About Popes and power

The day after Pope Benedict XVI announced his impending retirement, Helen and I were on the highway for a 10 hour drive home, and several hours of that were a special joy as ABC Melbourne Radio’s afternoon host (Rafael Epstein) discussed the resignation with a Vatican watcher and some of his listeners, followed by some in-depth backgrounding from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Editor, Scott Stephens.

Much of what we read and hear on the media about the Church and notably the Roman Catholic Church is negative, sad and strident, with the focus almost always (or so it seems) on this Church’s failure in Australia and worldwide to deal with clergy sexual abuse.

I am glad that the part of the Christian Church with which I identify and have worked with has effective policies and procedures in place to deal with our cases (thankfully very rare) of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.  I grew up never hearing about these kinds of abuse, let alone experiencing any of them personally.  When in my late teens I emerged from my “safe home” upbringing I remember being horrified at the thought of what some children and adults have endured.  A life of pastoral work done (mostly, I think) with a pastoral heart has taught me the terrible and indelible damage done by abuse of any kind; it has also subjected me to a few episodes of bullying and has taught me that abuse must be faced and managed but will never be eliminated.

pope-benedict-xviReturning to the radio discussions of the Pope’s decision to step down, it struck Helen and me that we were listening to 2 hours of well-informed, comprehensive and completely respectful information sharing, analysis and comment.  Even when Rafael Epstein invited comments on whether the change of Pope would change anything in the Catholic Church, much of the feedback was considered.  Yes, the coverage explored the Pope’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse issue because of Vatican politics and the power of the Roman Curia.  And yes, a few of the listeners’ tweets and emails that were read over the air certainly sounded familiar.  But the two segments maintained a high journalistic standard, as was appropriate.

The Protestant-Reformed stream of Christian faith and thinking has shaped me and I’ve never had much trouble embracing it wholeheartedly in one of its moderate forms – though sometimes with some pain or sacrifice.  In this regard, Roman Christianity was at first quite foreign and a butt of jokes: for a child or youth in the 1950s life could be very sheltered.  But at university I learnt some valuable truths from an atheist Austrian Jew and a right-wing Catholic intellectual.

In theological school I got to value Catholic Christianity in an even larger frame: so much of Christian spirituality, artistic disciplines, thinking and theology developed under the Popes of Rome and the huge organization over which they were supposed to rule as the “Vicar of Christ”.  Many popes had big problems and they were usually far too close to earthly power-play.  Catholicism lost touch with the foundations and heart of the Christian faith and with the needs of their people.  But in many ways I believe I can see that God’s hand was also at work.

During my life in church work I have met many beautiful, Christ-like Catholics: I have learnt from their way of walking with God and they were open to learning from their Protestant colleagues.  I have shared their ability to be both critical and loyal.  As a member of a very small denomination I have long recognized the benefits and fruits of belonging to the world’s largest organization – and the shortcomings.  As one who values thinking and acting Christianly I admire Catholic scholarship and social involvement.

The week Helen and I spent in Rome in 1997 was very special, as it enabled us to taste and see at first hand and in concentrated form so much of what we respect in Catholicism – and what repelled us about it.

All this is summed up in the Popes I have seen come and go through my life.  On paper they were and are the absolute ruler of their world, but in fact what they can do is limited by problems and people.  Some would wish that a given pope would exercise his supposed power on a particular issue, but his subjects are free to resist and frustrate him – without end almost.  That’s what human power looks like.  Perhaps God is a bit like our earth-bound popes and other potentates?



  1. ” I have shared their ability to be both critical and loyal. ”

    A tolerance for paradox is so important, isn’t it?

    Equally important, I think, is to remember what a symbol is, and is not.

    In science, a metaphor is a handy device for explaining and illustrating an unfamiliar idea or precept. However, it is strictly outlawed as a form of logical deduction. For instance, it might be helpful to say metaphorically, that gravity is like a giant rubber band that keeps us tied to the earth rather than flying off into space due to the rapid rotation of the earth. However, we cannot then use this as proof that we can cut gravity, because we can sever a rubber band with a knife.

    I think we are going to get a lot further, if we remember that most of the material in our holy books is symbolic; not scientific fact. And this has implications way beyond a critique of those who want to argue that the Bible says the earth was created on a Tuesday.

    I think a lot of bad things happen when we concretise God beyond the symbolic. This was well stated in Bob Dylan’s song; “the whole congregation had God on their side.” (and that justified our presence in Vietnam.)

    God is a very useful symbol for representing everything that is potentially good in me, as well the Universe. However, we take some mighty big risks when we stretch the symbolism to state that the Pope is this all-powerful being’s representative on Earth, Although as you paradoxically point out there is good and bad in everything; such as saying that the church is a very useful material organisation that delivers and maintains some amazing pastoral carers within our midst.

    I see this abuse of a symbolic God, to gain earthly power, as the essential ingredient for dogma; something is true because we say it is, or actually because God told us it was.

    Alternatively, the symbolic shows its power in Jesus’ parables. These are simple stories upon which we can each hang our own individual interpretations. I think we would all do well to remember how much Jesus hated dogma.

    The power of the symbol is the power that it has upon our imagination; often as a force for evolution and progress in our ideas about the cosmos. In my opinion, dogma tends to frustrate this evolution of our understanding especially of the myterious perimeters of our known universe cosmos, such as metaphysical speculations.

    It is vital that we allow the imagination of the individual to remain the engine of our progress. If a symbol is a useful way of communicating betwen those imaginations, that is wonderful. If dogma becomes a way of frustrating the otherwise obvious, then yes, Fred, we need people like you to oppose it with the full force of your intellect.

    May God smile upon your efforts.

  2. Thanks (belatedly) for these thoughtful and perceptive remarks, Brian. Once again, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of your Comments. If more of Jesus’ followers realised that he taught in stories rather than by dogma, the Christian Church today might look very different. And how might the Roman Catholic Church and its power structures look! Sadly, we humans have lots of ways of deviating from the best!

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