It was a dark, cold morning in Vatican City and the Pope sat in his study poring over a book. A look of deep concern and worry was drawn across his face, and this anxiety only intensified as he continued to turn the pages of the book and attempted to absorb the arguments that the words conveyed.
In exasperation and frustration he slammed the book shut and discarded it across his vast desk. A polite knock on the door interrupted his depressed thoughts and he looked up to see his special adviser, Michael, enter the room. Michael bowed respectfully and then approached the Pope at his desk.
‘Good Morning, your Holiness,’ said Michael. ‘I trust you had a pleasant nights sleep.’
‘I haven’t slept a wink,’ grumbled the Pope.
‘Is something wrong, sir?’ inquired Michael.
‘You could say that.’
‘What’s the matter, sir?’
The Pope sat back in his chair and rubbed his temples. ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind, that’s all.’
‘Well, you are the Pope,’ said Michael. ‘You have a lot of responsibility.’
The Pope nodded. ‘It is a stressful job.’
‘Try to think positively,’ encouraged Michael.
The Pope rose to his feet and stood before the large window, looking at the grey morning outside. ‘Oh, I know I have many things to be thankful for,’ he said, ‘including your unwavering servitude, but...’
‘But what, sir?’
The Pope turned away from the window and looked directly at Michael. ‘I know that people don’t like me.’
‘That’s nonsense,’ said Michael.
‘Is it?’ asked the Pope, completely unaware of Michael’s shallow sycophancy. ‘Did you see how many people were at Sunday Mass yesterday?’
‘Yes, tens of thousands,’ exaggerated Michael. ‘St. Peter’s Square could barely contain the numbers.’
‘Oh, I know you’re only trying to cheer me up,’ said the Pope. ‘But the truth is that the numbers having been dwindling week after week for some time now.’
‘People like to have a lay in on a Sunday,’ said Michael. ‘It is a day of rest, after all.’
The Pope wasn’t placated. ‘My popularity is nowhere near as big as my predecessors. What can I do to make people love and respect me?’
‘How about some policy changes, sir?’ suggested Michael.
The Pope scratched at his stubble. ‘Interesting. Such as?’
‘Well, I understand that homosexuality is very popular nowadays. How about speaking out in favour of it?’
‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,’ said the Pope dismissively.
‘But just think, St. Peter’s Square would be full of gay men and lesbians on a Sunday morning. You would be a gay icon.’
‘Like Judy Garland?’
‘Just like Judy Garland.’
‘Well, I do like her...’ considered the Pope. ‘But I’m not sure I could alter our stance on homosexuality.’
‘Do you like the paintings by Botticelli that we have in the Vatican, sir?’
‘Of course!’ exclaimed the Pope. ‘They’re exquisitely beautiful. They’re masterpieces. Why do you ask?’
‘Botticelli was gay, sir.’
‘I assure you I’m very serious.’
‘Then he’ll be burning in Hell where he belongs,’ spat the Pope.
‘Does that mean you’d like me to have his paintings taken down and thrown out with the rubbish?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Those paintings are beautiful. Although perhaps it’s time I re-evaluated my opinion of Botticelli’s work. He’s always been one of my favourite artists, but perhaps he should be demoted in my list of personal favourites. But Michelangelo is my all-time favourite artist, of course.’
‘Michelangelo was also gay.’
‘Are you sure?’ The Pope was visibly shocked.
‘I’m certain,’ said Michael. ‘But don’t worry. I can have the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted over in magnolia.’
‘No, no. We don’t have to agree with Michelangelo’s lifestyle or even like his paintings, but his art has been a great money spinner for this place. I must say that I’m shocked. Do try to stop this from becoming public knowledge.’
‘You mean that these geniuses and pioneers were gay?’
’Exactly. No, from now on my favourite painting is The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci. At least he was straight.′
‘Actually - .’
‘Now let’s get back to these policy changes,’ interrupted the Pope. ‘Any other ideas?’
‘How about advocating the use of contraception?’
‘Oh, I could never do that,’ protested the Pope.
‘But it would stop many unwanted babies being born into poverty. And it would help to slow down the spread of sexually transmitted infections and save millions of lives.’
‘Do you really think that would make me more popular?’
‘It couldn’t hurt.’
The Pope began to pace up and down whilst contemplating Michael’s suggestions, along with also contemplating his own unpopularity and seemingly precarious position.
‘Maybe you’re right,’ he finally said. ‘I could tell people to use condoms, I suppose...perhaps the Vatican could even release their own brand.’
‘The fine details can be ironed out later, I’m sure.’
‘Yes, but the important thing is that we have to do something,’ insisted the Pope.
‘I agree. Things can’t be allowed to continue as they are.’
The Pope approached his desk and picked up the book he had been reading. ‘I blame this damn book,’ he declared.
‘What is it, sir?’
′The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.′
‘Why are you reading that drivel?’
‘To understand what we’re up against. I can’t believe people believe this stuff.’
‘It’s incredible how gullible people can be,’ said Michael.
‘I know. Just because it says something in a book doesn’t mean that it’s true.’
‘I quite agree. Some people will believe anything.’
