Pope in Ireland: faithful must put faith in god not the church

Out on his own: Pope Francis is too far into papacy to deliver the reform the Catholic Church needs

Even if we don’t know who said it, we all know the quote: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The words belong to the Victorian historian Lord Acton who went on to say: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

And there is evidence enough to support his generalisation – and it is a generalisation. History is full of despots who have abused their power for personal gain regardless of the human cost.

What has been lost to us is the context of Acton’s remarks.

Acton, who was refused entry to Cambridge because he was a Catholic, was a leading Liberal, for a time the Member of Parliament for Carlow, and a close friend of Gladstone who secured his elevation to the peerage.

Acton succeeded John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, as editor of the Catholic monthly The Rambler in 1859. It later became The Home and Foreign Review and was critical of the Church, but it folded after the pope issued an edict saying Catholic writers were subject to the authority of Rome.

This was a period when the papacy was flexing its muscles. Acton travelled to Rome to campaign unsuccessfully against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility which was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

And this pernicious act of papal aggrandizement was the prompt for Acton’s most famous statement, made in a letter to an Anglican bishop and intellectual.

He wrote: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

It is worth reflecting on those words as the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland enters its afterlife, and the memories fade into history.

From what I can see, Francis is an honourable man and a man of deep humanity.

But he is also the holder of an office which transcends him, an office that bases its authority on divine right, but an office that has been debased by many of those who have held it.

The Church Francis leads has failed its people on so many fronts. In the pursuit of power it has lost its moral authority, and it has negated the very real and transformative work of many individual priests, religious and members of the laity.

Bishops, cardinals and popes have confused their own self-interest with the interest of the Church. And they have shown themselves ill-equipped for the job at hand.

One of the things said to be attractive about Catholicism is the way it has held the line about moral truths in the face of contemporary decadence, but many of these so-called truths are man-made not God given. They are declarations designed to exercise command and control. Acton saw that all too clearly almost 150 years ago.

These edicts have resulted in the suppression of women, the oppression of people who love members of their own sex, the abuse of children and exploitation of adults.

When Luther ushered in the Reformation he had right on his side. Francis had the opportunity to usher in another Reformation, but he is too far into his papacy now I fear to deliver.

He is a prisoner of his own upbringing and conditioning, and that affects his room for manoeuvre. But worse he is a prisoner of the curia. The Vatican bureaucracy has got him where it wants him.

That he lives in comparative humility in a hostel rather than a palace, and drives round in a Skoda, may be refreshing. But it is not enough. The men (dispiritingly they are all men) in a position to effect change are the ones responsible for the current crisis. They are hunkered down and hoping the storm will pass.

Francis’s visit to Ireland might prove a turning point. He got some things right, including his meeting with those let down brutally by their church. But if the past is any predictor of the future, the Church will continue to fail, and – more than ever –  the faithful will need to put their faith in god rather than prelates.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 29 2018


Francis: the loneliest leader in Christendom


Pope Francis: praying for the spirit of change

Imagine the problem. You are the recently appointed charismatic executive chairman of a global organisation. It is creaking at the seams, and you have been brought in to sort it out.

The corporation has been humiliated by a series of scandals that have undermined its core values; its leaders are at war with one another over future strategy; it is out of touch with its customers – and they number in millions worldwide. Some have turned to other brands, but the bulk of them have stopped consuming your product.

This is the challenge facing Jorge Mario Bergoglio – head of one of the biggest corporations on the planet: the Roman Catholic Church. He is putting a brave face on his problems.

Better known now as Pope Francis, Bergoglio has been trying to effect change since his election in March 2013. Unfortunately for him, his management team is packed with appointments from the previous regime. They are mostly deeply conservative and were handpicked for their commitment to the status quo. Many regard Francis as a dangerous radical.

They have done all they can to block his path.

Last December he took the unprecedented step of publicly admonishing his senior management team. He told the College of Cardinals they had ‘hearts of stone’, were obsessed with personal power and prestige, and took too much pleasure in the failure of others. He has continued to criticise them in public and in private.

In many businesses, life gets cushier the closer you get to the top. But this pope wants a church that is more in tune with its followers – many of whom live in poverty. He has rejected many of the trappings of office, and expects his senior managers to do so too.

