Portraying the papacy uniquely through its moralistic features is not only partial but dangerous

Michel Chambon

Updated: October 12, 2020 10:33 AM GMT

Pope Francis blesses the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Oct. 11. The pope has been criticized for his silence on human rights abuses in China. (Photo: AFP)

While the 2018 provisional agreement between China and the Vatican should soon be renewed, numerous voices are raising concerns and critiques against it.

In light of the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, many do not understand how the pope can be so vocal about social issues around the world and say nothing about injustices perpetrated in the Middle Kingdom. In their view, if Rome simultaneously turns blind eyes to the violations of human rights and religious freedom occurring in China and extends its provisional agreement with Beijing, then it loses its moral authority.

Clearly, what is happening in China is concerning. Much evidence confirms that Catholic clergy are intensely pressured to join the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Over the past few months, Beijing has severely denied the autonomy of the Hong Kong region and force has been used to silence its pro-democracy activists. On the other side of the country, the Chinese government is deploying various programs to sterilize and abort a vast number of Muslims living in Xinjiang. These facts cannot be treated lightly.

Nonetheless, I want to reflect on the argument of moral authority per se. Although no one would deny that the significance of the Holy See precisely lays in its moral authority, I want to highlight the risks of reducing the Holy Father to a universal moral witness. Surely, the Christian faith is about aspiring toward ethical conduct and the common good. Yet portraying the papacy uniquely through its moralistic features is not only partial but dangerous. I argue that it reinforces a series of problematic assumptions and distorts the actual function of the Holy See. Thus, I offer to look at the question of moral authority from four different angles, each of them highlighting one layer of assumptions that Christians should carefully question.

First, arguments on papal moral authority must be evaluated from the angle of political science. Historians have claimed that since the loss of the papal state, the pope lacks what constitutes the main source of state power: a territory and its related revenues. In their view, the Holy See is not a conventional sovereign state; its legitimacy and capacity to intervene in world affairs rests primarily on its moral authority.

The underlying political theory is problematic in many ways. By opposing the specificities of the Vatican City to most nation states, this discourse implies that state power finds its strength in two primordial origins: material values (natural resources, population, means of production) and immaterial values (political ideology, history). But how does this theory fit in the separation of powers formulated by Montesquieu? Are the legislative, judicial and executive powers material or immaterial?

If we turn to Marshall Sahlins’ anthropological analysis of “big man” and chief, or to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of education, we also see that the size of a society, its kinship system and its legitimized forms of violence determine the type of political structures it establishes. Through the creation of permanent offices, the accumulation of individual prestige or the establishment of lineages, human societies use a wide range of cultural tools to shape authority and control their members. Therefore, state power is neither monolithic nor binary.

Surely, the Holy Father, like the Dalai Lama and the Grand Iman Ahmad Al-Tayed, holds moral authority. But he is also the head of state of a sovereign entity, the Holy See, exchanging ambassadors with more than 180 countries. He is at the center of a network of 1.3 billion faithful and holds significant authority over the worldwide Catholic clergy. Benefiting from centuries of historical continuity, he protects priceless historical archives and masterpieces. In other words, the pope is far more than a moral figure. Those who present him through this feature only are no more subtle — or wise — than Joseph Stalin, who reduced the Vatican to its military divisions. 

Second, the emphasis on moral authority must be questioned from the perspective of religious studies. In fact, a significant part of Western modernity is based on a secular tendency reducing religion to a moral quest. For secular social scientists, humans are religious beings because they want to encourage good behavior. Thus, religions are man-made products to reinforce and absolutize the code of conduct of a society. 

But this approach reduces the richness of religious phenomena. Nowadays, a wide range of scholarship points out how the modern moralization of religions fails to address the tremendous diversity of religious traditions and their deities. For instance, the role played by Jesus Christ in what has been called Christianity is not the same as the one of the Bodhisattva within Buddhism, the Quran within Islam, or Taishan within the Chinese popular religion.

Furthermore, this secular discourse refuses to take into consideration deities that are not necessarily good or bad. In the case of the Chinese traditional pantheon, for example, we see deities located in heaven or hell who are not necessarily good or bad by nature. Rather, they are ambiguous and versatile because morality is not the core issue. It is efficacy and capacity to act upon things that matter.

In other words, religions should not be reduced to a mere question of morality. Of course, they all engage with ethical dilemmas. But they do more than that. And so does the Holy See! Its mission is broader than what secular discourses claim. Let us not forget that the more we talk about abstract and universal morality, the less we look at the example of Jesus dealing with the complexity of concrete situations. 

