A Catholic’s Conception of the Role of the Papacy in the Contemporary World

As the white smoke drifted lazily through the Vatican chimney in March, rising above a square crowded with eager Catholic faithful and most certainly a few protestors, not a few people must have found themselves fascinated by this strange ritual, a vestige from a different time when symbols, not English, functioned as the international language. Do they really believe that the Holy Spirit, or some divine inspiration, guides this decision? What could that even mean in a largely secularized western society? Will the new pope reverse the Church’s controversial “medieval” positions on gay marriage, contraceptives, abortion, etc.? What are they going to do with the old guy, Benedict, or does he even go by Benedict now? And once the newly named Francis stepped out on the balcony: That guy? Why did they choose another old guy?

Misconceptions about the papacy and the Catholic Church come in every shape and size. Regarding the first question, the answer is yes: Catholics really do believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Cardinals’ election of a new pope. No, the new pope, even if he is a reformer who brings change to the Church, will almost certainly not repudiate past Church teachings. Benedict will enter the solitude of a monastery, continuing his service to the Church with prayer and intellectual reflection. As to his name, well, frankly it doesn’t really matter: the important thing, from the Catholic view, is that his signet ring has been crushed, and that Benedict no longer sits on the ancient chair of Saint Peter. And as for Francis’ being old, this question too misses the mark: it’s not about whether the man is 80 or 40 but whether he has the energy, experience, and wisdom to lead the Church and indeed the world in the contemporary age.

Yes, Catholics think Francis was chosen by God. Nonetheless, Catholics also think he was chosen by Cardinals, by human beings who listened to each other speak about the needs of the Church and the contemporary world, human beings who spent hours praying and reflecting on their decision. Yes, Catholics across the world supported the Cardinals through prayer, but Cardinals also consulted the practical advice of informed Catholic authorities from across the world. The point is a simple one: faith doesn’t compete against reason, the Church doesn’t compete with political sovereignties, prayers don’t replace practical action, and grace doesn’t destroy nature. Nor does faith simply sit alongside reason, nor the Church ignore political sovereignties; nor is grace for Christians and nature for non-believers.

Most people know that the Vatican is a sovereign political nation. Surprisingly few know that the Vatican also participates in the United Nations, and is perhaps the only participant without vested political interests. As such, the Vatican and Pope can play the role of truthspeaker for this international body nominally dedicated to the preservation and promotion of human rights, peace, and global cooperation. Indeed, in his 1995 address to the UN, John Paul II (pope 1978-2005) exhorted his audience to be “a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a ‘family of nations.’” Benedict XVI (pope 2005-2013) would remind the UN of these very same words in his 2008 address, words which in turn didn’t really come from JPII at all but recalled the teachings of Blessed John XXIII (pope 1958-1963) in his Pacem in Terris, a plea for peace and the building of a “world community” amidst those still recovering and in some ways still experiencing (in the Cold War) the destructive potential of world war. Perhaps it will surprise some to know that John Paul II as a Cardinal, along with the elder Cardinal Wyszynski, played an instrumental role in birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the movement which brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union in Poland and in some ways the whole of Eastern Europe.

Here one finds the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, setting forth a vision for the UN as he both reminds his audience of their original mission and also exhorts them to even greater commitment. Indeed, he brings the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity, the idea that social-economic-political issues should resolved at the smallest level possible (e.g., where the family fails, the township steps in; where the township fails, the state steps in; etc.)

As the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church, he is also head of the world’s largest charitable organization. Beyond this nominal leadership, however, the Pope carries forward the vision and spirit of this charity: he defines not only its theological foundations but also its role within the spheres of natural justice and human community. At times the Catholic Church, and in particular the Vatican, has been lambasted for its resistance to strategies such as the Condom Solution, accused of standing in the way of globalized social and economic progress because of its outdated, medieval conceptions of human sexuality. Such criticisms, however, overlook the unsurpassed charitable efforts of the Catholic Church, as well as underestimate the sophistication of the Church’s systematic understanding of justice, equality, dignity, freedom, and peace.

