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The Pope as Monarch: Reflections on Politics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 11, 2005

As I ponder the life and death of John Paul II, I am reminded that there is something about a pope that is very much like a king. This analogy with the social order is far from perfect, for the Church and the body politic are very different things. But there is much to be gained from wondering about the sheer greatness of this fallen leader. For both the Church and the world, some of these gains may be political.

The Ideal Form of Government

The Church has never taught that one form of government is intrinsically superior to others, though many churchmen over the centuries have had strong opinions on this subject. Previous popes and Catholic political theorists have frequently defended monarchy as most closely mirroring the divine order, but others, including John Paul II himself, have favored democracy’s compatibility with the dignity of the human person.

John Paul’s advocacy of democracy has puzzled many commentators, who wonder why the Pope failed to match his democratic preferences with a zeal for transforming the power structures of the Church. For the past 40 years, strong forces both inside and outside the household of faith have worked tirelessly for the ascendancy of committees, synods, councils, and even lay management, in order to eliminate the Church’s hierarchical governance, or at least blunt its edge. It seems odd that a pope who valued democratic institutions did not take up this cause. Would this not be in keeping with the dignity of man?

The Governance of the Church

In a word, no. Whatever the case for democracy’s relevance to human dignity in the social order, that case is altered considerably by the nature of the Church. In the secular realm, the province of government is a natural one, over which man has dominion. Moreover, we are governed by men and women who are human persons like ourselves. It is therefore in keeping with our dignity that we should participate in some way in ordering secular affairs.

But the Church’s province is the supernatural order, over which we have no dominion, and the Church is governed by Jesus Christ, Who is a Divine Person. He shares our nature, but this sharing does not exhaust His personhood. To put the matter plainly, Christ is a superior being. Therefore, it is precisely in keeping with the dignity of our nature that we recognize that superiority and permit Him to govern in the Church.

It is an uncomfortable fact that Christ governs through his vicar, the pope, a mere man; that this man guides a hierarchy of purely human agents; and that there are precious few guarantees—though just enough—against the inadequacy of all that is human in the Church. But despite these drawbacks, the essential identity, purpose and domain of the Church would be lost if she were governed in any other way. Those without Faith cannot see this. On this point, they will be no less puzzled by the next pontificate.

Politics and Human Dignity

In the social order, however, the argument that participation in governance is compatible with human dignity is unanswerable. At the same time, one requires very large cultural blinders to believe that the only form of government which facilitates this participation is democracy. Or, to turn the question around, it is also a mistake to assume that democracy necessarily translates into significant political participation at all.

It is a grave error to presume that if the vote is widespread, meaningful participation in government is assured. This misconception contributes to the disintegration of intermediate institutions which can weigh against state power, and pits an atomized and disorganized mass of voters against those few who can pull the strings necessary to obtain political office. The so-called will of the people must always be represented, shaped and brokered, and will often be misrepresented, negated or ignored by those who understand how to wield political influence. In our own country, the standard means of shaping the chaos of the electorate into some semblance of order and strength is the political party. This in itself is a strong argument for taking democracy with a grain of salt.

Just as mechanisms of manipulation are essential to contemporary politics, so too have other times and places had their mechanisms to help ensure that various interests were taken seriously. In diverse ways and under a variety of political structures, labor unions, fraternal organizations, guilds, nobles, free towns, great families, and even the Church herself have upheld popular interests against unbridled state power. The best monarchies have shown substantial concern for the rights of the different groups of which society is composed, while the worst democracies have bred totalitarianism. Indeed, politics is not a science but an art.

Even in the United States, there are avenues of power and influence far more important than the vote. James Burnham in his book Congress and the American Political Tradition argued that there were five branches to modern American government: executive, legislative, judicial, the bureaucracy, and the lobbies. But even apart from those institutions which participate directly in government, there are others which wield great influence, such as political parties, as we have seen, and the mass media, which generally serves cultural elites.

Deepening Our Political Understanding

These reflections on politics arise from a consideration of John Paul II as monarch, recognizing that the larger-than-life quality of the one anointed to be father of his people has real value in the social order. Popes, of course, make natural father figures, being priests, and having a responsibility not only to rule but to teach and to sanctify. It is not so easy for politicians, who are called merely to rule. But we Americans are foolish when we insist that only one set of political forms is compatible with human dignity and dismiss the politics of other cultures for appreciating social values which our own democracy obscures. We are also foolish when we assume that a democratic leader need give no thought to the instruction and improvement of the citizens.

The failure to take teaching and sanctifying seriously, even within the very severe limits of politics, arises from an impoverished notion of the common good. One of John Paul II’s greatest lessons, forged in his battles against both Nazism and Communism, is that politics is not primarily a matter of abstract theory. Politics always comes from culture, and successful politics arises only from a rich and value-laden culture. In the matter of politics, as with nearly any other subject, we gain much from pondering the life, work and pontificate of the twentieth century’s greatest man.

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