Ditching Constantine

Fintan O’Toole, in the Irish Times, picks up on the often contradictory imperial and spiritual roles of the papacy and quotes the 17th Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes – “The Papacy is nothing other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” – He argues that it is the remnants of that imperial past that informs the current “temporarily bewitching media attraction, but [that] it is in fact a spectre that the church has to exorcise”.He ends with a challenge – “The question now is whether the church can finally ditch Constantine and get back to Christ. Can it lay the ghost of the Roman imperium and become something other than a male gerontocracy?”

It’s an interesting question – although whether he’s right when he claims “the age of empires is over” isn’t exactly clear yet. The full article is below –

Shaking off the trappings of Empire – Fintan O’Toole

‘The Papacy,” wrote Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, “is nothing other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.” He thus summed up both the allure and the danger of the pomp that surrounds the death of Pope John Paul II.

The demise of a Pope and election of his successor creates excitement for many reasons, some of them nothing to do with religion. The Pope is many things, but one of them is the last emperor. The ghost of the Roman Empire still haunts the church’s structures of authority, with the Pope as Caesar and the Conclave as the Senate. What we have witnessed in the last week and will see in the next fortnight is a reminder that the church is a fusion of two contradictory impulses: the visionary preaching of a Jewish holy man and the pragmatic power politics of the Roman Empire.

Jesus may have provided the soul of Christianity, but the Emperor Constantine, who began the process of making it the official imperial religion, provided its body. The great struggle ever since has been that between the Christian spirit and the imperial form. As the world’s other empires have collapsed, the structures have stood out ever more clearly for what they are: the vestigial remnants, not of the crucified, but of the crucifiers. These remnants, like all ancient relics, are fascinating, and their current display will be enthralling to billions of people around the world. But it would be a grave mistake to confuse this magnetism with genuine spirituality. It may be a temporarily bewitching media attraction, but it is in fact a spectre that the church has to exorcise.

For all his talent, charisma and iconoclastic energy, John Paul was never the man for that job. His freshness, his directness and his capacity for making connections with people both in person and on the television screen certainly fitted him for the task. But his mentality did not. He may have dumped some of the outward monarchical baggage of the Papacy, but it was not accidental that one of his concluding acts was to canonise another last emperor, the final head of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Charles I. Born shortly after the great bonfire of European empires in the aftermath of the first World War, he retained an obvious nostalgia for that lost world.

He was, besides, proof of one of the great political paradoxes – that people are formed in large part by that which they oppose. The Irish nationalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were, above all, good Victorians. Bolshevism stole the clothes of Tsarism. Napoleon became just another French monarch. And John Paul absorbed much more from the Stalinism he opposed than he ever seemed to realise. He shared its distrust of liberal democracy, looking on the developed West as a weak and decadent culture. He was a fierce critic of consumer capitalism whose Bible, the Wall Street Journal, attacked his views on economics, not entirely inaccurately, as “warmed-over Marxism”. And, above all, he despised and crushed internal dissent. Though the language he used was different, his alarm at deviationism and his insistence on adherence to the party line mirrored the Stalinist culture in which he operated for so long. His mixture of idealism and authoritarianism would have made him a brilliant boss of the Polish CP.

Such a mind was never going to come to terms with the imperial phantoms that haunt the legacy of Christ. Even while he was bringing the church so triumphantly into the age of global mass media, he operated as a benign, conscientious and dynamic emperor. He issued edicts and expected them to be obeyed without demur. He visited the far-flung corners of his empire, bucking up his troops but also stamping out incipient rebellions. He established good relations with the other religious empires.

He surrounded himself with a praetorian guard, chosen more for its loyalty and orthodoxy than visionary intelligence. And, like all emperors, he ultimately met crises with denial, refusing to see how rapidly the church’s appalling behaviour over the sexual abuse of children was eroding its authority from within.

Yet the age of empires is past. John Paul himself was the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet imperium, providing an ironic answer to Stalin’s famous question about how many divisions the Pope could muster. The neo-imperial ambitions of the US are already doomed. There is no future in imperial dreaming.

The great resonance of John Paul’s death beyond the Catholic world is precisely because it brings a historical era to a close.

He is the last global figure to be shaped by that awful time when much of Europe responded to the loss of familiar empires by attempting to construct new ones, viler and more savage.

Only if it understands and embraces that sense of an ending can the church emerge from John Paul’s long papacy with renewed vigour.

The question now is whether the church can finally ditch Constantine and get back to Christ. Can it lay the ghost of the Roman imperium and become something other than a male gerontocracy?

Or will the next Pope continue to sit enthroned, with a beautiful crown and gorgeous robes, on the grave of a dead empire?

© The Irish Times