Thursday, December 12, 2013

Supreme Executive Power...

In my post-high school days, I spent one summer working for a government sponsored youth acting company. Our purpose was to put on light dramas in surrounding parks for the amusement of park visitors. In one production we included a vignette from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in which I played King Arthur and my co-worker was the indomitable Dennis. For those of you who haven't seen this scene, Dennis is a humorously placed anachronism. He's a modern socialist peasant and in the course of his dialogue with the king questions everything about his kingship. The climax of the encounter is as follows.

King Arthur: I am your king.
Woman: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Woman: Well how'd you become king then?
[Angelic music plays... ]
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Dennis: [interrupting] Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

 It's a clear case of the Emperor not really having any clothes after all. I love it. "Strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords" and "not from some farcical aquatic ceremony" -- it just doesn't get any better than that. Because the truth is that Arthur's kingship is really based on amassed military might and the money to sustain it. And however much you like Arthur, (I loved those legends -- my favourite was Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table) you have to admit that ultimately, mystical kingship origin stories like his are, after all, just a bit of desperate revisionism on the part of those who have the power to justify its continuance.

Let's have a look at the present day Roman Catholicism. No, skip it. Let's have a go at the papacy. Really everything else about Catholicism that grates on me and maybe some of you -- the veneration of saints, priestly celibacy, the hierarchy, the ostentation of cathedrals, etc. etc -- can be put down to pardonable cultural variation. We've all got our quirks. But the underlying assertion that after all, through the papacy, they're the boss over the rest of the church is the central reason that all the rest of the church have not, as some fondly desire, coalesced with them. (Hey, we should be happy. We're not anathema any more -- we're "divided brethren." But when we really get it right, we'll come home to the abuser who was ready and willing to burn us at the stake for thinking differently only a few hundred years ago. Do you really think so?)

And in all truth, the reason the papacy survived all those years, was money and military power. The story that somehow a succession of supreme bishops is inherent in Christ's blessing of Peter is classic power justifying revisionism. It's in the same category as the story King Arthur relates to Dennis. Not a hundred, a thousand, a million years of papal power could justify reading that into Jesus words. In the same way that I have said elsewhere in this blog, that we ought really to have explicit instructions ("after me will come a book") to justify the way we treat the New Testament, a thing like the papacy needs far more than a blessing which could equally well (and much more consistent with everything Jesus did here on earth) have been bequeathed to the whole church, not to a chain of succession. But that is what humans do. We make up stories which justify wars, property grabs, power plays. I still do the same while playing territorial war games with my (adult) kids. Even though I've never had X Y and Z parcel of land, in my chats, I always talk about taking my land back from my opponent. Adds an element of realism even to games with elves, orcs, and mages.

This is also why Pope Francis is so significant. He's the first pope we've heard of showing the level of humility that he does. But what we (non-Catholics) all hope from him is some institutional humility -- a frank admission that whatever allegiance Catholics give him, he has no such claim, tacit or otherwise, on the rest of us for the same allegiance. And I doubt we'll see such a move. The hope that a story like this gives us is, I believe, misplaced. As pope, he must speak for the whole of the Catholic Church, It's a bit like that scene in Ben Hur, where Pilate speaks to Quintus Arius (aka Judah Ben Hur) as a friend and the adopted son of a friend as they converse together on the floor of the council chamber but must speak for Rome when he sits in his governors chair. Whatever properly collegial feelings Cardinal Bergoglio may have had for the rest of the non-Catholic world, now that he is part of the system at the level he is, will surely be trumped by Pope Francis. And the mythic story will continue.

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