Papal indulgence


IF I were pope… No, don’t worry, I’m not going where you think I’m going with this. If I were pope, I would not be able to help entertaining the secret hope that someone would present me with a gift of, at the very least, a sleek Alfa Romeo, and ideally maybe a Lamborghini. Vow of poverty be damned.

The pope lives in Italy, where the world’s most beautiful and enchanting cars have historically been conceived and manufactured, and yet this week he accepted a gift of a customised white Renault Kangoo, which is arguably one of the boxiest, ugliest vehicles ever to roll off a production line.

The story was published under the wrong headline, too. Instead of ‘Pope goes green’, or ‘Renault blesses Pope’, or ‘Pope shows faith in electricity’, it should have read: ‘Inexplicably, Pope agrees to do promotional photo shoot for French automaker.’

The photos released to the media show the pontiff looking slightly uncomfortable, sitting in the back of the Kangoo in his little red shoes, the suicide doors open beside him, while Carlos Ghosn, chairman and chief executive of the Renault Group, gazes on with pride. In the pictures, Ghosn looks just about oleaginous enough to be France’s answer to Ireland’s erstwhile Renault king, Bill Cullen, yet the pope was somehow, miraculously, able to resist the temptation to jump into the front seat and drive right over him.

Pope Benedict has wanted an electric vehicle for some time, as he is by all accounts very attentive to environmental matters, having installed solar panels in the Vatican and what have you. So perhaps he was grateful for the gift. But even if he wasn’t, what could he have done? Refusing the Kangoo might have precipitated a Diplomatic Incident, so he was no doubt obliged to accept it. It makes you wonder what the pope must do with unwanted presents. It isn’t as if he can pass them on to other popes. And he probably has to be careful not to show favouritism among the cardinals – if one gets a little something, then they’ll all have to.

Pope Benedict will use the Kangoo for travelling around Castel Gandolfo, his summer home, and between churches within the grounds of the Vatican itself, but not farther afield. It will do for the urbi but not the orbi, if you will. It won’t replace the popemobile either. The popemobile is a purpose-built, bulletproof Mercedes. The pontiff has another Merc as well – a sinister-looking black one with tinted windows – for getting from A to B. Powerful Germans really only trust other powerful Germans, as we know.

Nevertheless, Renault is at pains to emphasise how speedy and practical and reliable electric motoring can be. The group’s website has a “myth-busting” section, in which all your doubts about driving an electric car are magically dispelled. What’s that you say? You don’t want to have to drive at 30mph all the time? Never fear, “the electric motor provides its maximum torque immediately – you’ll find you’re pushed back in your seat whenever you pull away quickly”. (Renault might have enough money that it can go around throwing Kangoos at pontiffs, but it seems the marketing budget won’t stretch to hiring people who can write elegant English.)

And yet then, in one casual remark, Renault’s man in Italy gave the lie to that, and undid all the good the pope was busy doing for the brand’s image, by pointing out that an electric vehicle would never do as a getaway car.

Asked whether Renault was working on an electric vehicle for longer papal journeys and trips abroad, Jacques Bousquet was unequivocal. “There’s a problem in terms of power and security, because a completely electric car would not have sufficient acceleration power in the case of a security problem,” he said. ‘Fossil fuels essential to papal safety,’ the headline might have read.

There is another reason why this holy alliance might have proved embarrassing for the Vatican too. It’s not just because so many of Renault’s vehicles have names that sound like euphemisms for the kind of body parts that would be unmentionable in the vicinity of St Peter’s. It’s because one of Renault’s ads for its Twingo (see what I mean?) featured a couple of gay men getting hitched in a church, with the tagline ‘Times change, the Twingo too’.

But to each his own, I suppose, when it comes to morality. The pope is all in favour of electric vehicles, whereas for some of us, electric vehicles are an abomination. In automotive terms, the only true marriage is the marriage that takes place between a quantity of fuel and a quantity of air inside a combustion chamber; anything else is against nature.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 9 September 2012