The Prisoner of the Vatican

(Courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)
In past centuries the papacy’s authority survived some of its worst occupants. The modern papacy is more vulnerable.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat.

At the center of earthly Catholicism, there is one man: the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, the Patriarch of the West, the Servant of the Servants of God, the 266th (give or take an antipope) successor to Saint Peter.

This has not changed in 2,000 years. There was one bishop of Rome when the Church was a persecuted minority in a pagan empire; one bishop of Rome when the Church was barricaded into a Frankish redoubt to fend off an ascendant Islam; one bishop of Rome when the Church lost half of Europe to Protestantism and gained a New World for its missionaries; one bishop of Rome when the ancien regime crumbled and the Church’s privileges began to fall away; one bishop of Rome when the 20th century ushered in a surge of growth and persecution for Christian faith around the globe.

But all the other numbers that matter in Roman Catholicism have grown somewhat larger. When Simon Peter was crucified upside down in Nero’s Rome, there were at most thousands of Christians in the Roman Empire, and only about 120 million human beings alive in the whole world. When Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door, there were only 50 or 60 million Christians in all of Europe. There were probably about 200 million Catholics worldwide when Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors condemned modern liberalism in 1864; there were probably about 500 million a century later when the Second Vatican Council attempted a partial reconciliation with modernity.

And now—well, to start in the red-hatted inner circle, there are more than 200 cardinals, roughly 5,100 bishops, 400,000 priests, and about 700,000 sisters in the contemporary Catholic Church. In the United States alone, the number of people employed by the Church in some form—in schools and charities and relief organizations and the various diocesan bureaucracies—tops a million. Worldwide, the Church dwarfs other private-sector and government employers, from McDonald’s to the U.S. federal government to the People’s Liberation Army.

That’s just the Church as a corporation; the Church as a community of believers is vastly larger. In 2014, one sixth of the world’s human beings were baptized Catholics. Those estimated numbers? More than a billion and a quarter, or 1,253,000,000.

Catholic means “here comes everybody,” wrote James Joyce in Finnegans Wake. That was in the 1920s, when there were about 300 million Catholics, two thirds of them in Europe.

Now there are more Catholics in Latin America, more in Africa and Asia, than there were in all of the Joycean world.

The papacy has never been an easy job. Thirty of the first thirty-one popes are supposed to have died as martyrs. Popes were strangled, poisoned, and possibly starved during the papacy’s tenth-century crisis. Pius VI was exiled by French Revolutionary forces; his successor, Pius VII, was exiled by Napoleon. Pius XII’s Rome was occupied by Nazis. Five popes at least have seen their city sacked—by Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths, Normans, and a Holy Roman Emperor.

These are extreme cases, but even the pleasure-loving pontiffs of the Renaissance found the office more punishing than they expected. “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici is supposed to have said upon being elected as Leo X. But his eight years as pope included a poisoning attempt, constant warfare, and the first days of the Reformation; he died at 45.

Huns or Visigoths no longer menace today’s popes, and their odds of being poisoned—conspiracy theories notwithstanding—are mercifully slim. But alongside the continued dangers of high office (the assassin’s bullet that struck John Paul II, the Islamic State’s dream of taking its jihad to Saint Peter’s), there are new and distinctive pressures on the papacy. The speed of mass communications, the nature of modern media, means that popes are constantly under the spotlight, their every move watched by millions or billions of eyes. Papal corruption would be an international scandal rather than a distant rumor. Papal misgovernment leads to talk of crisis in every corner of the Catholic world. Papal illness or incapacity can no longer be hidden, and aging pontiffs face a choice between essentially dying in public, like John Paul II, or taking his successor’s all-but-unprecedented step of resignation.

In an age of media exposure, the pope’s role as a public teacher is no longer confined to official letters, documents, bulls. Not just every sermon but every off-the-cuff utterance can whirl around the world before the Vatican press office has finished getting out of bed (or returned from an afternoon espresso). And theological experts are left to debate whether the magisterium of the Church, that lofty-sounding word for official Catholic teaching, includes in-flight chats with reporters or “private” phone calls from the pope to members of the faithful.

