The Roman papacy as an antidote to the lures of neo-Constantinianism

Trump with Pope Francis

LA CROIX INTERNATIONAL

Massimo Faggioli

December 11, 2017

 

Cover Image: Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. / Evan Vucci/AFP

 

Isaac GomesThe Constantinian dilemma that is, how far Christians can go in endorsing a politician that promises to defend their “non-negotiable” issues, while shamelessly embodying the antithesis of what Christians should be. It is not just a Catholic problem.  In this background, the Pope has thrown off his diplomatic cloak and spoken out his mind as a concerned father at US President Donald Trump's unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as if Jerusalem was his personal territory.  The Pope has done all except openly denounce Trump's impetuous action which might again set the already boiling Middle East on fire.  To be precise, the Pope has spoken out as a true statesman, an act which must be emulated by world leaders to give primacy to world peace.  Isaac Gomes, Asso. Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.

 

The differing worldviews of Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump are clashing once again – this time over Jerusalem.

Over the past several days – December 6 and December 10 – the Holy See has appealed “for wisdom and prudence to prevail over Jerusalem”, thus distancing itself from the Trump administration’s decision to recognize the Holy City as the capital of Israel.

Nobody knows where this continuing state of tension between the Vatican and the White House concerning international and diplomatic issues will lead. But it must be viewed in the context of the overall history of papal primacy as well as in the way Francis is exercising that primacy today. 

From a historical point of view, the current contraposition between the Bishop of Rome and the leader of the most powerful nation in the world is certainly not without precedent. But, in at least two ways, it is part of a pattern.

First of all, since the mid-19th century, the West has become increasingly secularized while Catholicism has become more and more “Romanized” by giving greater emphasis and visibility to the papacy.

Despite the intellectual crisis of the “secularization thesis” in the sense of the terminal decline of religion in the industrialized world, the marginalization of Christianity from the mainstream is not slowing down in the Western world. And, yet, the papacy has become increasingly more visible, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Secondly, the papal and imperial powers have clashed for more than fifteen centuries, since the times of the Roman Empire. But there has also been a systematic underestimation of global papal authority in modern times. This did not begin with Soviet Communism in the late 20th century. It was already evident much earlier, at the very start of modern Western politics, beginning in the early period following the French Revolution.

Towards the end of his masterful book Papal Primacy (published in English translation in 1996), Jesuit historian Klaus Schatz pointed out how Napoleon’s efforts to subjugate the French Church and humiliate the Roman papacy during the reign of Pius VII worked, in the long run, only to Rome’s advantage.

“When the Church considered how to maintain its freedom from the state, it became clear that the only independent church power lay with the papacy and Rome; the traditional episcopal power was finished,” Schatz maintained. 

The resources of the Roman papacy are both material (the Vatican, the diplomatic service, an international network of Catholic institutions and so forth) and immaterial (the Church’s liturgy and its adaptability the new liturgies of modern mass communication). The novelty since Napoleon’s time is that this complex world has now become more difficult to grasp for the intellectual and political elites of the West.

For some more than others, the moral, historical, and religious illiteracy of Trumpism makes the Catholic Church somewhat impossible to fit into the worldview of a billionaire-turned-politician who now symbolizes the post-truth era. 

The papacy’s material and immaterial resources, which the modern mass media has amplified more than ever before, linger in our global consciousness and reinforce the papacy’s voice on major humanitarian and moral issues, as we witnessed during Francis’ trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Probably at some future point, the secularization of the West will render that voice less significant and more difficult to hear. But this has not yet happened.

This affects the way the papacy is perceived by Catholics and non-Catholics, political leaders and citizens of our world. Take the current issue of Jerusalem. Catholics should be thankful that, among the many proposals floated during the tumultuous post-Vatican II period, the idea of moving the Holy See to Jerusalem was never seriously considered. 

It was a generous but politically dangerous dream of making Catholicism more faithful to the Gospel and less dependent on the history of the Roman Empire and of medieval Christendom.

But, all things considered, Rome offers a much better global gateway for the Church. One reason is that a Vatican-based papacy can say what bishops and leaders of local churches sometimes cannot or will not say. Imagine how difficult relations would be between the United States and someone like Pope Francis if the global Catholic Church were based, let’s say, in New York. It is not likely that such a Church would have elected a Latin American Jesuit to the papacy.

At this particular moment, there are things that US Catholic politicians and the US Catholic bishops cannot and will not say. So it is advantageous that there is the Vatican. Rome may be the center of a symbolic old world, but at the same time, it remains sufficiently peripheral, neutral and stuck enough in the past (compared to New York or Beijing) to give the papacy room to maneuver in the global world.

This nature of being both central and peripheral is an important factor in understanding the current pontificate and, even more, the relationship between Francis and Trump. One cannot fail to draw both parallels and distinctions between today’s situation and the era of Fascist regimes in the 1920s-1940s. 

The conscience of the global Church, visibly and physically embodied by the papacy and the Vatican, has learned something from that history of unholy ideological alliances between Catholicism and dictatorships. But it is a history that some local churches apparently have not learned, at least not to the same extent.

While the Vatican has become the epitome of ecclesiastical bureaucracy, mismanagement, and corruption, it has maintained a certain sense of global history and an understanding of the Catholic Church’s role in history that has kept it less entangled in local issues than local Churches and political leaders.

This has allowed the current pontificate to play an important role in the present historical-theological moment when we are dealing, once again, with the temptation of Constantinianism – the alliance of political and religious power. 

The moral crisis within white evangelical Protestantism we see today in Trump’s America represents a schism in a neo-Constantinian shift that sees Donald Trump as the new Constantine. There is more than just moral opprobrium for evangelical leaders who have forged a purely political alliance with a president that seems like a caricature constructed by leftist atheists in order to discredit Christianity.

The Constantinian dilemma – that is, how far Christians can go in endorsing a politician that promises to defend their “non-negotiable” issues, while shamelessly embodying the antithesis of what Christians should be – is not just a Catholic problem. Actually, it is a bigger problem for non-Catholics, and this also due to the current pope.

The great paradox is that Francis, the successor of popes who helped the Church benefit from Constantinianism, is now the most visible global opponent of Trump and the enchantment some Christians have for him in this post-Constantinian era. Many times and in different moments, including in his interview with La Croix, Pope Francis has repeatedly opposed the idea of returning to a confessional state.

This is one of the many signs that the papacy, in terms of reputation and credibility, is faring much better than other global institutions. It should also serve as a message for the pope’s internal opponents. Attempts by some Catholics to discredit Francis are backfiring. In fact, they are actually strengthening his pontificate. 

This, of course, comes at a price – politically, in terms of keeping a distance from the powerful in today’s world, and also ecclesiologically, in terms of maintaining balance among the different members of the Church. Historically, the reinforcement of the papacy has often come at the expense not just of the empire, but also of the rest of the Church.

In the conclusion of his above-mentioned book, Schatz noted that a fundamental dimension of the papacy is the exercise of primacy in a Church of consensus and reception, and in a Church that is a layered reality. Thus, the real challenge for the future of the papacy is not so much political, but ecclesiological.

Follow the writer on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

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