Pope Benedict Is Not as Powerful as You Think

By Ramesh Ponnuru
February 15, 2013 1:47 PM EST
Pope Benedict XVI waves during an audience with Rome's parish priests on Feb. 14, 2013 at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican.
Photographer: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI waves during an audience with Rome's parish priests on Feb. 14, 2013 at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican.

This week Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are discussing the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Margaret's column started it off, then Ramesh responded, then Margaret did.

Progressive Catholics often portray the pope as a kind of supreme dictator of Catholicism. They resent the pope both for allegedly imposing conservative diktats on such issues as abortion and the ordination of women, and for failing to use his power to clean house.

This is the picture you give us, Margaret, in the opening lines of your latest shot at Benedict XVI: The pope is “close to all powerful”; he can hire and fire whomever he pleases; he is “infallible when he wants to be.”

If I found this this picture of the papacy true to life, I would agree with you that Benedict’s response to the abuse scandals has been grossly and culpably inadequate. But the papacy does not operate like this. It never has. 

During the Reformation, when almost all the bishops of England were in revolt, the pope did not feel himself free to excommunicate the lot of them. And popes had far more power back then. The 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint speaks of the bishops as the pope’s “brothers in the ministry” who must always act in communion. Add to the pope’s modest self-conception modern canon law, which as interpreted by canon lawyers creates even more obstacles to the disciplining of bishops and priests. It is true that no one but the pope can remove a bishop from office. But that doesn’t mean that he can do it whenever he pleases.

As Benedict himself said, it is “very rare” for a pope to claim to speak infallibly: That charism has clearly been exercised only twice since the doctrine of infallibility was formally proclaimed. (In both instances the pope said that beliefs about Mary that had been widely held among Christians going back to the religion’s earliest days were now doctrines of the Church.) 

Popes just don’t go around smiting people, even people whom you and I agree deserve smiting. Instead they do things like offer prayers. You suggest that prayer is not a “concrete initiative.” Surely, though, you can understand that popes don’t see it quite that way.

I agree with you, Margaret, that Cardinal Roger Mahony’s going to Rome is an outrage. He has already been stripped of all of his authority in Los Angeles. I wonder if one reason for not going after his voting rights is that a pope widely viewed as conservative would be seen as attempting to influence his succession inappropriately by removing a well-known liberal. 

Civil authorities could force the issue by taking their own action against Mahony. If I’m reading the newspapers right, that ought to be under serious consideration.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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