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February 14th, 2013

A Political Papacy?

How the new pope might engage the political world.


Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama during Obama's 2009 visit to the Vatican. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama during Obama’s 2009 visit to the Vatican. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)

For the past 700 years or so, the election of a new Pope was always preceded by the death of another, and so it meant, presumably, that Catholics would spend some time mourning the loss of their spiritual leader before considering who might serve next. This time around, however, with Pope Benedict XVI’s startling announcement Monday, many Catholics are mourning the end of a papacy, perhaps, but also looking quite quickly to the future, eagerly wondering who will be elected to lead their church.

The election of a pope is most definitely spiritual business. Guided by the Holy Spirit, cardinals, men selected by a pope because of some immense contribution to the life of the Catholic Church, (in this case, all 117 eligible electors were made cardinals by either Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI) cloister themselves inside St. Peter’s Basilica and consider the traits they’d like in the man who will lead the world’s largest Christian church. This is done, we are told, with a profound sense of prayer and reflection, and it’s not a responsibility any one of them takes lightly.

At the same time, as any cursory study of world history reveals, the papacy is an exceedingly political institution.

The Pontiff is a head of state, Vatican City, and some choose to exercise their political authority rather boldly. It’s a common assumption that John Paul II played a rather important role in the downfall of communism in his beloved homeland, Poland. More recently, it was revealed that Catholic cardinals, perhaps some in the Vatican with Pope Benedict’s direction, helped to free political prisoners in Cuba before the Pope’s visit there in 2010. New work is emerging that shows the political assistance to Jews in Europe during the Second World War led by Pope Pius XII.

The flood of comments from world leaders following Benedict’s announcement shows that politicians, too, pay attention to goings-on in the Vatican.
Vice President Joe Biden tweeted, “This is a man of great integrity … looking out for what he believes is the best interest of our church.” While new Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a statement that Benedict “has been a man of action and principle, working to promote human rights and dignity in places around the globe where they are too often denied, and a voice of clarity and conviction about our obligations as stewards of a fragile planet.” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted that Benedict “wished to be ‘a simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord’ and in his resignation that humility has been amply demonstrated.” The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, said that his country “join[s] the Catholic world and all whose lives he has touched in prayer and sympathy.”

Here at home, Pope Benedict visited the White House in 2008, meeting with former President George W. Bush and celebrating Mass at Nationals Park. The following year, President Barack Obama and his family met with Benedict at the Vatican where they discussed a wide-range of issues and where, it was reported, that Obama pledged to champion policies that would reduce the number of abortions in the United States.

There will be many demands on the new pope, including, especially, the continuation of protecting children and fighting the scourge of sexual abuse in the Church. The Church faces challenges both in its growth in the global south and its decline in the West. It will take a truly gifted manager to address these demographic realities.

But what will the next pope offer the world in terms of political advocacy?

It’s my hope that the new pope will continue Benedict’s environmental advocacy. The next pope will most likely fall in line ideologically with Benedict, and it’s helpful for a conservative of such stature to remind other conservatives that environmental issues must cut through party and ideological lines. Benedict did that well, and a younger pope with more energy championing this cause could make a real impact.

International religious liberty is something important for the new pope to consider. Christians are dying because of their faith around the world, and people of other religious persuasions often face difficulties in practicing their faith, too. The new pope must remind the world that an attack on religious freedom anywhere is an attack on religious freedom everywhere.

Imagine the powerful statement that a new pope could make about stopping the sexual exploitation of children and women around the world by taking full responsibility for our own failings as Catholics on this very issue? We know how horrendous it is, he could say, because we have lived through this nightmare for the past several decades. Benedict has begun to implement some norms that will protect children, but nearly all agree that there is much work left to do. Offering the lessons the church has learned on ways to protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation would be a humbling and powerful gesture.

What do you hope from the next pope? Should the Church become more or less political? Should the new pope be simply a spiritual leader and leave politics to others, or does he have an obligation to use the power of his office to bring about justice in the world? Which specific crises might the new pope take on around the globe?

