Letter from Rome: The Spiritual Politics of the Holy See


Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

With the appointment of Archbishop Pietro Parolin as Secretary of State, Pope Francis has made his first significant curial appointment, which is being scrutinized for what it tells us about the direction the pope wants to take his government.  For what it’s worth, my time at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace overlapped with Parolin’s in the second (or foreign affairs) section of the Secretariat of State and I found him to be very competent and personable without coming off as a phony glad-hander, a balance that’s not always easy to pull off for diplomats.  While it’s possible that age and experience change and possibly corrupt people who are given positions of power and responsibility, I’m placing my bets on the 58-year-old from the Veneto region of Italy and former nuncio to Venezuela maintaining these qualities.

Since Parolin will be the de facto prime minister of the Holy See, which is the official governing structure of the Catholic Church, it’s entirely legitimate to ask what kind of policy and personnel changes he will make to the curia and the Church at large.  It’s well-known that the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis to reform the Church and do all he can to purge it of scandals and other obstacles that impede its evangelical mission.  So far, he’s created three commissions to advise him on such reforms and we’ll have to wait and see what Francis decides to do.  But it’s already quite clear that his desire for a “poor Church for the poor” and simplicity of speech and style have won over many in the media and general public.  With an institution as relatively small as the Roman Curia, at least as far as governments go, yet one that covers virtually the entire world, it will be interesting to see how much authority Francis directly exercises and how much he delegates to Parolin.

That the pope must govern is an unavoidable fact, one that contradicts our modern liberal separation of Church and State.  We have a hard time thinking of spiritual leaders who have to concern themselves with temporal affairs or conversely of practical men and women who strive for eternal happiness after death.  But in many respects, the spiritual and the temporal are interwoven and difficult to isolate from each other.  Such matters are on mind since I’ve been reading E.A. Goerner’s Peter and Caesar: Political Authority and the Catholic Church and recently took part in a meeting of Catholic legislators and jurists.  The relevance of the theologico-political question has also come to the fore with Pope Francis’s plea for prayers and fasting for peace in Syria.

Goerner’s book, written in 1965 and very helpfully recommended to me by Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, examines the works of Giles of Rome, Marsilius of Padua, John of Paris, St. Robert Bellarmine and John Courtney Murray to show just how complex and varied Church-State arrangements have been and how it would be a mistake to dismiss arrangements different than ours as historical anomalies, assuming that ours is the purest and superior model.  At the same time, Goerner does not shy away from judging these thinkers and promoting certain reforms of his own which would more clearly define the roles of the priesthood and the laity.  As the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escrvia, once noted, we’ve run the risk of clericalizing the laity and laicizing the clergy for some time and to neither’s benefit.

More clearly defined roles do not, however, solve political problems on their own; leaders still have to use their wisdom and prudence to govern well.  Because of the Church’s status as a divine institute and societas perfecta, Catholics often have the tendency to both overrate and underrate the Church’s role in politics.  On the one hand, we sometimes think that if the pope or the bishops were more forceful in teaching Church doctrine and anathematizing heresies, we’d be much better off, as if Catholics simply did what they were told regardless of their own opinions and interests.  Such unity and obedience do not exist and probably never did.  On the other hand, we may think the Church should “stay out of politics,” usually meaning that priests should avoid controversial topics on which good Catholics may disagree and stick to administering the sacraments.  “Politics” in this sense had become a dirty word and one that inherently involves compromise and even accepting defeat.  This avoidance of politics bears an uncomfortable likeness to timidity and quietism, abdicating the political realm to the amoral or worse.

There are additional challenges to the simple identification and complete separation of religion and politics.  A character in Plato’s Republic identifies justice with helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies; a definition made incoherent by Socrates’ questioning of our ability to know who our friends and enemies are and how the categories often interchange in politics.  And even if we could clearly identify our enemies, the Church tells us to “love your enemies” and always temper justice with mercy and forgiveness, qualities which are often much more difficult and dangerous to practice when the well-being of others is at stake.  As a character in one of Paul Claudel’s plays put it, you can’t govern with the Pater Noster.

So if the pope and the Holy See don’t govern in the traditional sense of the word, what kind of political interventions do they make?  Pleas and prayers for peace are certainly the most common.  As I write, Pope Francis has called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria on September 7, the vigil of the birth of Mary.  He himself calls them “gestures of peace” which ought to make one question their political relevancy or effectiveness, especially when the parties involved are a secular military dictatorship and increasingly radicalized groups of Muslim rebels.  One often wonders what calls for the non-intervention of foreign governments actually accomplish when such governments have been fighting proxy wars against each other in the region for decades.  One need not agree with Stalin’s rhetorical question “How many divisions does the pope have?” to have doubts about the efficacy of these pleas.

Which is precisely what the pope and the Holy See make them, in my modest opinion.  For if the Holy See didn’t ask for prayers, didn’t refer to God’s providence and grace, and didn’t generally attempt to moralize and spiritualize world affairs, what would the world look like?  While Bashar al-Assad and the Al-Qaeda are not likely to be moved by the pope’s words, many others will make small sacrifices and offer humble supplications on behalf of a people they don’t and will never personally know, which is a way to affect the political order one person at a time.

In one of the most famous Christian works on politics, St. Augustine remarks, ““So far as the life of mortals is concerned, which is spent and ended in a few days, what does it matter under whose rule a man is going to die, as long as those who govern do not force him to impiety and iniquity?” (City of God, Book V, ch. 17).  It’s a remarkable statement found in the middle of an extensive critique of pagan religion and politics, which seems to radically qualify any form of Christian polity as well.  It shouldn’t therefore be all that surprising that Christians struggle to find ways to live their faith in the realm of politics, and it will likely remain to be a cross to bear.

Politics in the classical sense cannot be avoided, either inside or outside the Church.  Pope Francis and Archbishop Parolin surely know this, as they try to root out corruption and improve the workings of the Holy See.  Armed with the weapons of prayer and faith, they and other Catholics leaders may not always get their way but they will be fighting the good fight as St. Paul did.  For them, defeat is not nearly as bad as stopping half-way or acting as if the fight isn’t taking place.

Kishore Jayabalan
Director