Not long before the election of Pope Francis, Abi Sutherland, a blogger at Making Light, wrote about monarchy and myth. Sutherland worked through some thoughts based on recent movies and books, to discuss “monarch as catalyst,” and that the myth of the “true king” focused on transforming us to our better selves. Towards the end, Sutherland wrote:
“But my first monarchy is the one
that concerns me right now. The organization is in deep, structural
trouble. The holder’s sudden choice to vacate the throne is worrying,
and I am torn between curiosity and dread to hear (what we will ever
hear of) why he really stepped down. And although I’m sure the Conclave
is intending to vote for the Pope who will make us all our best selves,
I don’t think they’re the right electorate to identify him. I think
they, and the entire hierarchy, have forgotten (or never knew) what it
is to be a Catholic in the world. I don’t think they will elect a Pope
who will make us our best selves (or them their best selves), and when
he does not, I think they will continue to blame everyone but
I wish it were not so. I’d love a Pope who renewed the church, and
turned us from an engine of politics and condemnation to one of love and
healing. That’s what I hope for. But I know better than to expect it.
Because the True Monarch is a fairy tale, no more real than its
cousin-myth of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Conclave will choose
someone in scarlet robes who won’t, even if he wants to, be able to turn
the rumbling Juggernaut of the hierarchy from its course….But the fact that fairy tales don’t come true doesn’t rob them of their
value. The problems they describe are real, even if the solutions that
follow aren’t. There are no True Monarchs, but the hunger to be our
best selves endures. In the end—as in the beginning and the middle—we
turn ourselves into those best selves, every day, piece by piece and act by act.”
I’ve thought a lot about those lines since I read them. Although the occupant of the Throne of St. Peter is no longer a secular monarch, and hasn’t been since the 19th century, the Papacy continues to operate like a monarchy. And monarchies encourage myths. If the “true king” takes the throne, as Sutherland comments, one can dream that the changes of which we dream will simply come to past. The king will wave his hand, the villains will be imprisoned, and we’ll all live happily ever after.
In America, we’ve seen how hard it is to effect change. Whatever you happen to think of Obama’s agenda, he has not been able to enact it. The limiting factors of checks and balances (built into our system) and the new phenomena of constant filibuster and gerrymandered districts have restricted his ability to bring about wholesale change (assuming he in fact wanted to do so). This is the blessing and curse of the American democratic system. But oh, a king, if only they knew what was wrong, they could solve all our problems. Of course, this was never true for even the most powerful kings.
Medieval kings found themselves limited by all sorts of factors,
including those internal to their courts. But still, at least they don’t have to get through the US Congress …
I’m not a monarchist (I once gave a talk on Theodoric the Ostrogoth for a group of monarchists, but that’s a different story). I’m ready for Popes to be chosen by the acclamation of the laity. But if this monarch happens to re-direct the course of the Church, I’ll be pleased. And that’s my final point (the privilege of the blog post, rather than the formal essay, is to wander a little). Much of the criticism of the church focuses on its “medieval nature,” the way that autocratic hierarchies limit the influence of the believers over the workings of their church. I share these criticisms. I think that hierarchy encourages the elites to believe that they are the only voices worth hearing, that it enables the culture that concealed the abuses of the clergy, and has kept the church from embracing the changes so demanded from the laity.
And yet, here we have a monarch, Pope Francis. The very structures that make the church
seem so antiquated and remote are now in the hands of a man who seems determined to change things. He can act, though like all kings, he must be careful of his court, or his impact will be brief, at best.
And remember that the Cardinals chose him. In a landslide. They knew what they were doing.