Pope BenedictAs Pope, Benedict was a man of many parts: Head of State of the Vatican CityState, Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Romana, Primate of Italy, Patriarch of the LatinRiteChurch throughout the world – and Supreme Pontiff of the several rites of the Universal Catholic Church, Oriental as well as Latin. Perhaps he had too many parts to cope with. I wonder if he was aware that in 2008 baptisms in his own diocese were 5.67 per thousand Catholic population. In the same year the rate was 17.68 per thousand in the Archdiocese of Southwark (South London and Kent).

In the Latin Rite he had two roles, like his predecessors. He was the expressive leader who protected its identity and its solidarity, and he was the party political leader who governed it.


            Changes in modern society have made it increasingly difficult to reconcile these two roles. Liberal democratic ideas dominate public life of Europe, North America and Australasia. These ideas are making rapid progress in Latin America, and are beginning to make an impact in Asia and Africa. And while this has been happening the speed of social change has been accelerating.

            The strain resulting from the possession of these two roles, for bishops – but above all for the Pope – was discussed in a Pastoral Research Centre paper published in 1970, The Future of the Episcopal and Papal Roles. Vatican II had made much clearer the distinction between the Church as the People of God and its institutions of governance. The consequences of this distinction were starkly revealed after the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.

            Since Vatican II ended in 1965 the Roman Curia, with clear direction from John Paul II and Benedict, has been pulling the Church back from Vatican II to Vatican I. This has greatly aggravated the role tension and strain experienced by the Pope. It is extremely stressful trying to reign over the Church, and sustain its identity and solidarity, while at the same time ruling the Church as the party-political leader of the Church’s government, with the objective of replacing the culture of Vatican II with that of Vatican I.

            This role strain is not unique to the Catholic Church. It is found in the Presidency of the USA, where the President is expected to be the focus of identity and unity of the nation, at the same time as leading an Executive that is bitterly opposed by the majority in the House of Representatives. Revered by half the electorate and reviled by the other half, he finds his expressive role constantly in conflict with his instrumental role.

            The solution that has been achieved in the unwritten British Constitution – and found in many other modern Western societies with written constitutions – is to give the expressive role to the Sovereign (or President) who reigns, and the instrumental role to a party-political leader, the Prime Minister who rules, along with the Cabinet.

            In the American system of governance the way out of the conflict between the two roles is an election. Eventually, either the electorate changes the President, or Congress, or both. There has been no such way out in the Catholic Church, because in the minds of most Catholics the two roles are inextricably linked in the one person. Benedict abdicated his expressive role, and resigned his instrumental role, as if that was the only way out of an intolerable situation. But he could have simply resigned his instrumental role, and kept his expressive role for the rest of his life, focussed on sustaining the identity and unity of the Church.

            This analysis leads to the question: what could the incoming Pope do to eliminate the strain that Benedict eventually found intolerable? First, he would summon a Synod and get it to elect a Secretary of State, charged with re-creating the Roman Curia as the effective central government of the Church. Second, the meetings of the Synod would be more frequent, and longer. Third, the Synod, would be empowered to dismiss the Secretary of State, and appoint his successor. Fourth, major documents (such as encyclicals) drafted by the dicasteri of the Roman Curia would be presented to the Synod for approval and amendment, and if finally approved presented to the Pope for ratification and promulgation.

            None of this requires the (very costly) summoning of a new Council. It requires only decisions by the incoming Pope to do it, and rescue the Catholic Church from the mess it is now in.


Anthony Spencer