Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How many Divisions does the Pope have?

Like so many of his recent predecessors in the White House, President Trump is traveling to Rome today to be received in audience by the Pope.  On April 29, 1903, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope Saint John XIII then still a seminarian in Rome, wrote in triumphalistic tones in his journal (posthumously published as Journal of a Soul) about the visit of Britain's King Edward VII to Pope Leo XIII, whom Roncalli called "the poor old Pope, held like a prisoner in his own house." Leo's future successor was moved "to thank the good God who holds the keys of men's hearts and who, through all the intrigues of politics, finds a means of making known the glory of his name and the glory of the Catholic Church."  

And, in fact, King Edward's visit to the Vatican really was a tribute of sorts to Leo's success in restoring prestige to a beleaguered papacy after the Italian conquest of Rome and the many other humiliations the 19th century had inflicted upon both Pope and Church. If anything, papal prestige is even higher today, thanks largely to the widespread growth and expansion of the Church around the world. Thanks to its increased influence, more states than ever before in history now have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. (When the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome in 1870, there were just 16 diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See. By the time Italy and the Church made peace in 1929, the  number had grown to 27. With the recent establishment of relations with Myanmar earlier this year that number has passed 180.) 

Both the Holy See and the United States are global powers, albeit very different types of global powers, which makes tomorrow's meeting of Pope and President at least symbolically significant. At times, of course, the relationship has had more practical impact. Papal diplomacy has been credited with playing a role in the Obama Administration's restoration of relations with Cuba, and of course the Cold War cooperation between the Pope and President Reagan is now legendary. More importantly than any of that, however, the Pope himself and the Holy See as an institution serve as a global reference, reminding political actors of imperatives beyond the important but limited constructs of national interests and international relations.

So Pope and President, each of whom has a very different mandate, should not normally be expected to look at the world's problems through the same lens. It is hardly likely that this Pope and this President will. Everyone remembers their apparent disagreement a while back about Trump's proposed border wall. Even so, this Pope and this President have some things in common, which may make their relationship more interesting. Both came to their current office as outsiders. Both remain reluctant to subordinate themselves to some of the more traditional expectations of their office. Both seem to have a keen sense of public relations and the value of direct communication with their constituents over the  heads of traditional filters. Both seem to appreciate the contemporary primacy of image over more traditional concerns. Both have a somewhat critical stance toward the very institutions that they need to work through in order to accomplish substantive goals, and both likewise maintain a comparably critical perspective toward inherited global political and economic arrangements. 

How many divisions does the Pope have? Stalin is supposed to have asked Winston Churchill, when the latter spoke up about the rights of the Catholic Poles. It turns out that he may still have quite a few!

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