This brings me to my third point, our underlying understanding of morality. When we constantly present the Vatican as a moral witness, what do we mean — and imply — by morality? Clearly, the risk is to refer to ethics as a self-explanatory reality. Morality is assumed as something about good behavior, a universal truth that everyone knows.

These assumptions are once again problematic. If we reduce morality to a set of assumed rules and principles that theoretically define what good conduct is, who gets to formulate and hierarchize them? Can the Holy See maintain diplomatic relationships with a state applying the death penalty and possessing nuclear weapons? We cannot ignore that the formulation of moral principles is always related to those who articulate them. In other words, ethical norms are rooted in the anthropological and theological worldviews of their formulators. Some universal norms may still exist, but their exact number, nature, and mutual hierarchy remain under question.

So, we need to be clear. Moral conduct is about the implementation of ethical judgements and principles into concrete circumstances and individuals’ existence. In the Gospel, Jesus constantly engages with the tensions that lay between universal laws and particular situations. Without denying the significance of moral principles that partially reflect the universal calling of the Father, Jesus reveals how moral judgments and behaviors can never be reduced to a “one size fits all” model. This legalism does not meet a Christian moral ideal. 

Therefore, when concerns about papal moral authority are repeated ad nauseam, they do not only push the Holy See into some ivory tower — or golden prison — but depart from the Gospel. The moral authority of the pope is not a moral superiority. In a church filled with the Spirit of Christ, the letter of law is not enough. 

This leads me to my fourth and last point. It relates to the kind of ecclesiology implied by an overemphasis on the moral authority of the Vatican. When we present the Holy Father as a universal moral witness, telling everyone what the good is, which kind of church are we advocating for? Indeed, those who insist on the universal scope of the pope’s moral authority take the risk of turning him into a ubiquitous pastor. With this approach, the Holy Father stands as a universal priest leading every local community no matter its specific reality and dynamics. Then, the Supreme Pontiff is not first and foremost the bishop of Rome serving the communion of the Church, he incarnates the truth.

The problem with this 19th century ecclesiology overemphasizing the universal jurisdiction of the pope is that it sidelines the responsibilities of local bishops and priests who are in charge of their flocks. Also, this pyramidal vision of the Church, appealing to certain Catholics and non-Catholics, has been challenged and pondered by the teaching of Vatican II. The bishop of Rome does not replace the college of bishops. Rather, he is the servant of the servants of God. His ministry is to serve the bishops of the Church and to protect their communion. In this ecclesial model, the supreme authority of the Church is in the hand of the college of bishops who work in communion with the bishop of Rome and who collectively succeed the college of the apostles.

Of course, the Vatican can still step in on many local issues of the Church and world politics. The pope constantly denounces particular injustices and worldwide structures of sin. Yet Vatican II has been clear about the fundamental duty of the Holy See. It does not replace local pastors but supports and exhorts them. Its primary responsibility is to sustain the communion of bishops.

Having identified the political, religious, moral and ecclesiological ambiguities surrounding discourses on papal moral authority, we can now return to the Sino-Vatican agreement. Is the Vatican losing its moral authority by renewing an agreement with Xi Jinping’s China?

Once again, we must admit that in front of the political repression surrounding religious activities in China, no one can truly be enthusiastic about the Sino-Vatican agreement. Threats on Chinese believers and civil society are not going to disappear overnight. But if we refuse dialogue with Beijing and trash small steps like the provisional agreement, what are the alternatives? Are we letting Chinese Catholicism be represented by those who decide to live their faith underground only? Considering how the state is treating underground sectarian movements, would this move be wise and moral?  And what about those who are truly patriotic, faithful to the Catholic Church and the pope, and proud of the socioeconomic progress of their country?

The Sino-Vatican agreement shows that in the complex politico-religious reality of China, the Holy See focuses on what Vatican II has defined as its core mission. With this agreement, the Holy Father seeks to build communion among bishops and to restore the unity of the Church. Despite complaints from those who apply either a 19th century ecclesiology or a secular and politicized approach, the pope and his curia are focusing on Chinese bishops. It is a difficult choice but in perfect coherence with the council. Yet many problems and ethical dilemmas remain but the Holy See has no magical solution. The pope is not a magician.

In conclusion, while well-intended warnings on papal moral authority deserve attention, we cannot let them define the action of the Holy See. Once again, what is at stake with the Sino-Vatican dialogue is the sovereignty of the Church. Behind the renewal of the agreement per se, the core issue still is to find a way to express and enact the subtle autonomy of the Church — the body of Christ the only Lord — in Asia and elsewhere. This is what the bishop of Rome in line with Vatican II seeks to defend. And this search of sovereignty — with its economic, political, theological and ecclesiological ramifications — is a never-ending task.

Michel Chambon is a French Catholic theologian and anthropologist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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