What is Absolute Power about?
1 December 2017
Catholicism is rife with contradictions. Perhaps the most disjunctive of these is the contrast between Jesus, the poor man who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) and who died like a common criminal on a cross, and the pope who from the early-twelfth century until 1978 was crowned with a tiara of three crowns and addressed as “the father of princes and kings, [and] ruler of the world.” Popes since John Paul I (1978) have abandoned this ridiculous anachronism, but the reality is that twenty-first century popes are still enormously powerful and influential. They have, in fact, far more authority than important medieval popes like Innocent III (1198-1216) who saw himself as “set between God and man, lower than God but higher than man, who judges all and is judged by no one.” Since the medieval period papal power ebbed and flowed, but in the last 200 years the papacy has become supreme in Catholicism and papal power increased enormously.
I am sometimes tempted to think that the papacy is so out of kilter with the New Testament and the early tradition of church governance that we Catholics are in a situation close to heresy. It is difficult if not impossible to see what has happened over the last 200 years as being a linear development of the gospel. A basic challenge facing Catholicism is to reconcile the New Testament’s vision of a community of loving service with the contemporary papacy. The election of Pope Francis has given hope to Catholics that he will bring the papacy down to earth and recover something of the humility of Jesus. But he is still pope and the history of the last 200 years shows the sheer difficulty of the task facing Catholicism.
When I talk about papal power what do I mean? “The only thing that matters is power,” banker and diplomat, John Jay McCloy, once told President John F. Kennedy. And by power he meant raw, unadulterated, forceful power, the kind that overawes and defeats. McCloy, Assistant Secretary for War from 1941 to 1945, had no time whatsoever for what today we call “soft power”. Joseph Stalin had a similar view. In May, 1935 when the French Premier Pierre Laval requested some relief for Catholics in the Soviet Union, Stalin asked: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Frederick the Great of Prussia was subtler. He said: “Diplomacy without arms is music without instruments.” Frederick and Stalin are long dead and gone, but the papacy is still with us. Stewart A. Stehlin is exactly right when he says: “Countries, then, if they cannot have God on their side, at least would like to have the pope there.”
A contemporary example of the papacy’s use of soft power is the negotiations that brought the United States and Cuba together in December 2014 after 55 years of antagonism, trade bans and isolation. The reconciliation began when John XXIII approved a chaplain for Castro’s guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains and until his death in November 2016 Castro never cut his ties with Catholicism. John Paul II’s visit to Havana in 1998 strengthened the personal connection with Castro, while lecturing him about human rights, family values and political prisoners. Castro bristled, but this was an important first step for Cuba re-joining the wider world.
Benedict XVI visited Havana in 2012 and was more conciliatory. He criticized the US trade embargo on Cuba and called for “reconciliation” with Washington. By then Fidel had been replaced as president by his brother, Raúl Castro. Building on this, Pope Francis sent letters to Presidents Obama and Castro in the summer of 2013 initiating a dialogue. While Canada was also involved, the Vatican played the key role in bringing the two sides together and negotiating a successful conclusion which both Presidents later acknowledged.
Perhaps even more impressive than this soft power intervention in inter-state disputes, is the papal tradition of using its influence to promote the values of justice, equity and the rights of all people to share in society’s benefits. This is a consistent theme running from Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum to Pope Francis.
Papal social teaching embraces an equitable distribution of wealth in society so that no one corners the market completely; it supports workers’ right to form trade unions to negotiate for fair wages, decent working conditions and the right to strike. While supporting the legitimacy of private property, the papal tradition has always been suspicious of “unchecked capitalism”, which nowadays means neo-liberal, supply side economics with its “trickle down” theories. This has been a consistent theme of recent popes, including Pope Francis who in the encyclical Evangelii gaudium (2013) has consistently attacked this “this opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
While the papacy has often used soft power, the actual term has only been in use since the late-1980s. It was coined by Joseph S. Nye who says that soft power is rooted in the power of attraction and “uses a different type of currency (not force, not money) to engender cooperation—an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values.” Personally, I don’t particularly like the term “soft power”; I would rather use the word “influence”. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines influence as “an action exerted, imperceptibly or by indirect means, so as to cause changes in conduct.” Popes like John Paul II and Francis have wielded enormous influence over a much more than church affairs. An obvious example is John Paul’s influence on the defeat of Communism in Poland and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But the papacy also has a long tradition of using hard power the moment it suits it, particularly in dealing with internal dissent in the church. Perhaps the most famous victim of this was Galileo whose espousal of the Copernican understanding of the universe led to his forced abjuration before the Roman Inquisition in 1633 and to house arrest for the last nine years of his life. Another example was the cosmologist Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in Rome in February 1600. A pantheist and supporter of the Copernican theory, he believed that God was imminent in everything.
