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If you mill about St. Peter's Square long enough, you will eventually see a black Mercedes sedan exiting from the Vatican, bearing a cardinal or a gentleman of His Holiness to some important engagement. (The "gentlemen" are Italian laymen, often from noble families linked to the papacy for centuries, who help the Pope greet visiting dignitaries and assist at other ceremonial occasions.) The passenger is usually seated in the rear, dressed to the nines, projecting an air of worldly power and importance. One can sometimes be forgiven for straining to see the connection between such affectation and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The world-weary Romans, who have seen it all over the centuries, have developed a kind of gallows humor for resolving the tension between the high ideals of the Church and its human realities. For example, those sedans from the Vatican bear license plates that read "SCV," which stands for Stato della Citt del Vaticano, Vatican City State. The Romans, however, say that it really means Se Cristo vedesse . . . If only Christ could see.
Similar jokes at the expense of the human side of the Vatican are legendary. Monsignor Ronald Knox, an Anglican who joined the Catholic Church, once famously quipped: "On the barque of Peter, those with queasy stomachs should keep clear of the engine room." (Barque is an antiquated word for boat. Thus "barque of Peter" is an old, but still venerable, metaphor for the Catholic Church.) Here's another classic. Question: Why is Rome such a spiritual city? Answer: Because so many people have lost their faith in it. Even popes sometimes get in on the cynical act. Beloved roly-poly Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) was once asked how many people work in the Vatican, to which he is supposed to have replied: "About half."
Yet the Catholic Church, like any social movement, needs an institution with which it can organize its common life. Without an institution, a social phenomenon dies. It's not enough for Roman Catholics merely to have the Pope as a symbolic figurehead. The Church needs structures with teeth in order to make decisions, and to keep its 1-billion-strong worldwide membership in some kind of basic unity. Decisions have to be made about what the Church teaches, how it worships, and what position it's going to take on important issues. Thus the Catholic Church needs a central administrative system through which information can circulate, contacts can be maintained, and decisions can be communicated and enforced. If Roman Catholicism did not have the Vatican, it would have to invent it.
This was what Pope Innocent III meant when he wrote to the bishops of France in 1198: "Although the Lord has given us the fullness of power in the Church, a power that makes us owe something to all Christians, still we cannot stretch the limits of human nature. Since we cannot deal personally with every single concernthe law of human condition does not suffer itwe are sometimes constrained to use certain brothers of ours as extensions of our own body, to take care of things we would rather deal with in person if the convenience of the Church allowed it." Pope Sixtus V was equally candid in 1588 in Immensa aeterni Dei: "The Roman Pontiff, whom Christ the Lord constituted as visible head of his body, the Church, and appointed for the care of all the Churches, calls and rallies unto himself many collaborators for this immense responsibility . . . so that he, the holder of the key of all this power, may share the huge mass of business and responsibilities among themi.e., the cardinalsand the other authorities of the Roman Curia, and by God's helping grace avoid breaking under the strain."
The aim of this book is to explain how the Vatican thinks, not to focus on its structures. Yet those structures influence the psychology and culture, so some understanding of terms such as Vatican, Holy See, congregation, superior, and so on is essential. This chapter covers that basic ground, laying out the vocabulary one needs to have and offering an organizational overview that will at least hint at who's who and what's what. Think of this as a basic survey course in college that lays the foundation for more advanced study, a kind of Vatican 101. This will be quick and, for experts, frustratingly schematic. Readers wishing a deeper treatment will want to consult the classic on the subject, La Curia Romana: Lineamenti Storico-Giuridici by Niccol~ del Re, published by the Vatican Publishing House in 1998. It is a comprehensive work, truly the best resource for this material, and much of the highlights in this section are drawn from Re's book. For those who don't read Italian, the best resource in English is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, by Fr. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit-run America magazine.
