Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,
James Joyce once remarked, “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother’s corpse.” Not surprising coming from the most representative of 20th century modernist novelists with his legendary hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. But for all of the ancient ruins and continuing attempts to assign the Church to the progressive ash heap of history, the Vatican and especially the office of the papacy manage to survive.
This remarkable (at least to said progressives and non-believers) fact has been fully evident here in the Eternal City since February 11, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to renounce the papacy and officially end his pontificate on February 28 at 8pm. I happened to be in Mass when the announcement was made, and it was quite amusing to see a few of the faithful scurrying in and out of church to confirm the news they’d just received on their smartphones, although those less distracted or technologically advanced wondered just what was the cause of such improper behavior. Not too long afterwards, the global media focused their ever-shortening attention spans on the 85-year-old pontiff, at a loss to explain how the man known as “God’s Rottweiler” could so serenely abdicate his throne.
Voluntarily giving up power is not something we’re used to seeing, as witnessed by the resurgence of Silvio Berlusconi in the Italian elections that were held February 24 and 25. The election served as a perfect but unexpected foil for Benedict’s resignation. On the one hand, the papacy is normally understood to be an office with absolute power, which changes hands only when the pope dies and the College of Cardinals elects a new one to serve for the remainder of his life. Yet for the first time since St. Pope Celestine V in 1294 (whose tomb in Aquila Benedict visited in 2009), we have a pope choosing to step down for the good of the Church he leads, vowing to dedicate the rest of his earthly life to prayer. That Celestine is a saint – the goal of each and every Catholic, from the most illiterate and unknown to the most learned and famous – is of no small importance, either. On the other, Berlusconi’s attempt to become prime minister for the fifth time failed, with his party Popolo della Libertà coming in second to the center-left Partito Democratico and just ahead of the surprising MoVimento 5 Stelle, headed by comedian Beppe Grillo (no joke!). Far behind in fourth place was Mario Monti, the technocrat favored by the European Union and most foreign leaders. As happens so often in Italian elections, no single party won enough seats to take power, and we’re about to see another weak, ineffectual coalition trying to hold the country together in the midst of an economic recession that has no end in sight. (For two perceptive yet differing takes on the election by American columnists who’ve lived in Europe, I recommend one  by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal and another  by Roger Cohen of the New York Times.)
So Benedict the absolute monarch voluntarily resigns to make room for a presumably younger, stronger pope, while Italian politicians fail time and again but shamelessly represent themselves as competent and worthy of trust. The ironies are too many to list here. But if there is one take-away lesson, could it be that Christian understanding of ruling as service is superior to the modern liberal reliance on following one’s self-interest? Mere talk about virtue can often be a cover for hypocrisy, something that modern theorists tried to reform through advances in the “science of politics” (see Federalist Paper n. 9 ). Still, regardless of how “realistic” a political system may be, can it survive without some understanding of the common good? It’s obviously a complicated topic, one worthy of a dissertation in moral theology or political philosophy, but a disinterested Roman observer can’t avoid this theological-political question for long.
Unfortunately, time is a luxury Italians themselves don’t have, at least when it comes to fixing their economy. The populist but ultimately unserious movement of Beppe Grillo is founded mainly on outrage, a passion not particularly suited for governing a large modern nation. The austerity measures attempted by Monti were long on pain, short on gain – that is, policies to grow the Italian economy – and were therefore likely to be rejected. In the meantime, Italy will remain the sick man of the major European economies.
Like everyone else in this city, I have my theories on who may be the next pope and why, but I will spare you my amateur prognostications. Many are predicting a non-European could take over, while others think only a European or an Italian can effectively govern the Roman Curia. Will the Italian cardinals, still the most numerous national group in the college, reflect or reject the uncertainty and instability produced by the Italian elections? Are we in for a Karol Wojtyla-like selection that suddenly changes the public’s impression of the Church? No one knows. The good news is we have the Holy Spirit to help the cardinals decide. Some of my Acton colleagues will be sickened by this blatant conflation of religion and politics; perhaps I’m thinking too much like a Roman. Then again, all Catholics are, through St. Peter and his successors, Roman in a certain sense, no matter where we live. And contra Joyce, our grandmother is still very much alive.