The popes who got notions of revolution

Jude Law stars as the first US pope in a series with the tagline ‘His religion is revolution’. It recalls many real-life figures who tried to revolutionise the Church, says TP O’Mahony
The popes who got notions of revolution

WITH the The Young Pope up and running on Sky Atlantic, and being promoted with the line “His religion is revolution”, comparisons with Pope Francis or some previous popes are inevitable. It stars Jude Law as Cardinal Lenny Belardo, the first American pope and the youngest to occupy the chair of Peter. He is a chain-smoking, Coca Cola-drinking outsider who takes the name Pius XIII, which will of course misleadingly bring to mind Eugenio Pacelli who, as Pius XII, was pope from 1939 to 1958, and was an austere, autocratic figure.

Diane Keaton plays Sr Mary, who wears a T-shirt to bed that’s emblazoned with the slogan, “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt”. She believes that Lenny, whom she raised in an orphanage, is destined for greatness.

On becoming pope, he brings her to Rome and, much to the chagrin of Cardinal Voiella, secretary of state, announces she is to be his personal assistant. Sr Mary becomes a papal confidant, which suggests real parallels with Sr Pascalina, the controversial German nun who developed a close relationship with Pius XII, becoming in effect his gatekeeper, controlling access and the flow of paper to the papal apartments.

Such was her influence and power that a 1983 biography of her was entitled La Popessa: The Most Powerful Woman in Vatican History. Sr Mary seems set for a similar role.

In his first address from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, Lenny, as Pius XIII, startles the huge crowd. “What have we forgotten?” he begins. “We have forgotten how to play. How to masturbate. How to use contraceptives. How to get abortions. How to celebrate gay marriages. To allow priests to love each other, even to get married... Forgotten how to decide to die if we detest living; to divorce, to let nuns say Mass. We have forgotten how to play. We have forgotten happiness.”

Three cardinals who are in attendance faint on the spot. Could this new pope be living up to his promise that his “religion is revolution”? Seconds later we discover of course that we have been witnessing a dream sequence.

The last pope to be described as “revolutionary” (with considerable justification) was Angelo Roncalli who, as John XXIII, succeeded Pius XII in 1958 and convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The council, guided by John XXIII’s desire for a more open Church, one that would acknowledge and interact with the modern world, and also by his disregard for those whom he called “prophets of doom”, embarked on a revolutionary path.

What it was in essence reacting to and revolting against was a fortress mentality created by a 150-year history of negativity and rejection. This was best summarised by Francis Xavier Murphy in his book, The Papacy Today: “In the course of the century and a half separating the death of Pius VI from the election of John XXIII, the Catholic Church under the aegis of the papacy fought a rearguard action against the evolutionary forces of Western civilisation.

“In a series of retrograde pronouncements the popes rejected the fundamental drive for liberty, equality, and fraternity that had been the objectives of the French Revolution, despite the fact that all three of these objectives could be squared with the teaching of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

“And instead of rejoicing in its liberation from the burdens of political rule — first with the usurpation of the Papal States by the Napoleonic forces at the turn of the 19th century, then by their abolishment under the Risorgimento in 1870 — the popes had reacted by asserting the Church’s right to exercise political sovereignty despite Christ’s denial of worldly kingship before Pilate, while rejecting a fundamental evangelical counsel — Christ’s frequent exhortation to his disciples that they pay attention to the ‘signs of the times’.”

Perhaps the three documents that best exemplified the growth of a fortress mentality at the highest echelons of the Church were the encyclical Quanta cura, with the Syllabus of Errors attached, issued by Pope Pius XI in December 1864. The syllabus denounced the “principal errors of our times”, including the view that the pope “can or should reconcile himself to, or agree with, progress, liberalism, and modern civilisation”.

It also rejected the concepts of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. This was a huge blow to liberal Catholicism.

The other documents came from Pope Pius X in 1907. Having viewed the liberalising movement known as Modernism with alarm, the Pope published a decree, Lamentabili (July 3, 1907) which condemned 65 Modernist propositions, and in the encyclical Pascendi (September 8, 1907) an oath disavowing Modernism was imposed on all clergy. A widespread witchhunt followed, widening the breach between the Church and the intelligentsia.

The Second Vatican Council was an attempt to liberate the Church from this fortress mentality. The effect of the council, and of John XXIII, who convened it, has been well summarised by Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge University.

