In 1799, the papacy was at rock bottom: The Papal States had been swept away and Rome seized by the revolutionary French armies. The cardinals were scattered across Europe, and Catholics feared they would be unable to elect the next pope. Even if Catholicism survived, it seemed the papacy was finished. And yet, just over two hundred years later, the Pope still stands at the very centre of the central conversations of our time. Dr Paul Collins, a recognised authority on the history of the Catholic church, has just published Absolute Power – How the Pope became the most Influential Man in the World. To discuss the Papacy and the notion of belief in God generally, Paul Collins was joined by ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville from the University of Notre Dame Sydney on Wednesday 29 August 2018 at The Sydney Institute.
ABSOLUTE POWER—GOD, BELIEF AND THE POPE
I want to thank Gerard not only for the invitation to speak at The Sydney Institute tonight, but also to thank him even more for bestowing on me the Five Paws Award, which he himself says is, “just below the Nobel Prize and the Academy Awards”. The award was bestowed for defending, on the ABC’s AM, Archbishop Philip Wilson’s right of appeal and his good record in dealing with sexual abuse. I was disappointed, however, that Gerard seemingly missed my other statement concerning Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention demanding the Pope sack Wilson. I asked an ABC journalist, “Who does Malcolm Turnbull think he is? King Louis XIV?” Surely Gerard, this deserves another Five Paws Award?
Now to the topic of papal power. As a long-term practising Catholic – an unfashionable stance these days – I’d be the first to admit that Catholicism is rife with contradictions. Perhaps the most disjunctive of these is the contrast between Jesus, the poor man who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) and who died like a common criminal on a cross, and the popes who, from the early-twelfth century until 1978, were crowned with a tiara of three crowns and addressed as “the father of princes and kings, [and] ruler of the world”. Popes since John Paul I (1978) have abandoned this ridiculous anachronism, but the reality is that twenty-first century popes are still enormously powerful and influential. Throughout history, papal authority ebbed and flowed, but in the last 220 years the papacy has recovered from rock-bottom to become supreme within Catholicism and one of the world’s most influential and powerful institutions. The election of Pope Francis has given hope that he will recover something of the humility of Jesus. But he is still the Pope and the history of the last 200 years shows the sheer difficulty of the task facing Catholicism.
As a long-term practising Catholic – an unfashionable stance these days – I’d be the first to admit that Catholicism is rife with contradictions.
What do I mean by papal power? “The only thing that matters is power,” banker and diplomat John Jay McCloy once told President John F. Kennedy. And by power he meant raw, unadulterated, forceful power, the kind that overawes and defeats. He had no time whatsoever for what today we call “soft power”. Joseph Stalin had a similar view. In May 1935, he asked French Premier Pierre Laval: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Stalin is long dead, but the papacy is still with us. Historian Stewart A. Stehlin is exactly right when he says “countries, then, if they cannot have God on their side, at least would like to have the Pope there.”
Stalin is long dead, but the papacy is still with us.
A contemporary example of the papacy’s use of soft power is the negotiations that brought the United States and Cuba together in December 2014 after 55 years of antagonism and trade bans. Interestingly, Fidel Castro never cut his ties with Catholicism and John Paul II’s visit to Havana in 1998 was an important first step in Cuba re-joining the wider world. Benedict XVI who visited Cuba in 2012 criticised the US trade embargo and called for “reconciliation” with Washington. By then Fidel had been replaced by his brother, Raúl Castro. Building on this, Pope Francis sent letters to Presidents Obama and Castro in the summer of 2013 initiating a dialogue. While Canada was also involved, the Vatican played the key role in bringing the two sides together and negotiating a successful conclusion which both presidents later acknowledged.
Even more impressive is the papal tradition of using its influence to promote the values of justice, equity and the rights of all to share in society’s benefits. This is a consistent theme from Leo XIII (1878-1903) to Pope Francis. Papal social teaching embraces an equitable distribution of wealth in society so that no one corners the market completely; it supports workers’ right to form trade unions to negotiate for fair wages, decent working conditions and the right to strike. While supporting the legitimacy of private property, the papal tradition has always been suspicious of “unchecked capitalism”, which nowadays means neo-liberal, supply side economics with its “trickle down” theories. This has been a consistent theme of recent popes, including Pope Francis whose Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013) criticized “a crude and naive trust…in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system”.
This has been a consistent theme of recent popes, including Pope Francis whose Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013) criticized “a crude and naive trust…in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system”.