’I’ve been reading The Descent of Man as well. It’s utter blasphemy. We’re not animals. How can we be? We’re far superior. We have minds. We have intellect. We can create art, we can philosophise. I don’t see any four legged creatures doing that.′
‘Some animals have two legs, sir,’ said Michael.
‘And to say that we evolved from monkeys is an insult,’ continued the Pope. ‘If that’s true then why are monkeys still around? Why haven’t they all evolved into humans? The theory of evolution just doesn’t stand up if you put it under any kind of scrutiny.’
‘Unlike religion, of course.’
‘So you do understand me.’
‘You really shouldn’t waste your time reading that,’ said Michael, eager to come to the reason for his visit to see the Pope. ‘I’ve got something here for you to read of a rather more pressing nature.’ He held up a letter that he had been clutching in his hand.
‘What is it?’ asked the Pope.
‘It’s a letter from the Italian government. They are proposing some changes to Vatican City.’
‘What kind of changes?’
‘They want to use some of the buildings for...alternative purposes.’
‘What kinds of purposes?’
‘Apartments, offices, restaurants, shops, schools and colleges.’
‘The Italian government have no right! Vatican City is an independent state.’
‘You’re right, of course. But it pains me to say that the Vatican isn’t as powerful as it once was. It’s a tourist attraction, no longer a place of political influence. And other powers are encroaching against us. Even the EU has its opinions on our future role. The world is changing. It even says here that the Italian government intend to open a School of Science, right here in this holy state.’
‘Science!?’ exclaimed the Pope. ‘Oh damn science! And I suppose they’ll be teaching evolution in this School of Science?’
The Pope was animated with fury. ‘If only they’d had the inquisition in Darwin’s day. He would have been executed before his theories ever saw the light of day.’
Michael placed the letter on the Pope’s desk, and the Pope snatched it up and began to read it, once again taking his seat.
As he read, Michael pondered the Pope’s words about the inquisition putting Darwin to death. He was vaguely amused by the Pope’s casual mention of violent murder. But he wasn’t surprised. For centuries the Vatican had oppressed those with alternative or progressive ideas. How much blood had been spilt in the name of Christianity, or in the name of any religion, for that matter? Michael wondered. Not that he really cared about the answer, however. Michael didn’t trouble himself with the philosophy of morality. He never had. Michael’s philosophical outlook was centred entirely on the self.
‘You raise an interesting point, Your Holiness,’ he said.
The Pope glanced up from his letter distractedly. ‘Hmm?’
‘What you said about Darwin being executed before his theories were ever published.’
‘If only,’ said the Pope. ‘What’s done is done. We can’t change what has gone before us, but I’ll be damned if I let the EU or anyone else have control over Vatican City.’
‘What’s done is done, you say...’ said Michael, a plan formulating ever clearer in his mind.
‘Yes. All we can do is prevent matters declining any further.’
‘But that isn’t all we can do,’ said Michael.
‘What do you mean?’
‘What’s done isn’t done,’ insisted Michael. ‘We can change the past.’
‘We can use the time machine that the Vatican have got hidden away.’
The Pope jumped up from his chair in horrified shock, his eyes wide and his jaw hanging open. ‘No,’ he exclaimed in a low whisper. ‘That must never be used.’
‘Why not?’ challenged Michael.
‘Because time travel is dangerous! Why do you think the Vatican stole and confiscated it from Isaac Newton in the first place?’
‘To suppress science.’
‘Well yes, there was that,’ acknowledged the Pope. ‘But time travel must never happen. It could change everything.’
’Exactly. We could go back in time and kill Charles Darwin before he writes The Origin of Species.′
‘Kill him?’ said the Pope, exclaiming in shock once more. ‘You know as well as I do that murder is a sin.’
‘But you just said yourself that you wish the inquisition had killed him.’
‘Had executed him,’ corrected the Pope. ‘There’s a difference. The inquisition was for the good of organised religion.’
’And so is the murder of Charles Darwin. Or should I say the execution of Charles Darwin.′
The Pope put his hand to his open mouth, his shock dissipating into a tangled confusion. Was Michael’s suggestion really so wrong?
‘Well, when you put it like that...’ he began. ’But no, we can’t! Even if we stopped the publication of The Origin of Species we may inadvertently change the future in any number of ways. Our smallest actions could have the deepest repercussions for the entire world.′
‘But would that really be so bad?’ persisted Michael. ‘When was this book published?’ He picked it up from the desk. ‘1859. History since the late nineteenth century has been catastrophic. Look at the wars and the genocide and the moral decline of the masses from the late nineteenth century onwards. It would be almost impossible to change things for the worse. And if we just go back, execute him and then return to the present as quickly as possible, then the impact we have on anything or anyone other than Charles Darwin himself will be minimal.’
‘I don’t know,’ wavered the Pope uncertainly.
‘It would be the answer to all our problems.’
‘But do we even know how to work the time machine?’
‘Newton wrote an instruction manual. The instructions, the blueprints, the machine itself, everything was stealthily appropriated by the Vatican. We have everything we need in order to get it to work.’
The Pope considered for a moment longer. ‘Do you really think we could do such a thing?’
‘We’ve got nothing to lose.'