Unlike any other widespread charitable effort, the Catholic Church, led by its Holy Father, not only engages in widespread practical efforts to promote social justice but does so within a deeply historically conscious, philosophically sophisticated, and theologically inspired context. It is here that one finds such intriguing social-political-economic principles, principles that seems to stretch across our conventional political lines, principles like subsidiarity, the fundamental option for the poor, the dignity of the worker, the right to employment, the centrality of the family, and the dignity of the immigrant.

In some ways, the Pope is a transnational grandfather. As one of the oldest human institutions still extant today, an institution that nevertheless also claims divine origin as well, the papacy offers a unique point of view to a world often starved by narrow understanding of the importance of “now” and its historical context. Indeed, in a 2010 address to the leaders of Britain in the ancient Westminster Hall, Benedict again took on the role of truthspeaker, exhorting British politicians to a greater sense of the dignity and honor of their political vocation. In doing so, he was able to draw upon the Church’s rich treasure trove of exemplars, for he quietly recalled here the death of Saint Thomas Moore, who, slated to be executed to the man whom he dutifully served as king for his refusal to foreswear his allegiance to the Pope, said upon his death: “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”

The Pope, by the hoary dignity of his office and its spiritual, intellectual, and social influence, commands the respect of many of the most powerful leaders of the world. This respect, however, flows not merely out of the historical solemnity of the office but also from its transnational influence. In clamoring over the possible nationalities of the new pope in the days leading up to the election of Francis, the media overlooked something essential to the office: in Catholic eyes, the man who becomes Pope no longer belongs to his former nation. While it is true that Francis’s Latin American experience will provide him with unique insights into the struggles and strengths of the Latin American Church, it by no means indicates a shift in the center of the Catholic world, for the Catholic world is centered not on any geographic place but upon a human person, Jesus Christ. The Holy Father is the Vicar of Christ and his supreme representative on earth: as such, he takes on a role of global grandfather, and perhaps not only of those who identify as Catholic, but of the whole human family.

Ironically, the Pope is probably the closest thing the world will ever see to Plato’s philosopher king. The Pope leads an organization of over 1.2 billion people from countries across the world: perhaps surprisingly by the secular standard, two of the last three popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, worked as university professors for significant portions of their careers. Indeed, people unfamiliar with John Paul II may be surprised to know that he, in between traveling to over 100 countries, wrote treatises, books, and encyclicals on moral philosophy and bioethics, the philosophy of religion, and political and social philosophy. Moreover, perhaps more than any other institutional executive in the world, a pope must always exhibit a keen understanding of the tradition and history of the Church; unlike any other global leader, the pope, while looking forward, is constantly drawing upon the rich treasury of human thought, both Christian and non-Christian, in order to grasp the fullness of the reality that is now.

The Pope’s spiritual leadership, however, extends beyond merely the Catholic faithful: he is the most visible figurehead of the Christian religion, divided as it may be, in the entire world. Moreover, the Pope is in many ways the most visible religious leader in the entire world. As such, the Pope not only stands as the supreme representative of the religion of Catholicism, a strand of Christianity that consciously involves over 2000 years of ecclesiastical tradition, intellectual achievement, and spiritual reflection, but also as the supreme representative of the religious spirit itself. Indeed, the mid-20 century Second Vatican Council identified religious freedom as one of the fundamental loci of human rights and human dignity, and John Paul II, as well as Benedict, ardently defended the importance of a non-trivial religious freedom, a freedom to seek out that for which the heart most deeply yearns.

In many ways the Pope serves as the pastor for the secular world as well. The Pope seeks to engage various domains of society with the systematic thought of Christianity. In a way, this engagement reflects the Pope’s commitment to caring for all the world, whether Christian or not, not as a political sovereign but as a moral, spiritual, political, and social teacher. Here, the Pope stands as the foremost defender of the human person, the defender and promoted of the dignity of the human experience, an experience that is, as John Paul II ardently wrote, not merely economic nor merely political but an integrated mixture of individual and communal life, a person and yet simultaneously cooperative participation in a quest for meaning, for understanding, for true freedom, for justice, for peace, and, ultimately, for God.