In his book Ten Popes Who Shook the World, he writes this at the end of the chapter of John XXIII: “It is hard to speak without sentiment of the greatness of a simply good man. But to anyone who lived through Pope John’s quiet revolution, there can be no doubt about the nature or magnitude of his gift to the Church and to humanity. Catholicism before Papa Roncalli had many strengths, but it was overbearingly clerical, seeming both afraid and dismissive of the world around it, and though many of its people were warmly human, as an institution it existed in the deep freeze. In the hands of this good man, the ice began to melt.”

The melting process didn’t continue unabated. After the election of Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in October 1978, the freeze began again. Those of us who were in the Vatican press office on October 16, 1978, when white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel, were for the most part wrong about the new pope, wrong in our eagerness to paint him in liberal colours.

During his long pontificate, repressive clericalism reasserted itself in the Church, and led to a gradual undermining of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, when John Paul II set out to prepare a 610-page Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1994), this was nothing less than an attempt to rewrite those documents.

So where does Pope Francis fit into the papal scheme of things? Are we to say that, like Lenny Belardo in The Young Pope, that his “religion is revolution”? Three-and-a-half years into his pontificate (Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected on March 13, 2013), the answer to that is clearly no. One of his biographers called his book The Great Reformer, and spoke of the making of “a radical pope”, but the evidence for this to date is unconvincing.

Early on in his pontificate, Francis was described as “an enigma”. Yes, there have been reforms of sorts. Francis has shed the monarchical trappings of the papacy, introduced an informality, and continues to live in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the opulence of the papal apartments. More importantly, in making mercy a central theme of his papacy, he has adopted a far more pastoral and approach than either John Paul II or Benedict XVI, and he has noticeably softened the tone of papal speeches and pronouncements, making it more inclusive.

Institutionally, there have also been changes. His appointments of a small groups of cardinals to act in an advisory capacity is a modest move towards collegiality, and he has resuscitated the Synod of Bishops by encouraging the participants to speak freely.

The synod had been eviscerated by John Paul II; his authoritarian stance was followed by Benedict XVI, who should never have been elected pope anyway. That said, the 189-page document Francis produced (Amoris Laetitia — The Joy of Love) after deliberations of the two Synods on the Family, pleased neither liberals nor conservatives.

Mind you, even modest changes he proposed (adopting a more flexible attitude on giving divorced and remarried Catholics access to communion) have met resistance from diehard conservative bishops, especially in the US.

At the beginning of this month, he travelled to Lund in Sweden where he signed a joint declaration with the head of the Lutheran World Federation at an ecumenical prayer service commemorating the Reformation, the greatest schism in western Christianity, stating that what unites the two traditions is greater than what divides them. The actual 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation isn’t until October 2017, but the build-up has already started.

While in Lund, Francis came face to face with the head of the Church of Sweden, Archbishop Antje Jackelen — a woman. This is a reminder of the gulf that still exists between the two Churches, with Francis early on in his pontificate reiterating that the ordination of women to the priesthood was a “closed question” for Catholics.

On the plane back to Rome, Francis went further, saying the Church’s ban on women priests was “forever”. This was in reply to a question from a female Swedish reporter who had noted that the head of the Lutheran Church in Sweden was a woman.

Yet a future council (Vatican III?) might well decide the way is open for the ordination of women. The present ban is based solely on tradition and, what’s more, on one particular interpretation of that tradition.

In September, Francis met Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and others — including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — in Assisi at the 30th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace. When this was first called for by John Paul II in 1986, the Dalai Lama was present. This time he was a notable absentee. Why?

The Tibetan spiritual leader was not invited due to pressure from the Chinese government. And the Vatican gave way because it is engaged in a long-term power struggle over who should have the right to appoint bishops.

The Catholic Church in China is tolerated largely because Beijing controls the choosing of bishops. The Vatican wants to change this, and thus the Dalai Lama (a thorn in Beijing’s side) was snubbed so as not to offend the Chinese. This display of realpolitik (at the expense of moral principle) by Rome was shameful and does no credit to Francis.

In this, and in other respects (such as his continuing support for Humanae Vitae, the discredited 1968 encyclical condemning contraception), Pope Francis is still very much a traditionalist. This much is certain — Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not going to morph into Pope Pius XIII.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Some of the best bits from direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.25 s