A properly theological understanding of the Pope as the successor of St. Peter and the instrument of unity for the Church is offered in chapter 5. Here we'll take a more functional approach, asking what does the Pope do? One good way of answering that question is to consult the Code of Canon Law, which is the supreme law of the Catholic Church. Its answer is clear: the Pope is the man on whose desk the buck stops. Canon 331 describes the papacy this way: "The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power." To use the language of political science, the Pope holds full executive, legislative, and judicial power in the Catholic Church. There are no "checks and balances" as in a modern secular state. It's often said that the Catholic Church is not a democracy, and from a canonical point of view that's right on the money. (This leads to the old joke that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy tempered by selective disobedience!) That should not be understood, however, in the pejorative sense that the Church is not accountable to anyone. The Church has its own system of accountability, and we will say more about that later.
Yet to put the accent on the Pope's power is, in a sense, to put the cart before the horse. Many non-Catholics don't realize, for example, that the Catholic Church had popes for nineteen hundred years before it had a formal dogma of papal infallibility. The Church has clarified the powers of the papacy over a long historical process, which implies that the Church knew what the Pope's job was well before it could list all the tools popes need to do it. The papacy is in the first place an idea, the conviction that Christ commissioned Peter to be the head of his Church, and that this role is passed on through time to Peter's successors. As the successor of Peter, the Pope is the agent of unity who holds the Catholic Church together across space and through time. The powers of the office are the institutional expression of this spiritual and sacramental identity.
One traditional way to understand what the Pope does would be to list his titles: His Holiness; Bishop of Rome; Vicar of Jesus Christ; Successor of St. Peter; Prince of the Apostles; Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church; Patriarch of the West; Servant of the Servants of God; Primate of Italy; Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province; Sovereign of the Vatican City State. Such language, however, doesn't mean a great deal to modern ears. A more illuminating way to proceed is to consider the papacy's various real-world functions, which will be discussed here in terms of concentric circles representing different zones of responsibility.
The first and tightest circle is constituted by Rome, because the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and hence responsible for the affairs of his local diocese. Historically, the Pope came to govern the universal Church largely because Rome was its most important point of reference. Rome today has 2.5 million Catholics, according to 2003 figures from the Annuario Pontifico, with 334 parishes and 5,331 priests. Rome is a complex urban archdiocese, with all the spiritual, pastoral, financial, and administrative challenges that entails. In fact, the Pope doesn't take the government of the diocese personally into his own hands. He appoints a vicar, currently the powerful Cardinal Camillo Ruini, to handle its daily business. At the same time, however, the Pope remains an unsurpassed moral authority in urban affairs. In the summer of 2000, for example, the Roman city council rescinded a $200,000 contribution and official backing for an international gay rights festival because the Pope disapproved. (The march went ahead, however, thus illustrating at the same time the limits of the Pope's influence.)
Moving to the next circle, the Pope is also the supreme governor and legislator of the Catholic Church. He is responsible for setting policy, such as what theological ideas are acceptable, what liturgical practices pass muster, which saints to canonize, which bishops to appoint, and how to use the Church's charitable resources. He makes decisions about finance and personnel, scholarship and service, morality and metaphysics. Further, just as in the ancient Roman empire every citizen had a right of appeal to the emperor, every Catholic has the right to take his or her case to the Pope. This does not mean that Mrs. Smith's complaint about her son's third-grade religion teacher is necessarily going to end up on the Pope's desk. Most appeals are handled much further down the chain of command. But a few of these matters do reach the Pope, because they raise questions of doctrine or discipline that his subordinates believe the Pope himself should resolve or because the Pope takes a personal interest.
Inside the next ring, the Pope is the most important leader within the broader Christian world, and thus the most important force, for good or ill, in ecumenismthe effort to reunify the badly fractured Christian family. (The World Christian Encyclopedia identifies over 34,000 separate Christian groups, not counting the myriad storefront Christian churches all over the world that have no institutional affiliation.) John Paul II made the thrust for unity one of the cornerstones of his pontificate, beginning with his outreach to the 250-million strong Eastern Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church carries on a formal dialogue with almost every organized Christian denomination, and there are desk officers in the Vatican whose job is to liaison with these other Christian groups. (The Vatican hesitates to call all these bodies "churches" for theological reasons. A "church" has to have valid ministers and sacraments, which, in the Catholic view, many Western Protestant bodies do not.)
