Pope Benedict's divisions

The current form of governance of the Catholic church and the Vatican City State raises fundamental questions about these institutions - and their titular head, says Michael Walsh.
Michael Walsh
13 July 2010

There was a legal tag, much used by medieval canon lawyers, that the pope could not be judged by anyone. This did not put him above the law, because the law was God’s law to which all were subject. It meant, rather, than he could not be summoned before a court, even an imperial court, although one way or another that sort of thing very occasionally happened.

The United States supreme court does not recognise this sturdy principle.  When lawyers on behalf of the papacy appealed to the court to strike down an attempt in Oregon to put Pope Benedict XVI on trial, it refused to do so. It left that determination to a lower jurisdiction, so there is still a chance that subpoenas may be served on Vatican officialdom, right up to the pope himself. It is unlikely to happen, of course, any more than it is likely that gay-rights activists will have the pope summoned before a British court, but the challenge raises some interesting questions. And not least of such questions is exactly what, rather than who, is the pope.

This issue is highly relevant to the visit of Pope Benedict to Scotland and England on 16-19 September 2010. It is billed as a state visit, and the first thing the pope will do on 16 September after landing in Scotland will be to visit Queen Elizabeth II at her Edinburgh palace, Holyroodhouse. It will be one head of state paying a courtesy-call on another head of state. But of which state is the pope the head?

The obvious answer, that he is sovereign of the Vatican City State, is correct but irrelevant. In the doings of the papacy, the Vatican City State is neither here nor there. The Sovereign Pontiff’s real claim to jurisdiction is as head of the Holy See, a nebulous entity consisting of the pope and his curia (curia = court) - which could be located anywhere, but is now established, thanks to the Lateran pacts of 1929, in the heart of Rome. It has not always been there.  Popes over the centuries have established residences in various parts of Europe, and during the first world war even Liechtenstein was considered as a possible home: the prince would give up his principality, it was apparently agreed, in return for an hereditary cardinal’s hat.

The Holy See is the governing body of the world-wide Catholic church. It is as sovereign of the Holy See, not on behalf of the Vatican city, that the pope sends and receives ambassadors. The Queen will be receiving a spiritual leader, albeit one with an unusual status, when she greets Pope Benedict in Edinburgh.

The pontiff’s fiefdom

These are arcane matters, as mysterious to most Catholics as they are to the rest of humankind, even though RCs are on the receiving end of the Holy See’s governance. What they think of that governance, whether it inspires or alienates or something in between, depends where they position themselves on the long spectrum from conservative to radical. But one thing is for sure.  Catholics among her majesty’s British subjects experience from the Vatican a form of governance wholly different from that at Westminster. When the Queen shakes hands with the Pontiff, she will be exchanging greetings with a dictator – a benign dictator in the eyes of some, but a dictator nonetheless.

It need not be that way. It is endlessly parroted that “the church is not a democracy”. That is not really true. The pope is elected, admittedly by a peculiar electoral college; bishops used to be elected. Even the truths of the Christian faith were (and are still when need arises) determined by a show of hands or crosses on a ballot-paper. To suggest that such matters are determined by the pope alone is to turn him into God’s oracle. A good many people think of him in this way, but it is wholly wrong, indeed heretical.

It would be perfectly reasonable, though perhaps nowadays impractical, to turn the election of the pope over to the church at large: the last time that happened was in 1417, not so long ago in the span of the church’s existence. This is not something which, to speak personally, I would advocate. It would invest the papacy with too much significance. To take another Westminster example, I believe of the papacy what John Dunning’s resolution of 1780 declared of the monarchy: "that the power of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished".

I am not alone in thinking this. It was perfectly clear in the 1960s, during the course of the Second Vatican Council, that many bishops of the church thought similarly. They were aggrieved by the power of the papal curia, and wanted to control it. The curia, they cogently argued, was the servant of the church, not its master. Many objected in particular to the role of papal ambassadors (nuncios and apostolic delegates as they are called), believing with good reason that the local hierarchy might possibly be more capable of dealing with their home governments than the Vatican: even the Polish bishops, under a Polish pope, were irritated by the intervention of the Vatican in their affairs.

At Vatican II the bishops of the whole church developed the doctrine of collegiality: the bishops, as a college, were jointly responsible, with the pope, for the welfare of the church. Shortly after the council was over there was established a means of giving that doctrine an institutional presence: the synod of bishops. It was to consist of elected representatives of the church around the world, with a permanent secretariat in Rome. But officials everywhere resist conceding authority: little by little the synod was taken over as yet another means of the Vatican exercising unfettered power. And the bishops, supinely, let it happen.

Nothing now stands in the way of the Holy See treating the Catholic church as its private fiefdom. It began under John Paul II and has been exacerbated under his successor. There has recently been a gamut of bizarre happenings and utterances. Senior prelates are in serious conflict with each other. Some have been sacked. The Italian judiciary is investigating a major department for corruption. Walter Kasper, the cardinal in charge of Catholicism’s relations with other Christian churches, and one of the few curial officials to be widely admired, has just resigned. Prelates have taken refuge in archaic liturgies and antique modes of dress while failing to address themselves adequately to the crisis of child-abuse afflicting the church (see “The Vatican’s fix:abuse and renewal”, 22 March 2010).

The Vatican’s bubble

The pews, in the meantime, are emptying. Papa Ratzinger has in the past proposed the notion that the church ought to be smaller, but more devout, a sentiment echoed recently by the Archbishop of Westminster (see “From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI”, 19 April 2005). Yet rather than let the Catholic church shrink to the status of yet another denomination, he has launched a new office of evangelisation. It is reminiscent of a failed political party blaming its publicity-department’s inability to get its message across. And again like a political party, the Vatican does not allow itself to think that people hear the message, but disapprove of what they hear. 

One brave English bishop, Kieran Conry of Arundel & Brighton (who used to work in the media) has expressed his doubts about the need to reconvert the “secular” world. “It suggests”, he said, “that the church’s problems are external; in other words, society has gone wrong. I’m not sure that’s true”.

The church’s teaching may be one that people are unwilling to hear. But they certainly do not want to hear it from a papacy that can be questioned by no one, that can be held to account by nobody, that believes itself answerable only to God. That is not how the world now works, and it should no longer be how the church works.

On the afternoon of the second day of his state visit, Pope Benedict has been invited to address representatives of British society. He will do so in Westminster Hall, next to the houses of parliament where, day by day, ministers are called to account for their actions. The irony of pontificating in such a location will, I have no doubt, be entirely lost on the papal party.

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