When the Pope was powerful, and why that changed

February 12, 2013

When the Pope was powerful, and why that changed

by Max Fisher on February 11, 2013@www.washingtonpost.com

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI walks through the gate at Auschwitz, long a sore point in the papacy’s history. (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher)

It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when the office of the Pope began to lose its vast political power, which had long placed the Holy See above even the Kings and Emperors of Europe, but has since declined to the point that now-retiring Pope Benedict XVI found few political accomplishments in his reign. But one day that stands out is December 2, 1804.

A few weeks earlier, French voters had overwhelmingly approved a referendum elevating Napoleon Bonaparte from First Consul to Emperor, the beginning of the end of France’s democratic revolution. His coronation was to proceed in the manner of all Catholic monarchs, who still ruled most of Europe: he would kneel before the Pope, then Pius VII, to receive a crown and blessing. The symbolism of the coronation reflected centuries of European political tradition, in which the Catholic church formally conferred royalty with the divine blessing that was thought necessary to rule; the church, in its power, had at times competed openly with those same monarchs.

But when Napoleon marched up the altar of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, he did not kneel before Pope Pius VII as the French monarchs before him had done and as Pius surely expected. As Pius raised the crown, Napoleon instead turned to face the onlookers in the pews, snatched the crown out the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. In Jacques Louis David’s famous painting of the incident, completed four years later, Pius stands sullenly back, watching as Napoleon crowns his wife Queen.

Napoleon’s coronation did not on its own end the Pope’s influence over world politics, but it symbolized that decline after centuries of vast papal authority over Europe. When the Roman Empire fell, the Catholic church remained as close as Europe had to a pan-continental institution; the church had legitimacy and grassroots support, not to mention vast financial resources.

European governments, as they grew from city-states to nations, developed a sort of symbiotic relationship with the church, relying on it for support and fearing its power to support opposing leaders. When Pope Urban II called on European leaders to rally for the crusades, he both confirmed and entrenched the Vatican’s power over political leaders, even in matters of war.

Though the Pope’s powers declined when European monarchs became powerful enough to challenge him, at one point hosting a second and more corruptible pope in France, the protestant reformation rallied Catholic governments against rising protestantism and renewed the pope’s political importance.

But even the Pope could not overcome the rise of European nationalism and revolutionary movements in the modern era, of which Napoleon was just one. The Vatican’s political impotence has many examples, but one of the most powerful is Pope Pius XII’s scandalous silence during the holocaust. Debate over Pius’s relative inaction still rages, with critics charging that he hoped to retain some Catholic presence in Germany while defenders argue he was more quietly diplomatic.

Pope John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005, seemed to carve out a new model for a politically influential pope. Though the Polish-born leader did not wield the traditional tools of direct papal power, he acted as a sort of global ambassador on behalf the church. His remarkable tenure, in which he mediated conflicts, pressured non-democratic governments to reform and sought to soothe interfaith tensions, earned him a place in history. Cold War scholars still celebrate his role in helping to end the Cold War, which even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged.

Pope Benedict XVI, who Monday announced that he will resign at the end of the month, has a political legacy akin to many popes in the 20th century: one in which he is relevant to the theological debates within the Catholic church but not, like the Popes of old, a major player in world politics.

Whoever follows him will have to consider whether he wishes the Papacy to remain an office principally concerned with the internal theology of the world’s third-largest religion as it was under Benedict, or one that attempts to reclaim some of the global leadership of John Paul II. Either way, Benedict’s resignation is a reminder of how far the Papacy has come from the days of when it competed alongside kings and emperors for power.


11 thoughts on “When the Pope was powerful, and why that changed

  1. The Pope cited age and sagging energy as grounds for his impending resignation on February 28, 2013. Could there more to this unusual step by His Holiness. CLF and Bean, any views on the matter?–Din Merican

  2. The Pope is NOT allowed to resign. He can choose to be replaced on health reasons. A CEO resignation without replacement simply tell not to buy his share cos the CEO even has no faith in his company, what else then is new?

    The Vatican now in suspended state. Will the Vatican be run by an exco to decide on the Vatican’s investments and policies? What are catholics going to say?

  3. Although i’m not a Roman Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI is one heck of a theologian, highly intelligent, witty and is well respected. His Conservative views may not be palatable to all and as the the previous Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith (er.., Inquisition), he wielded immense influence. Being the Rottweiler of the RCC demands immediate genuflection of our souls, if not our hearts.

    As to the Reason(s) why he has decided to retire, it’s hard to say. My reading is that perhaps his mental constitution, besides physical health is deteriorating. Being the titular head of Catholicism and sitting on the chair of the Numero uno Shepherd, Vicar of Christ is indeed a huge, almost inhuman responsibility. A slobbering, frail, doddering and diapered Pope who forgets his own name and other ‘Mudah Lupa’-isms will not do in this world of telegenic leaders. He is indeed honest and humble to himself and before God. The adage : ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ For that, he has no peer.