In the next circle lies the Pope's function as the chief spokesperson for Christianity in dialogue with other religions. Roman Catholicism is the largest and most visible branch of Christianity and that makes the Pope the superstar par excellence of the Christian world. To put the matter crassly: If the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the president of the Lutheran World Federation, visits Madras or Jakarta, he has to catch cabs like everyone else. If the Pope visits, he's a celebrity. By virtue of his high profile, the Pope has overwhelming influence on Christianity's relationship with the other religions of the world. John Paul has made this aspect of his job a priority, especially with both Judaism and Islam, the other major Western faiths. He became the first Pope to visit a Jewish synagogue in Rome in 1986, and the first Pope to enter an Islamic mosque in Damascus in May 2001. Three times he has called the religious leaders of humanity to Assisi together to pray on behalf of peace, a choice that was not popular inside his own circle of advisors. Some worried that the image of the Pope standing in a circle with shamans and Native Americans, Jewish rabbis and Buddhist monks promoted relativism (the idea that one religion is as good as another) and syncretism (a blending of elements of different religions into a kind of New Age pastiche). Obviously, however, John Paul was not deterred.
Inside the next circle one finds the Pope as the most important voice for religious belief in a secularized, skeptical world. Contemporary Western culture is often allergic to authority and hostile to tradition, and finds religion, especially religious institutions, hard to accept. The Pope is the most visible representative of institutional religion on earth and the most important dialogue partner with this largely areligious culture. A Pope seen as compassionate and humble, with a relevant moral and spiritual message, can reawaken religious sensibility in people for whom it may have been long dormant. A Pope perceived as arrogant and hypocritical can deaden spiritual receptivity.
Finally, the outermost circle represents the Pope's role as a moral teacher, a voice of conscience for humanity on social and political questions. As such, there is almost nothing under the sun about which a Pope is not expected to pronounce, whether it's global warming or land mines or whether the United States should send in peacekeeping troops to restore order in Liberia. This makes the Pope an important player in world politics, a role that has never been more clear than during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. In the weeks leading up to the war, diplomatic heavyweights shuttled in and out of the Vatican like clients at a popular deli: Tony Blair, Joschka Fischer, Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Maria Aznar, Mohammad Reza Khatami (speaker of the Iranian parliament and brother of the country's president), Kofi Annan, and even Tarik Aziz. John Paul dispatched emissaries to both Saddam Hussein and George Bush to try to pull them back from the brink. The initiative failed in terms of preventing the conflict, but it succeeded in convincing many Muslims that the war was not part of a broader Christian offensive against Islam.
The roles a Pope plays are various and complex: Fortune 500 CEO, media superstar, diplomat, politician, theologian, philosopher, pastor, and voice of conscience. It is an impossible job, and no human being can perfectly do every task a Pope is called upon to perform. Every Pope will emphasize some aspects of the job at the expense of others. Pius XII, who governed the Church during the tumultuous days of World War II, was a superb diplomat, but did not project the pastoral face of John XXIII. John Paul II is a deep thinker, a media phenomenon, and maybe the greatest apostolic traveler since St. Paul (129 countries visited so far in his twenty-six-year papacy, the equivalent of two years on the road), but there has been a price to pay. He has had to leave many aspects of the governance of the Church in the hands of his aides. Yet every Pope exercises all of these roles at some stage, and the men and women of the Vatican assist him in doing so. One will never understand the psychology of the Vatican without grasping their sense of the gravitas and the importance of the papal office. For them, this is not the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace, a largely symbolic relic of a bygone era without real-world clout or significance. This is, from the Vatican's point of view, the living presence of Peter in the Catholic Church and the most important voice of conscience in human affairs.