While the papacy has often used soft power, the term has only been in use since Joseph S. Nye coined it in the late-1980s. Soft power is rooted in co-operation and shared values and popes like John Paul II and Francis have used it to wield influence over a much more than church affairs. An obvious example is John Paul’s role in the defeat of Communism in Poland.
But the papacy also has a long tradition of using hard power when it suits it, particularly in dealing with internal dissent in the church. The most famous victims of this were Galileo and the cosmologist Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake in Rome in February 1600. A pantheist and supporter of the Copernican theory, Bruno believed that God was imminent in everything.
But one doesn’t have to retreat to the past to find papal hard power in operation. It can be seen in the contemporary activities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the lineal descendent of the Roman Inquisition that condemned Galileo and Bruno. We see this in play in the heresy hunt after the condemnation of so-called “modernism” during the papacy of Pius X (1903-1914) when entirely orthodox Catholic scholars were pursued by a cabal of spies sponsored by the Vatican. Under John Paul II the CDF took on a new lease of life, especially after the arrival of Joseph Ratzinger as prefect in November 1981. He moved against a long list of Catholic theologians, moralists and movements like liberation theology. Some of these people were treated abominably. Because of CDF secrecy the numbers of people investigated are hard to arrive at; but just counting those known publicly, over one hundred theologians and others have been investigated since 1981. In the interests of full disclosure: I was one of those investigated in this period.
just counting those known publicly, over one hundred theologians and others have been investigated since 1981. In the interests of full disclosure: I was one of those investigated in this period
Of course, there is a contradiction in even using the word “power” in the context of the papacy. For the pope, like every Christian, is supposed to be a follower of Jesus, the man who said that power of any sort had no place in the community he founded. He replaced power with a call to service (see Mark 10:42-45). He explicitly identified power with the “gentiles”, a New Testament word which specifically referred to unbelievers and idol worshippers. Sure, the popes have been calling themselves the “servants of the servants of God” since Pope Gregory I (590-604), but papal history has a very mixed record on popes serving God’s servants.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the document Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council (1870). It says that “If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff [does] not [have]… the absolute fullness of supreme power…Let them be anathema” It uses the Latin word potestas which implies coercive, forceful power, power pure and simple. Pastor aeternus provides the theological underpinning for the modern papacy by defining papal infallibility (the claim that the pope is divinely protected from error when defining what the church believes) and papal primacy (the pope’s jurisdictional authority over the whole church).
My problem is not so much with infallibility which is hedged in by restrictions that make sure that popes can only teach what the church already believes. But the definition of primacy hands the church over “lock stock and barrel” to the Pope. With “the absolute fullness of supreme power” the Pope can act without check or hindrance other than the law of God and the defined teaching of the church. And, according to Vatican I, the Pope is the final interpreter of both! This definition leads straight to the notion that the pope is the church without countervailing authorities to restore balance.
the definition of primacy hands the church over “lock stock and barrel” to the Pope. With “the absolute fullness of supreme power” the Pope can act without check or hindrance other than the law of God and the defined teaching of the church
It was in this raw power sense that popes like Innocent III (1198-1216) thought they were the rulers of Europe, but their power was limited because no matter what they claimed, the lines of communication were only as fast as the speed at which news could travel and that was pretty slow. They also lacked the coercive ability to make that power actually work on the ground. There was always resistance from local bishops, church councils, priests, laypeople and regional rulers and papal claims to power ebbed and flowed and it was always limited theologically, legally, politically and above all, practically. The modern notion of the separation of church and state means that modern democratic rulers, unlike their medieval and early modern counterparts, are not interested in appointing bishops or trying to run the internal affairs of the church. Unlike their pre-modern predecessors, contemporary popes have a clear run.
Nowadays a number of factors have coalesced to produce what I call “an ‘omnipresent’ papacy.” With instant communications and the speed of modern travel, the popes can not only communicate their message, but they can make it personally present by their globetrotting. No one understood this better than John Paul II. His heyday was the late-twentieth century, the period before social media took over our lives. When people saw him on TV they felt he was an accessible figure who was no longer remote but present, a man of the people. But the focus was always on him; he was Catholicism personified. The role of modern media in enhancing the power of the contemporary papacy has been largely neglected, but it is tremendously important. It has given the papacy the ability to project its power outward and to identify Catholicism with itself. Since Pius XII and particularly with John Paul II the popes have been able to create personality cults and embrace celebrity culture.
The role of modern media in enhancing the power of the contemporary papacy has been largely neglected, but it is tremendously important.
Another key source of contemporary papal power lies in the pope’s ability to appoint bishops worldwide which the popes have only be able to do since the nineteenth century. Nowadays almost every bishop in the church is directly appointed by the pope.
