Rise of the celebrity pope



One of Stalin's most famous lines delivered in a discussion about the future of Catholic Poland, was 'How many divisions does the Pope have?' To Stalin politics and authority began and ended with coercive force. Lacking it, the Pope was not politically relevant.

Pope FrancisFew people today would believe that Stalin said all that needs to be said. As the symbolic head of a large church a pope can help shape the political space by influencing public opinion and drawing attention to little noticed issues. Some commentators have even described as decisive the part played by Pope John Paul II in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Pope Francis' forays into environmental, migration and economic issues also raise questions about how popes engage politically. Here I shall look generally at this question, and in a subsequent article consider the political engagement of Pope Francis.

Popes are politically significant because they lead a large international church that is present in many nations. By influencing the life of local churches they also help shape the context of politics.

The teaching, interests and opinions of popes affect the way bishops and priests act, and so influence Catholic attitudes. Although this does not translate readily into votes, particularly in the developed world where churches and other voluntary organisations have a diminished claim on their members, it is still significant.

It also means that any political influence that popes have is inextricably tied to their faith. Their criticism or endorsement of actions by governments must flow from the faith they preach and be coherent with Catholic tradition. For that reason modern popes have spent much time expounding the tradition and discussing contemporary issues in its light.

But the distinctive personality of individual popes has been increasingly important in their political engagement. From the late 19th century a personality cult of the reigning pope grew inside the Catholic Church. He became the face that represented the Church in its interaction with the world.

More recently, however, popes have also become celebrities in mass and social media. Their influence on public opinion, in the wider society as well as in the Catholic Church, is increasingly personal, as well as representative. As a result the way in which individual popes understand and express their faith will also shape the possibilities for their political influence.


"The vast crowds that gathered in Poland to hear Pope John Paul II and attend his liturgical celebrations were as important as his words in encouraging political change."


If Stalin underemphasised popes' political influence it was because he also underestimated the importance of words and symbols. These form the channels of popes' influence. Their everyday business is to meet, speak, teach and take part in ritual celebrations. The ritual character of these activities is as important as the words in creating political impact. The vast crowds that gathered in Poland to hear Pope John Paul II and attend his liturgical celebrations, for example, were as important as his words in encouraging political change. The formality of papal audiences, too, contributes to their power. Politicians and Catholic writers may be influenced by their contact with the Pope, but they may also use the photo opportunity to sell their own religious credentials or their next book.

When trying to understand the political influence of modern popes, we should put strong weight on their travels. By visiting different nations a pope can affirm and encourage the local church, address issues facing the nation, and indirectly encourage the government to build a just and humane society. In return these visits offer the local government leaders international publicity and approval. The pope also has the opportunity though his schedule to represent social groups that are neglected or despised.

Underlying these public communications is the quiet, bureaucratic business of meeting, negotiating, enabling and encouraging. For a pope this includes meeting and appointing bishops around the world, ensuring that he is reliably briefed by the various Vatican departments, and reading the reports of papal diplomats. They embody the universal responsibilities of the local churches, take part in intergovernmental committees and communicate informally with the diplomatic corps of other nations.

Political action, of course, considers what can be done in given situations as well as what should be done. The principles that modern popes have focused on in different ways have been the dignity of each human being and so the freedom of conscience and of religion in the face of the state, the dependence of human beings on one another and on the environment, the consequent responsibility of the state to ensure the economy serves common good and particularly the most vulnerable.

These principles would not have appealed to Stalin. Nor do they appeal to most governments today. So popes who seek to insert them into public conversation must be canny as well as saintly. That is why Pope Francis is such an interesting study in papal political engagement.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope John Paul II, Paul Francis



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The "some commentators" above includes Gorbachev, he himself acknowledged the role of John Paul II in the fall of Communism, saying, "What has happened in eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this pope." (quoted in La Stampa, March 3, 1992)
Father John George | 07 September 2016

Churchill recorded Stalin's quip to Laval French PM re pope's divisions “Oho!” said Stalin. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Laval’s answer was not reported to me; but he might certainly have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade." Churchill, Winston. The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Volume 1 (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 2075-2077). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition. [Churchill later appreciated Pius XII as go-between for nazi plot against Hitler near War's end]
Father John George | 07 September 2016

In fact much earlier In 1939, in "Church of Spies" Mark Riebling tells the gripping history of the Vatican’s covert operations during World War II. A military plot had formed in Germany to depose the Führer, but there was a sticking point: what might happen to that country after Hitler was no more. The aftermath of World War I saw Germany punished severely, which helped spring Hitler to power in the first place. Nobody wanted a repeat of that, and so the conditions for mounting a coup were established: If the world promised a “just peace” for a de-Nazified Germany, the generals would go through with their plan and have Hitler killed. "The Vatican remained the crossroads in the plot to kill Hitler: all roads truly led to Rome, to the desk with a simple crucifix overlooking the fountains on St. Peter’s Square". Riebling, Mark. Church of Spies: the Pope’s secret war against Hitler (Kindle Locations 1586-1588). Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Father John George | 08 September 2016

While a riveting movie "Valkyrie" with Tom Cruise; after planned assassination of Hitler in 1944 Stauffenberg [Cruise] would free Josef Müller and send him to Rome to ask the pope to call for a worldwide armistice after Hitler’s death. The pope should know that this time they would do it.[unmentioned in movie] Riebling, Mark. Church of Spies: the Pope’s secret war against Hitler (Kindle Locations 3034-3035). Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Father John George | 08 September 2016

" Modern popes have spent much time expounding .. (Catholic) tradition.." Traditions can, and do, change with the times. For centuries Tradition denounced the idea of same sex marriage, whether civil or religious. Pope Francis seems to be laying the foundation for a new tradition, at least as far as civil marriages are concerned.
Robert Liddy | 08 September 2016

" 'How many divisions does the Pope have?' " As many divisions as Catholics in communion with him. Leaders do not only protect the followers from the outside. The followers, too, can be a protective moral and physical fence against the outside for their leader. After several generations of making a habit of sneering at Popes Paul VI through to Benedict XVI, 'progressive' Catholics now have no principled ground upon which they can support Francis, but it is presently 'conservatives' who, upon encountering a pope who doesn't flatter their ears, are in danger of following the 'progressive' habit and abandoning the principle that what popes say should be taken to be true because they are placed by the Spirit to be the centre of the faith.
Roy Chen Yee | 09 September 2016

"Although this does not translate readily into votes, particularly in the developed world where churches and other voluntary organisations have a diminished claim on their members, it is still significant." I don't want to presage your second article on this theme, Andy, but do you not think that this may well apply mainly in the Anglosphere and especially in Australia? And, given that social mobility for Catholics has resulted in a weakening of the magisterium as well as a dispersal of the Catholic vote, might not particular schools, such as those commandeered by the Jesuits, have quite a bit to account for in terms of what appears to amount, by any measure of social accounting, to a significant failure on the part of the Society to instil the social policy imperatives that you so tirelessly and commendably nurture, upon the more prominent 'political' alumni of such schools and colleges?
Michael Furtado | 30 September 2016


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