Popes Behaving Badly

Benedict XVI with his butler

Scandal is nothing new for the Vatican. That’s been a common take on the arrest of the pope’s butler as part of the ongoing response to documents being leaked from the highest levels of the curia. Reuters called it “reminiscent of Renaissance conspiracies inside the Vatican.” And it’s true. Popes have behaved badly for millennia, and the current financial and other shenanigans, allegedly involving the pope’s right-hand man among others, pale by comparison to the misdeeds of previous pontiffs.

Those interested in a historical narrative full of such misdeeds should read John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, a book I reviewed for the latest issue of Concordia Journal. Here is an excerpt from that review:

That [Norwich] cannot muster sympathy for all the popes will not surprise anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the subject; there were some truly evil popes, and the author does not shy away from exposing their crimes. More interesting, however, is his treatment of the ambiguous figures who occupied the chair of Peter. Pius IX, for example, was beloved by Italians and taken as inspiration for the reunification of Italy, but he wanted nothing to do with the revolutionaries and for much of his pontificate relied on French troops to defend Rome against Italian armies.

This excerpt seemed appropriate to the issue at hand because, as far as I can tell, Benedict XVI should be compared to someone like Pius IX rather than some of his more notorious predecessors. I would imagine it’s hard to rise very high in the curia without becoming somewhat secretive and a bit hidebound, so Benedict may not be so bad as far as popes go. Yet that hardly makes the suspicions surrounding the pope and his cardinals less problematic.

Scandals involving the pope or his trusted associates are not merely (or, I would argue, properly) an occasion for a dose of Lutheran Schadenfreude or a problem for Roman Catholics alone. Rather, such scandals should be a cause for concern to all Christians. Jon L. Allen, Jr., CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, gives one, perhaps surprising, reason why:

According to the International Society for Human Rights in Frankfurt, Germany, about 80% of acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians. Various sources estimate 150,000 Christians are killed for the faith every year, in far-flung locations such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

The Vatican would dearly love to focus international attention on this new generation of martyrs. The defense of religious freedom, especially in places where Christians are in the firing line, has become its premier social and political concern.

Yet, of course, that’s not the Catholic story grabbing headlines at the moment. Given the almost surreal cascade of events in Rome, it has become virtually impossible to tell any other story about the church, or for the Vatican to wield its moral authority to intercede on behalf of people who truly need the help. (To read Allen’s entire article click here.)

That such incidents make it “virtually impossible to tell any other story about the [Roman Catholic] church” affects all churches and all Christians—detractors and persecutors alike rarely draw fine distinctions.

As interesting and important as Allen’s take is, I think there is something even more fundamental going on here, and it strikes at the heart of the problem with many understandings of church and ministry. It’s something that Francis Oakley, a Catholic historian, observed succinctly and eloquently in The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages. The New Testament authors “eschewed most of the more obvious words available in the Greek vocabulary of politics in favor of a new term—diakonia, ‘service.’” This term “suggests a conception of ecclesiastical office as ministerial, as grounded in love for others, contrasting sharply with secular notions of office as grounded in power and law.” (p. 25, emphasis mine) This emphasis, Oakley adds, lasted only until the time of Constantine, when the church began to adopt “less demanding and administratively manageable political patterns of thought.” (p. 25) For Oakley, this was part of the slippery slope to medieval abuses and, one could argue, to the pontiff’s present predicament.

“Power tends to corrupt” as Lord Acton observed. Benedict continues to reap what was sown in the early days of Christendom, namely, the results of the idea that the church and its ministers have a coercive authority. That sort of authority tends to be conceived politically and even to become political—often in a fully and purely secular sense. So it should surprise no one that the Vatican is embroiled in the same sort of sordid behavior that plagues governments everywhere. Human weakness is not the only problem here. There is a fundamental institutional weakness that took root when the church substituted the Roman Law vocabulary of potestas for diakonia. What’s going on in the Vatican today should provide a cautionary tale to all Christians: practice New Testament patterns of ministry rather than power politics.







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