In my book Absolute Power I ask another, specifically theological question: has the papacy become too powerful in the internal life of the church? So powerful, in fact, that the nature of the church has become distorted by the notion of papal power as defined by Vatican I. This raises another question: is the contemporary governance of Catholicism out of synchronicity with the gospel, the teaching of Jesus and the tradition of church government? The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) consciously tried to rebalance the excessive papalism of Vatican I with its emphasis on the role of the bishops and the laity, the People of God. Its call for reunion with other Christians re-established Catholicism’s contact with other forms of more representative, synodal, community-based styles of church governance. On a practical level it tried to rein in the bureaucratic and centralising tendencies of the Vatican.
But then came the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) and then Benedict XVI (2005-2013). The implementations of the reforms of Vatican II ground to a halt as a widespread attempt was made to wind back and “to reform the reform”. This roll-back was reversed with the election of Pope Francis. But “rolling-back the roll-back” is not going to be easy, even with as charismatic a figure as Francis. In terms of the internal life of Catholicism I argue that the church needs a considerably humbler, less centralized papacy, with authority devolved downwards to the local community. Bishops should be elected by their dioceses and important decisions, including issues like worship, morality and Christian living decided by the very ancient theological notion of the sensus fidelium, meaning “the sense of the faithful.” This refers to the instinctive, intuitive grasp of God’s inspiration that the community of believers possesses.
The implementations of the reforms of Vatican II ground to a halt as a widespread attempt was made to wind back and “to reform the reform”.
Another issue is the integral relationship between bishop and local church. This has been obscured because the church has moved away from its original theological identity as a communion of eucharistic communions and became structured as a universal, corporate entity governed by a monarchical papacy. If this communion theology was recovered the major role of the Bishop of Rome would be to focus the unity of the church and to be the final court of appeal in doctrinal and legal/administrative issues.
But where would this leave the pope as an international geo-political actor playing a role “at the very center of the central conversations of our time about the issues that matter” as Time magazine put it (11 December 2013)? If papal power is limited theologically what are the implications of this for popes as influential actors in ethical and geo-political affairs? I argue that if the church were to address some of its pressing internal issues, like the role of women, the devolution of authority, the need for theological pluralism, the development of more consultative, accountable structures and a less centralised system, then its credibility would be increased and its influence less dependent on the personality of the papal incumbent. It would be able to rely on the fact that Catholicism incorporates the values it proclaims. A humble, accountable papacy might actually have more influence in the world at large.
if the church were to address some of its pressing internal issues, like the role of women, the devolution of authority, the need for theological pluralism, the development of more consultative, accountable structures and a less centralised system, then its credibility would be increased
I want to conclude with a tentative prediction for Catholicism. I think that as a result of the sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up, we are already seeing the break-down of clericalism in the priesthood and increasing numbers of Rome-appointed bishops being shown-up as incompetent, uninspiring leaders. We are also beginning to hear of bishops themselves being accused of sexual abuse. This is not just an Anglo issue, but worldwide. Its already becoming clear that African and Indian Catholicism is harbouring some pretty serious sexual abuse problems.
Catholicism is entering a long process of change, a mutation that may well be more far-reaching than anything previously experienced. I say this because for the first time the Church is truly universal and is no longer dominated by European preoccupations or culture. As Karl Rahner says, the “sphere of the Church’s life [today] is in fact the entire world.” I think we will see a shift away from a highly centralised, hierarchical system where bishops from the pope down are monarchs in their own kingdoms, to a church in which the People of God, the Catholic community, will play an increasing role in ministry, evangelization and decision-making. Pope Francis says it’s impossible to imagine a church “that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People”.
It is impossible to be prescriptive about what the Catholicism of the future will look like. We can, however, be certain that it will be very different to the Church of the present.
It is impossible to be prescriptive about what the Catholicism of the future will look like.
 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, London, Cassell, 1948, I, p 105. Stewart A. Stehlin, Weimar and the Vatican 1919-1933. German-Vatican Diplomatic Relations in the Interwar Years, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1983, pp vii-viii.
 Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power. The Means to Success in World Politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2004.
 Paul Collins, “The Peripatetic Pope’ in Hans Küng and Leonard Swidler, The Church in Anguish. Has the Vatican Betrayed Vatican II? San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1987, p 52.
 Paul Collins, Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world, New York, Public Affairs, 2018,
 Karl Rahner, ‘Toward a fundamental theological interpretation of Vatican II’, Theological Studies, 40(1979), p 721.
Pope Francis, Letter to the People of God, 20 August 2018.
29 August 2018.