouncement on the subject, she says: "In the light of this, I could not write that book now. I don't think any Catholic could write that book."
What sort of pontiff is it who sets people by the ears like this? The Pope doesn't fit neatly into any of the usual boxes. Obviously, as this latest controversy shows, he takes seriously his role as defender of orthodoxy against the soppy spirit of the age. He once memorably remarked in a suburban Roman church that "I defend the rigidity principle". In his anxiety not to compromise on essential truths, he can alienate friends as well as enemies: the interesting thing about the latest letter was that it was addressed to the enemy within, to dissident Catholic theologians. He'd never make an Anglican.
As Eamon Duff, in his recent history of the popes suggested, the Pope sees his papal role, inherited from the Apostles, as that of "a teacher, an oracle". And this emphasis on teaching can sometimes be at the expense of listening. As Lavinia Byrne points out: "It seems that theologians are effectively being told they may not think." But the Pope's role is a more complex one than first appears. John Wilkins, editor of the respected liberal Catholic weekly, the Tablet, says: "You can never typecast the Pope. He's got this ability to keep any number of balls in the air at once."
English liberals associate the Pope with robustly conservative views on sex, contraception and abortion, which of course he holds. But to read most accounts of the Church, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is all he thinks about. In fact, the Pope has pronounced on a remarkable number of subjects, including respect for the environment, but this rarely gets reported. Still less talked about is his distinctive emphasis on Christ, as the revelation of what it is to be fully human. The Pope talks about prayer more than he does about contraception.
This supposed misogynist has written more about the dignity of women than any of his predecessors. Indeed, he issued an apology for all the ways (apart from not ordaining …