    As for the Washington Post article above, it’s totally inane – for the Catholic Church itself has changed much and sees itself beyond the vagaries of Man’s constant politicking. It still holds tremendous Universal Moral and Ethical Authority and that’s why all wannabe leaders of nation states, from POTUS and including our sniveling PM seek audiences with His Holiness. And that’s why PRC leaders are adamantly trying their best to avoid his influence, lest they end up losing their bamboo curtain underwear. Christianity in all it’s forms is seditious, you see..

  4. Er.. MattGoldman, you have got it all wrong. The Modern Corporatism of Business is derived from the Structure of the Church – not the other way round. The Pope is allowed to resign, if it is for the better good of the church and of his freewill. The last time that happened was when Pope Gregory XII in 1415 ‘abdicated’ to prevent further schism of the Western Church.

    The Canon Law of the Catholic Church mentions papal resignation in Canon 332, where it states: “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office (munus), it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.” (Wiki)

    The RCC itself constitutes about 1.2-1.3 adherents, while Protestantism accounts for another 600-700 million and Eastern Orthodox about 250-300 million. That’s one third the population on this planet.

  5. I do not think that Foreign Policy issues are going to take center stage in the next General Elections. General Elections in almost all countries, including the United States, focus mainly on domestic issues. Thank You.

  6. The Pope resigns due to frailty and poor health? Sweet Mary, mother of baby Jesus!

    What happened to eternal faith, grace and divine intervention of GOD?
    I thought resignation only applies to ordinary folks not to men of the cloth.

    Even the yellow Emperors chose to face mortality in the eye rather than to be released from the mandate from Heaven, willingly or otherwise.

    This Pope has lowered the status of his office from the high pedestal of a deified mortal to the foot stool of common earthlings.

    Rumours and suspicions abound that the security of the Pope’s inner sanctum has been broached and his holiness has stepped down to avoid scandal.

  7. The pope is the tai-koh of the world’s largest triad society called “Catholics”. Yes, it has 1.5 billion members worldwide. And it is the most hypocritical group in the world. They called themselves champions of freedom and democracy, yet, its leader, the pope is selected by a small group of chiefs called “cardinals” in such a secretive manner, and unbelievably, among themselves. Even UMNO has a more transparent process and its chief is selected by a much bigger group of members than the Catholics.

    If Catholics really profess democracy, then have the 1.5 billion vote for its leader, the pope in a most open and transparent manner … but then, would anyone care to bet if the Catholics would stand up for their rights?

    I have nothing against Catholics. All I am asking the Catholics is, implement in your own backyard what you preach to the world.

    But of course, Din, you would not publish my post because you wouldn’t want to piss off the Catholics among your readers.

  8. owh…CL… like that ah…wait I telephone God whose telephone number in NIV Jeremiah 33:3….dont believe check up it.says.
    “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’

    and may the Pope be inspired by this farewell song by Boney M.

    By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
    Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.
    When the wicked
    Carried us away in captivity
    Required from us a song
    Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land

    Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart
    Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

  9. Ah Chong,

    I called God again to report what your post.

    A voice answered “the number you have called has been suspended” then I remembered I just call God’s extension in PRC………and the reason for the line’s suspension was that Catholics in PRC do not report to the Vatican. They have cut off the Pope. One reason I can think of was Cardinal Sin of Philippines brought down Marcos so this gave all the more reason to avoid treason.

    JFK, the Only President of the USA who was a Catholic was gunned down.
    Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic, did run and lose against Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election.

    Now, can you tell why out of 44 US presidents only 1 is a Catholic when you claim there are 1.5m members worldwide? Your numbers cannot include PRC la….. told you I called that extension. It was suspended.

  10. Mr Goldman

    Soli-ah. Ah Chong’s calculator wasn’t working well, so it may not have been 1.5 billion. Regardless, with its millions of devotees outside of PRC, the pope should be elected by these millions, not by a bunch of old men wearing dresses at the Vatican. It’s a big joke for them to clamour for democracy in various countries, PRC included and they themselves do not practice it. I am sure their God did not set this rule of how to choose the pope among themselves or even that the leader of their religion should be called a pope and lives in vatican. And why should the pope be a man and not a woman?

    By the way, the US probably has more alcoholics than Catholics, so that’s why their presidents were mostly not Catholics. PRC … well, well … if you follow their thousand years of history, many rebellions started under the guise of religion or ‘mandate from god / heaven’. Understandably, they are nervous about the pope and Catholics. There are more Catholics than communists. Try God’s extension in Hong Kong. I heard they have someone named Zen who can enlighten you about their triad details.

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