But one doesn’t have to retreat to the seventeenth century to find papal hard power in operation. It can be seen in the contemporary activities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the lineal descendent of the Roman Inquisition that condemned Galileo and Bruno. We will see this in play later in the book in the heresy hunt after the condemnation of so-called “modernism” during the papacy of Pius X (1903-1914) when entirely orthodox Catholic scholars were pursued by a cabal of spies sponsored by the Vatican. Under John Paul II the CDF took on a new lease of life, especially after the arrival of Joseph Ratzinger as prefect in November, 1981. He moved against a long list of Catholic theologians, moralists and movements (like Liberation Theology). A couple of these people were treated abominably. Because of CDF secrecy the numbers of people investigated are hard to arrive at; but just counting those known publicly, over one hundred theologians and others have been investigated since 1981. (In the interests of full disclosure: I was one of those investigated in this period).
Of course, there is a contradiction in even using the word “power” in the context of the papacy. For the pope, like every Christian, is supposed to be a follower of Jesus, the man who said that power of any sort had no place in the community he founded. He replaced power with a call to service. He explicitly identified power with the “gentiles” a word in the New Testament which specifically referred to idolaters, unbelievers and worshippers of idols. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not to be so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10: 42-45). Sure, the popes have been calling themselves the “servants of the servants of God” since Pope Gregory I (590-604), but papal history has a very mixed record on popes serving God’s servants, let alone anyone else.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the document of the First Vatican Council (Vatican I), held in Rome in 1870, which gave the pope “the absolute fullness of supreme power.” The document (entitled in Latin Pastor aeternus) says unequivocally that “If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff [does] not [have]… the absolute fullness of supreme power…Let them be anathema.” It uses the Latin word potestas which implies coercive, forceful, controlling power, the type favoured by John Jay McCloy. This is power, pure and simple. Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus provided the theological underpinning for the modern papacy. This decree defined papal infallibility (the claim that the pope is divinely protected from error when defining what the church believes) and papal primacy (the pope’s jurisdictional authority over the whole church, his headship over the church).
Despite the fact that many important theologians, such as Hans Küng, think otherwise, in my view infallibility is not the major problem facing church governance; infallibility is hedged in by restrictions that make sure that popes can only teach what the church already believes. They can’t ‘make-up’ doctrine. But the definition of primacy hands over the church “lock stock and barrel” to the pope. With “the absolute fullness of supreme power” the pope can act without check or hindrance other than the law of God and the defined teaching of the church. And, according to Vatican I, the pope is the final interpreter of both! This definition leads straight to the view that the pope owns the church without any countervailing centres of authority to restore balance. In this theology the pope equals the church and the church equals the pope. It is this unlimited, full expression of supreme power that this book explicitly addresses—and rejects.
It was in this raw power sense that popes like Innocent III (1198-1216) thought they were the rulers of Europe, but their power was limited by their ability to project that force outward. No matter what medieval popes thought or taught, the lines of communication were only as fast as the speed at which news could travel and by modern standards that was pretty slow. They also lacked the coercive ability to make that power actually work on the ground. There was always resistance from local bishops, church councils, priests, laypeople and regional rulers. Up until the time of the commencement of this book, papal claims to power ebbed and flowed and it was always limited theologically, legally, politically and above all, practically. The modern notion of the separation of church and state means that modern democratic rulers, unlike their medieval and early modern counterparts, are not interested in appointing bishops or trying to run the internal affairs of the church. So, unlike their predecessors, contemporary popes have a clear run.
Nowadays a number of factors have coalesced to produce what I have called elsewhere an “omnipresent” papacy that is much more powerful and influential. With instant communications and the speed of jet travel, the popes can not only communicate their message, but they can make it personally present by their globetrotting. No one understood this better than John Paul II. His heyday was the late-twentieth century, the period before social media took over our lives. When people saw him on TV they felt he was an accessible figure who stood for a return to strong traditional values. He was no longer remote but present, a man of the people. But the focus was always on him; he was Catholicism personified.
The role of modern media in enhancing the power of the contemporary papacy has been largely neglected, but it is tremendously important. It has given the papacy the ability to project its power outward and to identify Catholicism with itself. This is particularly true since the invention of radio and the dominance of the electronic media. Since Pius XII and particularly with John Paul II the popes have been able to create personality cults and embrace celebrity culture.
