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What Does the Pope Do?
To understand why the election of a pope is important, we first need to grasp what the pope does. Unfortunately, there is no job description for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Lots of titles go with the job, but they are of little immediate help: supreme pontiff (pontifex maximus), servant of the servants of God, vicar of Christ, successor of Peter, bishop of Rome, patriarch of the West. Catholics sometimes say the pope steps into "the shoes of the fisherman," meaning that he follows Saint Peter, who was a fisherman before being called by Jesus Christ to lead the church. That phrase, unfortunately, is more metaphorical than informative. A twentieth-century way to describe the pope might be to say that he is the legal and spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, at 1 billion members the largest Christian denomination in the world, and certainly the most vertically integrated. One way of putting the point: the pope can push a button in Rome and see something happen in Singapore in ways that the archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama cannot.
In reality, however, the demands of the position are far more vast. A modern pope is called upon to be an intellectual, a politician, a pastor, a media superstar, and a Fortune 500 CEO. He must produce complex documents setting out the thinking of the Catholic Church on the most vexing problems that confront humanity. While he has a staff and as many advisers as he wants to help with writing and research, ultimately the message is for him to determine. He must oversee the work of the oldest diplomatic corps on earth, involved in mediating conflicts and protecting the institutional interests of the Catholic Church in dozens of global hot spots. On any given day, the pope may be briefed about the latest violence in the Middle East, about Muslim-Christian slaughter in Indonesia, and about the role of Western commercial interests in sustaining the civil war in the Congo. Then he will be expected to make decisions. If he does too little, he will be accused of indifference; if he does too much, he will be accused of meddling. The pope must be a skilled public figure who knows how to use, rather than be used by, the global communications industry. If he shrinks from publicity, they will say he is weak; if he courts it, they will say he's an egomaniac. Finally, the pope must manage the personnel and financial resources of an enormous multinational religious organization. Since to govern is to choose, as de Gaulle once said, some of those choices are bound to make people unhappy.
Many of these burdens are similar to demands imposed on other world leaders, such as the president of the United States or the secretary general of the United Nations. One key difference is that the pope, in addition to being a politician and administrator, is also expected to be extraordinarily holy. People might forgive a president all sorts of moral failings, but they have higher standards for pontiffs. Another is that being elected pope is, in effect, a life sentence-there's no retirement to anticipate, no comfortable years as an elder statesman writing memoirs and giving lucrative speeches at foreign policy seminars. Popes carry the burden of their office until they die. (We can't follow the idea here, but it's worth noting that if they wanted to, popes could retire. There's a provision for it in canon 332 of the Code of Canon Law, the supreme law of the Catholic Church. Some reform-minded Catholics wish popes would do so, in effect building term limits into the system. For now, however, the papacy remains a lifetime occupation.)
For all these reasons, being pope is an impossible job, and despite what you may hear, few church leaders actually want it. Mastering any one of its elements is a life's work. Inevitably, popes emphasize some aspects of the job at the expense of others. Beloved, roly-poly, off-the-cuff John XXIII was a magnificent pastor, but he was never accused of worrying about details. He once summoned Cardinal Franz Konig of Vienna and told him to go to Budapest to visit Hungarian cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who had taken refuge from his country's Communist government in the American embassy. A flabbergasted Konig reminded the pope that it was not simple to get in and out of Iron Curtain countries, especially to visit a man the local authorities regarded as a public menace. Pope John smiled and said, "Find a way." Konig was irritated by such an offhand dismissal of the problems generated by the request. Then, of course, he found a way to carry it out. Globe-trotting John Paul II strikes an imposing figure for the news producers at CNN, but he too leaves many day-to-day details to others-more, some say, than the CEO of any multinational corporation could without being asked to step down by his board of directors. (The pope, of course, has no board of directors, just a corps of advisers, called cardinals.) He once signed three different criticisms of the work of a major Catholic theologian, Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis, each one changed in important respects, even though each one was supposedly an expression of the pope's quasi-infallible ordinary teaching authority. John Paul was simply signing what was put in front of him without noting the fine print.
Despite the naturally unequal distribution of gifts, the fact remains that popes are called upon to fulfill all of these roles. Inattention to any one of them leads to problems; excellence in any one of them can change the world.
Priest and Bishop
To get a better grip on the job, let's start with the word itself. Pope is an English equivalent of the Italian term papa, which is the word for father (though with a different accent). The idea is that the pope is a spiritual father for the Catholic family, which in some sense includes all the 1 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. Popes take this notion very seriously; Paul VI, for example, who served as pope from 1963 to 1978, once said that he could not resign his office because it is not possible to give up "spiritual paternity." A father of a family can't lay down that burden just because he's tired of carrying it, Paul reasoned, and in the same way a pope can't renounce being a spiritual father to his children. (Some Catholic theologians point out, however, that Paul VI decreed a retirement age of seventy-five for bishops, who are also supposed to be spiritual fathers of the Catholics in their care. In this case Paul's logic stopped at the papal doorstep.)
A pope, like any priest, is first and foremost a pastor, someone who offers spiritual guidance, who preaches the word of God, who celebrates the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and whose job it is to help Catholics live holy lives and prepare for communion with God in the next world. John Paul II takes his priesthood to heart, sending out annual letters on Holy Thursday to all the priests of the world, giving advice and offering encouragement. The celebration of his fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination, in 1996, was one of the biggest events in Rome during his tenure.
