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Wednesday, March 14, 2007
(9:09 AM) | Stephen:
Papal Authority

Pope Benedict XVI has just released an Apostolic Exhortation, a long-awaited work that comes out of a 2005 synod of bishops. It is a reflection upon the Eucharist, but that of course does not mean it must be limited in content to bread and wine. Benedict XVI is making it clear, again, how he values the ancient traditions of the Church, calling for priests to ensure their working knowledge of Latin and for the Church to use Latin in portions of services in which people from many countries attend, showing the unity of the Church. He wishes to see more reverence during the Eucharist, without liturgical dancing and with a limitation upon things such as applause.

This is all fine, an example of the Holy Father giving direction to his Church. Like it or not, this is what a pastor needs to do for his flock. It's the rest of the Exhortation that concerns me and highlights the tensions that exist for what the papacy has become.

The Pope is not merely bishop, not merely the leader of a Church. He is also the Chief Executive of a nation recognized by, I believe, every single other nation on earth. It is either the smallest nation with the least population, or the smallest nation with a population that exceeds that of India and rivals that of China. "How many divisions has the pope" said Stalin as he dismissed Pius XII, and several decades later John Paul II used his heritage, eloquence and influence - both political and spiritual - to so destabilize Poland that it provided the fatal crack in the Soviet empire.

How many divisions - or soldiers, perhaps - does the Pope have? 100? 1,000,000,000? Benedict XVI seems intent on creating a situation in which we find out. Depending upon how long his papacy lasts, we will be able to see just how strong the political power of the Pope really is, and whether it will be able to withstand the strain of what Benedict hopes to accomplish with it.

In his latest document, Benedict XVI calls for Catholic politicians to make sure that their policy positions fall in line with the Church's doctrine regarding abortion (and birth control*), euthanasia, and gay marriage. Speaking of these issues, Benedict XVI said,

These values are not negotiable.

Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.
It is not enough to oppose initiatives or changes to laws. Rather, Catholic politicians are to take an activist stance regarding these issues, introducing legislation that either strengthens bans on these issues or repeals the rights that have already been granted.

In the USA, this of course poses a serious problem insofar as the Pope is both a spiritual and political leader. Our political system is supposed to reject such meddling in our affairs by a foreign power. Any other Chief of State calling for such things would be ignored at best and derided, most likely, even by some of those who agree with those political positions.

However, we have seen that this is not the case. This Chief of State is able to make statements like these, able to call for specific actions of certain of our politicians who, in many cases, were not elected by even a plurality of Catholics, let alone a majority or entirely. Therefore, in these cases, US politicians are being pressured to act in ways that are not consistent with the wishes of their constituents. This is exactly the concern expressed over the candidacy of John F. Kennedy.

I've long considered such concerns to be baseless. It's a shame to see Benedict XVI provide such ample grounds for these concerns. It shows how in many ways the Roman Catholic Church is still shaped by the excesses and perversions that plagued it centuries ago, when the Popes were completely unconcerned with being "spiritual" leaders, unless of course using the spiritual schtick would increase their coffers or justify sexually abusing young children. These Popes, such as the execrable Alexander VI, were either politicians in their own right, seeking to increase their personal power and wealth, or were the puppets of powerful political interests, especially those in Italy and France.

The existence of the Vatican as a sovereign political entity is a legacy of these wandering years. I suffer no illusions that Benedict XVI is anything like the Popes described above; even though I've always disagreed with much of his theology - especially his ecclesial formulations - he was a close advisor to John Paul II whom I consider to have been a very holy man, a good pastor, a great Pope. But every time Benedict XVI seeks to bully the politicians of other nations, he resurrects those ignominious men who have abused their position and their people in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. Better that he would leave such a legacy behind.

*The Roman Catholic Church, by the way, is not opposed to birth control. It's opposed to hormonal birth control. There has been quite a bit of research into the so-called "rhythm" method," and most parishes offer training on this method as part of their pre-marital counseling as well as ongoing education for married couples.

P.S. I know that my support for John Paul II's involvement in Poland and other anti-Soviet actions contradicts my call for Benedict XVI to reduce such involvement when it comes to areas in which I disagree with him. There is more to this than merely supporting those who agree with me and opposing those who don't. But I'll have to try to address it in another post sometime.

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