TORONTO — For anyone who grew up in a devoutly Catholic environment, the papal resignation rings bells. It’s not that we’ve experienced something exactly like it in our lifetimes — none of us being 600 years old — but rather that it underscores just how large a presence the papacy could be.
The world of my childhood, Ireland in the 1950s, was about as Catholic as you could get. And the pope of the day, Pius XII, was a physical presence in our house, courtesy of a framed photo on the wall. When he died in 1958, my parents genuinely grieved.
Of course, intense devotion to popes — or kings or politicians for that matter — carries its own risks. Being human, they’re apt to let you down.
For devotees of Pius, the first nasty shock came in 1963, via Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. In it, Hocchhuth accused the late pope of silent complicity in the Holocaust. To be sure, the play was both fictional and polemical, but the accusation gained traction.
The 1999 publication of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope upped the ante considerably. As Cornwell tells it, he embarked on the work to defend the papal reputation. But the deeper he dug, the more aghast he became. Put simply, Pius had subordinated opposition to the Nazis in favour of diplomatic manoeuvres calculated to enhance the power of the Vatican. And, to top it off, he was personally anti-Semitic.
While Cornwell subsequently hedged his criticism, noting that the pope had "little scope of action" during the war, he still describes Pius as a Nazi "fellow traveller." To put it mildly, he and my parents wouldn’t have seen eye to eye.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been fierce pushback from several sources, not all of whom can be characterized as Catholic apologists. Yes, Ronald J. Rychlak (Hitler, the War and the Pope) is Catholic. But David G. Dalin (The Myth of Hitler’s Pope) is Jewish, and Gordon Thomas (The Pope’s Jews) is Protestant.
Dalin is particularly scathing, putting it this way: "The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII is simple. It requires only that favourable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavourable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test."
Whatever the truth of the matter on the Pius file, the papacy’s history is certainly that of an institution deeply embroiled in the nitty gritty of politics and power. For instance, the mid-12th century Adrian IV granted Ireland to Henry II, and two 16th century popes called for the overthrow of Elizabeth I.
Further, a recent Wall Street Journal piece from the historian Eamon Duffy notes that papal skulduggery has an extensive pedigree. A thousand or so years ago, "Rome was run by Mafia-style noble families, who appointed the popes from their own kindred." And while the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry III did better with the popes he appointed, things were back underwater in the 14th century when Urban VI apparently became so paranoid that he murdered five of his cardinals.
Although the papacy’s current politics aren’t nearly as exotic as back then, it’s hard to escape the sense that 21st century Catholicism faces real challenges in coming to terms with modernity. For many commentators, the answer is that the Church needs to become more "democratic," to perhaps "move to the centre."
But this formulation poses its own difficulties.
For one, it implies that the Church is essentially equivalent to a political party, and ignores the fact that it’s also a religion whose raison d’être is the perpetuation and promotion of what it believes to be divine truth. In that latter context, one can’t simply call a policy conference to invent an electorally attractive platform.
Then there’s the fact that some of the mainline Protestant denominations have already taken similar advice. And they’re not exactly thriving in consequence.
Joseph Stalin famously dismissed the importance of the Vatican with a rhetorical question as to how many divisions the pope commanded. But more than a half-century on, the Vatican is still alive and kicking while Stalin’s Soviet Union has been consigned to historical memory.
So if there’s a bookmaker’s bottom line, maybe it’s this. Be wary of betting against the horse that has a track record of winning races.
Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.