Column: The powers of popes and presidents wax and wane over time
|Published: 12-03-2023 7:15 AM
As a historian, I’ve long been fascinated by the parallels and the contrasts between the Roman Catholic papacy and the United States presidency.
Let’s start with the obvious and the superficial. Both offices have been populated only with men, the papacy by design and the presidency by long tradition. Both are vested with the powers of forgiveness, pardon in the case of presidency and absolution in the case of papacy.
Strictly speaking, neither is chosen democratically, but rather by “colleges”: presidents by the Electoral College and popes by the College of Cardinals.
A more substantive parallel is the clout of appointment. Both positions carry appointive powers that ensure that their influence will endure long after they are no longer in office. For the presidency, it’s the power of judicial appointments, especially the Supreme Court. With the help of the chicanery of Mitch McConnell, for example, Donald Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court during his single term in office will affect the nation for years, even decades, to come.
Similarly, the pope makes episcopal (bishop) appointments and especially appointments to the College of Cardinals that will outlast his time as pontiff, particularly if he serves a long tenure. The most obvious recent example is John Paul II, who served in the chair of St. Peter from 1978 until his death in 2005. Over the course of his papacy, he appointed hundreds if not thousands of bishops and 231 cardinals. Those appointments, most of them conservatives, continue to shape church dogma.
Despite these parallels, however, one important difference separates the two. Whereas a president typically enjoys the most influence early in his term — what some pundits call a honeymoon period — a pope generally acquires more authority over time, which makes Pope Francis’s recent actions both courageous and curious.
Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act provides one example of a new president expending political capital early in his presidency, although the political backlash caught up to him in the midterm elections in 2010. And while Jimmy Carter’s wife and his advisers warned against it — they argued he should wait until a second term — Carter chose to push through the renegotiation and ratification of the Panama Canal treaties almost immediately after taking office.
Trump chose to expend his political capital on tax cuts that largely benefited the affluent, and Joseph Biden Jr. pushed an infrastructure bill to jump-start the economy following the ravages of the coronavirus.
Pope Francis has been pontiff for a decade. At 86 years old, he has been battling various health issues, and only recently has he taken some bold actions that he likely would not have attempted early in his papacy.
In a letter to the cardinals in July, Francis suggested that he was open to the blessing of same-sex unions so long as such a blessing would not be confused with sacramental marriage. The matter, he said, called for “pastoral charity” and that priests should not act as “judges who only deny, reject and exclude.”
The statement was applauded by LGBT activists, many of whom have come to regard the pontiff as an ally. “Pope Francis’ statement recognizes a reality already happening in many parts of the church,” according to Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA. “There are Catholic communities in many parts of the world that extend some type of blessings to same-sex couples.”
In late October, Francis declared that transgender individuals could be baptized. They could also serve as witnesses at Catholic weddings or as godparents at Catholic baptisms so long as any such individual “leads a life that conforms to the faith.”
Finally, and most recently, Francis removed Joseph Strickland as bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. Earlier this year, Strickland, an archconservative and an outspoken Trumpist, issued a statement in which he rejected what he called the pope’s “program of undermining the deposit of faith.”
Following an investigation by the Vatican that also found problems with the administration of his diocese, Strickland was asked to resign. When he refused to do so, he was removed from office.
Because Strickland had been appointed by Benedict XVI, Francis’s predecessor, the pope was understandably reluctant to act earlier in his papacy. Now, having consolidated his authority after a decade in office — and very likely sensing his own mortality — Francis was able to act more decisively on matters he deems important.
Because I’m not Catholic, I have only a rooting interest here. Pope Francis, of course, is free to spend the capital he has accrued over the past decade any way he chooses. Still, I have to wonder about those choices. Such capital, whether political or religious, is precious.
Let’s consider that in the United States alone, the number of priests has dropped from 59,000 to fewer than 36,000 since 1970, and of those who remain, just under half are age 70 or above. Given this acute shortage of priests, wouldn’t opening the door to married or to female clergy be a more strategic way for Pope Francis to ensure the future of Roman Catholicism?
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College.