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/catherine.demarco.5 Catherine DeMarco

    I think you make two really essential points. First (and well said) is that “an attack on religious freedom anywhere is an attack on religious freedom everywhere.” I would expand that to remind us all that an attack practicing of any religion is an attack on all of our rights to practice our chosen religion. We have to champion religious freedom for all religions in all places. Second, protecting our children is our first and most important job in this world. I would applaud any pope or any Catholic leader who took responsibility for the ugly and horrific treatment of many children in our church. If we truly want to change what happens to children both in our own backyards and around the world, we as a church must admit our own failings and work to change the horror that exists and has not yet been fully addressed. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

  • RoamingCatholic

    I don’t think it’s so much a question of being more or less political as of being political in the right way. If the Church is to be truly prophetic it must certainly speak to the pressing issues of the day, but not in a way that seeks political power for itself. The Church’s proclamation of the good news must not be about seeking its own political advantage, but about caring for the vulnerable in humility and obedience to our Lord.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesleooliver James Leo Oliver

    Let’s not leave the Holy Spirit out of the mix. If there is any doubt that the man who becomes Pope is not the result of some worldly election process but instead a supernatural event might read Witness To Hope by George Weigel and discover how Pope John Paul II had his every living step guided by God to bring forth a better church and world.

  • http://twitter.com/OhioLTrain Lauren B.

    When thinking about the Pope as the head of the Catholic church, think of the church as a business. Each has someone at the top that serves many roles, most importantly as the leader and face of said organization. I’m not Catholic (I’m Lutheran), but the Pope is more than just the top dog and CEO of Vatican, Inc. He’s a recognized spiritual leader for all Christians. And as David Bauman stated, the Pope is definitely the promoter of the most important message – of God’s importance in our lives.

  • Barbara

    Why do we even have a pope? Where in the BIBLE does it say the Church needs a pope? It does say in the ten commandments …”You shall have no other gods before me.
    You shall not make for yourself a graven image,
    or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above,
    or that is in the earth beneath,
    or that is in the water under the earth;
    you shall not bow down to them or serve them;
    for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,” The pope is adorned with expensive garments & plenty of money is spent protecting him, housing him & all of the gold used along with expensive stained glassed windows and statues of more “false gods” to worship! I just do not understand! Yes, I was raised Catholic…I survived K-12 in a private school being taught by nuns. I believe in God and HIS word!

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidbauman16 David Amador Bauman

      That’s a fairly protestant perspective. I would invite you to think of the Pope more as a spiritual Yoda type figure, like the Dalai Llama or such. He is the bearer of a culture, the promoter of a message, and his job is very physically exhausting and spiritually challenging, not just filled with frills and fancy garments believe it or not. Not every Christian Church in the world needs to run themselves the same way, and we as Catholics have a particular flavor and beauty that is easy to mistake for simply just being graven images and arrogance. Looking at life in the absolute like that robs it of diversity and flavor. Having a pope helps to ensure we do not become relativists, and that when changes are needed, they are carefully considered rather than thrown to the whims of people’s emotions rather than spiritual logic as so often happens in government systems of leadership. And if you ever met John Paul II, you know how big of an impact someone like that can have on witnessing God in the world especially to the marginalized when a person like the Pope says to them, “I see you, you exist, and you MATTER”. Nowhere in the Bible does it say we should begrudge ourselves of beauty and culture either.

      • Rachel DB

        It should also be noted that some other Protestant denominations–the ones that are world-wide in their standards–have a “top” leader as well. The Archibishop of Canterbury leads the Anglican church, for example. And thank you for mentioning the Dalai Llama; Clearly other religions too have their leaders.

    • http://www.facebook.com/trevor.scoles Trevor Scoles

      You’re right, Barbara,
      You won’t find the word “Pope” in the Bible, but you won’t find the word “Trinity” or even “Bible” in the Bible. Pope is an English word that has developed from the first centuries of Christian worship. I would recommend looking at Mt 16:18 where Our Lord gives the keys to Heaven to Peter and founds His Church upon Peter. Cross reference that with Is 22:22 to see the prime minister role in Israel that Jesus is evoking. the prime minister was chosen by the king to act in his authority. Those keys are given collectively to the Apostles in Luke, but Peter is the only one singled out. Christ also tells Peter to strengthen his brothers in John, and prays that Peter’s strength would not fail. I hope this helps explain Catholic support for the Pope from a purely scriptural background. May God richly bless you.

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