The Jesuit pope’s program is too radically human and intensely relational to be relegated to the often misunderstood and misused notion of morality
May 27, 2022
Popery had become the world’s despot. Kings and emperors bowed to the decrees of the Roman pontiff. The destinies of men, both for time and for eternity, seemed under his control. For hundreds of years the doctrines of Rome had been extensively and implicitly received, its rites reverently performed, its festivals generally observed. Its clergy were honored and liberally sustained. Never since has the Roman Church attained to greater dignity, magnificence, or power.
But “the noon of the papacy was the midnight of the world.”—J. A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, b. 1, ch. 4. The Holy Scriptures were almost unknown, not only to the people, but to the priests. Like the Pharisees of old, the papal leaders hated the light which would reveal their sins. God’s law, the standard of righteousness, having been removed, they exercised power without limit, and practiced vice without restraint. Fraud, avarice, and profligacy prevailed. Men shrank from no crime by which they could gain wealth or position. The palaces of popes and prelates were scenes of the vilest debauchery. Some of the reigning pontiffs were guilty of crimes so revolting that secular rulers endeavored to depose these dignitaries of the church as monsters too vile to be tolerated. For centuries Europe had made no progress in learning, arts, or civilization. A moral and intellectual paralysis had fallen upon Christendom.
The condition of the world under the Romish power presented a fearful and striking fulfillment of the words of the prophet Hosea: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee: … seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.” “There is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.” Hosea 4:6, 1, 2. Such were the results of banishing the word of God. GC 60.1 – GC 60.3
The inability of the Holy See to mediate an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine, has left many people questioning the words and symbolic actions that Pope Francis has employed in regard to the armed conflict.
There are important historical, ecclesial and geographical reasons (already explained here) why there simply is no role for the Roman Pontiff in what’s happening between these two mainly Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe.
Yet, most Catholic and some other Western commentators seem not to have grasped that reality.
Nonetheless, those who have criticized Francis for not explicitly naming Russia or Vladimir Putin, argue that — by not clearly identifying the aggressor — he is squandering the Catholic Church’s and his own moral authority on the global scene.
Those who defend the pope argue that he is actually safeguarding that same authority by refusing to name and shame the Kremlin and its leader, thus preserving his moral leadership by staying above the fray.
Perhaps one or the other of these views is right. But the danger in both is that they reduce the papacy’s mission in the global arena to simply that of moral leadership.
Indeed, we Catholics have embraced this idea from at least 1870 with the collapse of the Papal States.
Once the Roman papacy lost almost all of its temporal power, the Holy See strategically embraced its new role as moral leader and thereby succeeded in retaining a prime feature of its imperialist past — legal recognition as a quasi-state.
This has allowed it to have full diplomatic relations with currently some 183 sovereign states and be official members (or observers) at the world’s most important international, inter-governmental bodies.
Thus we Catholics have come to accept that the Bishop of Rome acts purely as a moral authority when he wades into the world’s temporal (non-religious) affairs.
But there is a danger of badly misunderstanding what this means, especially when it is applied to Pope Francis, whom many have called the world’s moral leader .
First of all, what world are we talking about? Don’t be shocked, but most people living on Planet Earth probably have no idea who the pope is or what he does.
Take China as an example. The political and Christian leaders of the Communist country know very well who Francis is, but how many of China’s more than 1.4 billion people — the vast majority of them atheists or cultural Buddhists — know or even care?
An Italian friend likes to recount an experience he had some years ago with a Chinese exchange student at his university who had just arrived in Rome to study international relations.
He took the visitor to St. Peter’s Square and, pointing to the Apostolic Palace, said: That’s where the pope lives. The young man looked puzzled and asked innocently, The pope? Is he the king of Italy?
Then there are the nearly 300 million people who live in Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union, made up mostly of Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
How many of them know anything about the pope? Among those who do, most of them (especially the Orthodox) likely do not have a favorable view of him.
The point is that when we Westerners speak about the entire world , we tend to unthinkingly do so in a Euro-centrist or Western-centrist way.
For instance, the leaders of the NATO nations claim the world is united against Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.
But China, the Global South and some of the world’s largest nations — Brazil, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, to name a few — have refused to participate in the sanctions that the United States and its allies have applied against Russia.
So we must be careful about calling the pope the world’s moral leader.
Then there is a problem of what is intended — and understood — by calling him a moral leader.
Again, the answer likely depends on where a person was born and raised and if she or he was brought up in a faith tradition, among other factors.