The pope is also a bishop. He is the chief shepherd of the archdiocese of Rome, and whenever Catholics in Rome celebrate mass, they pray for "John Paul, our bishop." In fact, theologically speaking, every other function of the papacy is rooted in his status as the bishop of Rome. His claim to primacy comes from the fact that Rome was one of the pillars of the primitive Christian church, the place where both Peter, the leader of the twelve apostles, and Paul, the great missionary, were imprisoned and executed. As the Roman empire was divided into Eastern and Western halves, the bishop of Rome became the leader of the churches in Europe. The sees of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, in Turkey), Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem continued to be, at least in theory, on the same level with Rome. After the division of Christianity between West and East in 1054, the bishop of Rome became the recognized primate over all of the Western church. The Eastern patriarchs, meanwhile, could never agree on which one among them was most important, which helps explain why there are fifteen independent branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church today.
As a matter of fact, however, the pope's status as a local bishop is more symbolic than real. He appoints another cleric to do the administrative work of running the archdiocese of Rome, such as meeting with priests, overseeing budgets, approving building projects, and commenting on the local and national political scene. This post, of vicar of Rome, is currently held by Italian cardinal Camillo Ruini, a powerful figure sometimes considered a candidate to become pope himself. John Paul has so far visited 297 of Rome's 330 parishes, but in the end, his responsibilities as pope, especially his trips abroad, mean that his work as a local bishop remains largely nominal.
It is thus the presidential aspect of the pope's work, the nature of his job as Roman Catholicism's chief executive officer, that makes the papacy an object of concern in newsrooms and foreign ministries. The world takes note of John Paul II not primarily because he is a caring priest or talented bishop but because as the leader of the Catholic Church he contributes to shaping the destiny of nations, cultures, and social movements. The next pope could, of course, change this. But if he follows the model set by the popes of the modern age, he will play three core roles:
* a political and diplomatic actor
* the most influential religious leader in the world
* the governor of the Catholic Church
Before 1870, the pope's status as a political figure was much more obvious, since he was a monarch who ruled over the middle third of Italy, a sizable piece of real estate known as the Papal States. Popes considered this territory essential to the independence of the Catholic Church. Pius IX, who was the last pope to control the Papal States, once compared them to "the robe of Jesus Christ." Borders varied over the years as the political and military fortunes of the papacy waxed and waned, but for centuries, this territory was subject to both the civil as well as the religious laws of the papal bureaucracy. Popes issued ordinances, signed treaties, commanded armies, and even had a few dissidents beheaded. Today's Swiss Guards represent the vestigial remains of the papal military. One can still walk down Roman streets and find Latin inscriptions threatening excommunication and other ecclesiastical penalties for throwing garbage in the streets, a reminder of the days when Rome was the capital of a thriving theocracy.
On September 20, 1870, after the French army abandoned Rome in order to fight Prussia, Italian revolutionaries entered Rome and declared Vittorio Emmanuele the first king of a unified Italy. The pope locked himself up inside the Apostolic Palace, refusing to recognize the new Italian state and declaring himself "prisoner of the Vatican." Some people thought the political role of the papacy was finished forever. In fact, however, the loss of territory freed the pope to be a player on the world stage in a way he never could have been before. At his best, the pope no longer appears as a monarch looking out for his own interests but as a voice of conscience for the world. Moreover, a supranational pope can, at least in theory, rely on support from hundreds of millions of Catholics worldwide, which gives him a capacity to mobilize public opinion that no government can afford to ignore.
The twentieth century offers examples of popes who either changed the course of world history or narrowly missed the opportunity to do so by the way they chose to exercise their political clout. We'll look at three examples that illustrate the nature of the Roman Catholic pope as a political player.
John XXIII and the Opening to the East
The avuncular "Good Pope John," who reigned from October 1958 to June 1963, was the first pope to soften the Vatican's steely line against Communism. In part, the Catholic Church's uncompromising stand was based on ideology, since classical Marxism is atheistic. In part, it reflected the bitter experience of Christians in Marxist states, where priests had been executed, churches looted and burned, and believers packed off to gulags. In part, too, it was rooted in the politics of Italy, which had the strongest Communist party in the West after World War II. Italian Catholics were threatened with excommunication for voting for Communists or any party allied with them, even for reading a Communist newspaper. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the former head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, the Holy Office (the modern successor of the Inquisition), once declared, "People can say whatever they want about the Trinity, but if they vote Communist their excommunication will show up in the mail the next day." Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, was referred to as "the chaplain of NATO" for his pro-Western political stance.
John XXIII, however, felt that the polarization of the world into armed camps, especially in the nuclear age, was unacceptable. Cautiously but firmly, he reoriented the Vatican's foreign policy, sending signals to Marxist governments that he wanted improved relations. The shift came to be known as the Vatican's Ostpolitik, or Eastern policy. John XXIII's first encyclical on social questions, entitled Mater et Magister (Mother and Teacher) appeared in 1961, and his second, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) shortly before his death on June 3, 1963. In the first he endorsed state intervention in sociopolitical matters, a prized principle of socialism, and called for respect for both individual and social rights. Pacem in Terris maintained that peace could be reached only by collaboration between all people of upright conscience, which meant even those involved in movements inspired by ideologies that Catholics considered erroneous. He encouraged Catholics to look beyond political labels, at what public figures actually do, since they may contain "good and commendable elements."
Pope John sent another signal of openness when he decided to receive Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law, Alexei Adjubei, and his family in a private audience, to the shock and scandal of hard-line anti-Communists. Later, when the pope received John McCone, head of the CIA, in April 1963, he made clear he was not playing favorites. "I bless all the peoples and do not subtract my faith from some of them," the pope said. When Khrushchev sent a greeting for the pope's eightieth birthday, many in the Vatican thought he should ignore it, but John sat down and wrote a reply: "Thank you for the thought," he wrote. "And I will pray for the people of Russia."