Just as in American politics the president is handed both blame and credit for events that are far outside one man’s control, so too the pope is treated like a minor deity.

In past centuries the papacy’s authority survived some of its worst occupants—from the 16th-century Borgias to the tenth-century villain John XII, who allegedly raped and murdered pilgrims—because their sins were out of sight and mostly out of mind for Catholics who didn’t live in Rome or its environs. And across the same centuries, the papacy’s claim to be a rock of unchanging teaching seemed more solid because casual papal utterances and speculations remained personal and private, with no iPhones to capture them, no Twitter to broadcast them to the world entire.

Now though, the pope is a global celebrity, with all the scrutiny that entails. And the Vatican has mostly encouraged this shift towards papal stardom. From the 19th century onward, as the papacy lost its claim to secular power and was besieged by revolutionaries and totalitarians, a papal cult was fostered among faithful Catholics, which treated the living occupants of Peter’s see in a style usually reserved for long-departed saints. In the 20th and 21st centuries, as mass communication and airline travel expanded the papal presence further, actual papal canonizations became more commonplace. While the popes in the early Church were almost all sainted, between the fall of Rome and the 20th century, only 30 popes out of about 200 were canonized. But two of the last five pontiffs have been declared saints, one has been beatified, and two have been declared Servants of God, the first step toward sainthood. And there will be a clamor (albeit from different camps among the Catholic faithful) for both the current pope and his still living predecessor to join those ranks once they’ve passed to their reward.

In fairness, recent popes probably have exceeded some of their medieval and modern predecessors in sanctity. But the trend still suggests an important transformation in how the papal office is presented and perceived, both among Catholics and in the wider world. The popes of the past struck monarchical poses and claimed sweeping political as well as spiritual powers. But with those claims came an implicit acknowledgement of their worldliness, which in turn invited lay Catholics to treat them as ordinary mortals—sometimes corrupt, sometimes foolish, sometimes in need of hectoring and correction, and always at risk of eternal damnation. When Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy consigned several popes to the Inferno, or when medieval painters of the Last Judgment made sure to place a tiara-sporting pontiff in the flames of hell, they were making a theological point about the nature and limits of the papal office. No matter how much power God had entrusted in the papacy, the popes’ personal sanctity was irrelevant to the Church’s central theological claims

This is still the official teaching of the Church. But it is not the implication that one would draw from the way the papacy is—there is no other word for it—marketed today, the way that each pope is treated not just as the supreme governor of the Church but as its singular embodiment, the Catholic answer to Gandhi or Mandela, the Beatles or the Stones.

With this marketing comes both outsize expectations and outsize vulnerability. Just as in American politics the president is handed both blame and credit for events that are far outside one man’s control, so too the pope is treated like a minor deity, idolized by ultramontanists and cursed by anti-Catholics, and held responsible for good harvests and drowning floods alike.

Thus when the Church seems to be growing or reviving it must be “the Francis effect” or a “John Paul II generation” bearing fruit. Where Catholicism is in crisis or decline everyone is quick to place the blame on failing leadership in Rome. When the Berlin Wall came down there was a rush to suggest that John Paul II had vanquished Communism all-but-singlehandedly; when AIDS ravaged Africa there was a rush to claim the Vatican’s line on condoms had somehow cost millions of lives. When Francis joined the fight against global warming there was a lot of implausible talk about how the papal aura would transform the difficult politics of climate; when the sex-abuse scandals came to light Benedict was regularly portrayed as a spider at the center of a global criminal conspiracy.

As with the American presidency, these expectations have encouraged an ongoing centralization: If you’re going to be blamed for everything that goes wrong, after all, why wouldn’t you seek more power, more control? As in American politics, neither the Church’s conservatives nor its liberals have offered consistent resistance to papal aggrandizement. Everyone wants a humbler papacy . . . right up until after their main sits on the papal throne.

And as in American politics, the centralization of power has not led to its effective use. Instead, in the years of Benedict XVI especially, the sheer incompetence of the Vatican, with its warring fiefdoms and Renaissance-court intrigues and speed-of-telegraph media operations, became the one issue on which the Church’s feuding theological factions tended to wholeheartedly agree.

From To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat. Copyright © 2018 by Ross Douthat. Published by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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