There is a kind of double theme running through this book. First, I will argue that the papacy needs to use its potent influence to achieve the kind of reconciliation that Pope Francis achieved between the United States and Cuba, and more broadly to promote peace, reconciliation and justice in international relations. But as a Catholic I must ask another, specifically theological question, a question about the papacy’s use of hard power within the churchitself. I ask: has the papacy become too powerful in the internal life of the church? So powerful, in fact, that the nature of the church has become distorted by supreme papal power as defined by Vatican I. This raises another question: is this heresy? “Heresy” is not a word one tosses around lightly. Nevertheless, the question must be asked: is the contemporary governance of Catholicism out of synchronicity with the gospel, the teaching of Jesus and the tradition of church government?
The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) which sat from 1962 to 1965) was a turning point in the church’s life. This council consciously tried to rebalance the unbalanced theology of Vatican I with its emphasis on the role of the bishops and the laity, the People of God. Its call for reunion with other Christians put Catholicism in contact with other forms of more representative, synodal, democratic styles of church governance. On a practical level the council tried to rein in the bureaucratic and centralizing tendencies of the Vatican. To some extent that re-balancing worked until 1978. But then for the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) and that of Benedict XVI (2005-2013), the implementations of the reforms of Vatican II were stopped in their tracks as a widespread attempt was made to wind back and “to reform the reform.” This roll-back was reversed with the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis.
But “rolling back the roll-back” is not going to be easy even with as charismatic a figure as Pope Francis. And in light of what I have already said, the question has to be asked: is it the job of the pope to have so much influence in the church? In terms of the internal life of Catholicism I will argue that the church needs a considerably humbler, less centralized papacy, with authority devolved downwards to the local community. Bishops should be elected by their dioceses and important decisions, including issues like worship, morality and Christian living decided by the very ancient notion of the sensus fidelium, meaning “the sense of the faithful.” This refers to the instinctive, intuitive grasp of God’s inspiration that the community of believers possesses. What has happened is that “The bishop’s integral relationship to his local church…[has been] obscured because the church moved away from its theological identity as a communion of eucharistic communions and became structured as a universal, corporate entity governed by a monarchical power”—the papacy. If this theology was recovered the major role of the Bishop of Rome (to give the pope his primary title) will be to focus the unity of the church and to be the final court of appeal in doctrinal and legal/administrative issues.
But where does this leave the pope as an international geo-political actor playing a role “at the very center of the central conversations of our time about the issues that matter” as Time magazine put it (December 11, 2013)? If papal power is limited theologically what are the implications of this for popes as influential actors in ethical and geo-political affairs? I argue that if the church were to address some of its pressing internal issues, like the role of women, the devolution of authority, the need for theological pluralism, the development of more democratic, consultative, accountable structures and a less centralized system, then its credibility would be increased and its influence less dependent on the personality of the papal incumbent. It would be able to rely on the fact that Catholicism incorporates the values it proclaims. One of the points Joseph Nye constantly repeats in his discussion of soft power is that an institution that uses soft power to persuade others must manifest its core values in its own structure. “The resources that produce soft power,” Nye says, “arise in large part from the values an organization…expresses in its culture, in the example it sets by its internal practices and policies, and the way it handles its relations with others.” So a humble, accountable papacy might well have more rather than less influence in the world at large. That would certainly strengthen the church and influence the international community.
Papal history is a story of ups and downs. The book begins in 1799 when the papacy was at rock bottom. The Papal States had been swept away by the French revolutionary armies and Rome was controlled by the French. The pope at the time, Pius VI, died on 29 August, 1799 in Valence, a prisoner. The cardinals were scattered and there was real doubt that they could get together anywhere safe to elect the next pope.
The contrast between the situation in 1799 and Pope Francis today could not be starker. At the end of the eighteenth century the church was an entirely European institution; nowadays it is the most international organization on earth. In 1799 the total European Catholic population was approximately 95 million, with about nine million Catholics in Latin America and perhaps another million elsewhere, about 106 million in total. In 2013 there were 1.272 billion Catholics worldwide (17.3% of the world’s population), the largest number of them by far in the new world of the Americas, Africa and Asia. In 1799 there was widespread questioning of papal leadership within the church; nowadays the papacy has never been more powerful in its micro-management of Catholicism. One of the key sources of contemporary papal power lies in the pope’s ability to appoint bishops worldwide. In 1799 the most the papacy could do was to approve the appointment of bishops either by the local church or, more likely, by the local ruler. In 2016 almost every bishop in the church is directly appointed by the pope. Papal power reaches to every corner of Catholicism. But not just to the church. The papacy’s influence in world affairs has never been greater. In 1799 the papacy was held in contempt and that’s where the book begins.
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