There’s nothing poor managers loathe more than a new boss who expects them to lead by example; and it’s a bit embarrassing if you are seen driving round in a Lexus while the boss turns up in a Fiat 500.

It doesn’t help that Francis’s immediate predecessor Benedict XVI – who took early retirement – is living in a company apartment in the monarchical style to which he had become accustomed.

In addition to refuseniks from the pontificates of Benedict and John Paul II, Francis has another difficult division to deal with. How do you sustain a common brand across international boundaries?

Many multinationals face similar problems. In the case of the Catholic Church there is growing tension between the ‘liberal’ west and the Church in Africa – one a mature and the other a growing market. The African church is completely out of sympathy with Francis’s apparent willingness to take a more sympathetic approach to people who are homosexual.

Now approaching 80, Francis knows he does not have time on his side. His critics know that too.

He has few tools at his disposal. He may be the head of state of the world’s smallest absolute monarchy, but the power he wields is to some degree illusory. “The pope! How many divisions does he have?” asked Josef Stalin. How many indeed?

Moral authority is the only real weapon he has and, as the untidy conclusion of the recent Synod on the Family revealed, opponents of change within the church are not afraid to stand up to him.

One of the attractions of the Catholic Church’s brand has been its apparent unwillingness to change for the sake of it. But a longer view suggests flexibility is one of the ways it has survived (this is a common trait of many successful corporations). But it is a flexibility that, in the past, has been exercised slowly and deliberately.

Francis knows we now live in a more complex world, and one that is changing rapidly. Scientific advance is deepening our understanding of the world around us; mass communication is opening new sources of information and provoking debate; and technology has transformed the way we receive information and assimilate it.

As change becomes more rapid, the response needs to be timely too. The Church needs to speed up.

Business knows that survival often necessitates senior managers rethinking their strategy and their tactics. Fortune favours the brave, and leaders with vision can transform organisations.

But they need their senior managers, middle managers and the workforce to be united in a common cause. Non-believers need to be weeded out. Francis is more in tune with those on the shop floor than many leaders, and that is a strength. He also has some good managers, but he does not have strength there in breadth and depth.

He is in loneliest place of all. He is a leader who knows his organisation is failing, who has a vision for its future, but who does not have the capacity to make the changes needed. His frustration is showing.

In the past the Church has relied on the guiding hand of the ‘Holy Spirit’. As it faces an uncertain future, it had better hope the Holy Spirit has spent some time at the Harvard Business School.


Pope Francis opens fire on ‘the enemy within’



Pope Francis takes on the might of the curia


He makes an unlikely superhero. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, like a septuagenarian Clark Kent, but when he puts on his white cape he is fearless. Not yet two years into his term (reign seems an inappropriate word) Jorge Mario Bergoglio has confronted the rich and powerful.

He has taken on the Mafia, governments and dictators, condemning their excesses in no uncertain terms, and denouncing their indifference to the poor, the weak and the hungry.

But now he has taken on his most fearsome enemy yet – and the confrontation will shape the future of his papacy, and the Catholic Church.

This pope nailed his colours to the mast when he chose Francis as his papal name. It was a declaration of intent.

The rule of St Francis is simple: “To follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.” It was radical in the 13th century. It is a revolutionary idea today, particularly for a Church that has lost touch with its purpose and its people.

The pope has used Francis’s rule as the standard by which he measures people, leaders, institutions – and the decisions they make. Many have been found wanting – some shockingly close to the See of Peter.

Last week he turned the spotlight on one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandising and self-absorbed power blocks in the world today. And he did not miss and hit the Sistine Chapel wall.

The curia is the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Soviet Politburo or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It shares with them the distinction of being dominated by conservative old men who quash non-conformity and embrace change with reluctance. Some, no doubt, still believe the Church was hasty apologising to Galileo in 1992 for insisting the earth revolved around the sun.

Since his election, the curia has been blocking the pope’s change agenda. Every time he opens a window, a cardinal jumps up to shut it again. If there are feet to be dragged, the curia will drag them.

Its most brazen move was thwarting reform at the Bishops’ Synod on the Family. Other popes might have played for time, manoeuvred behind the scenes, and tried another tack. But this pope – 78 years old – does not have time on his side, and he knows it.

Deciding attack is the best form of defence, he has laid into the curia and its wicked ways, in a speech both shocking and audacious.

The Church has not been short of critics, and it has denounced them. But when the pope joins the critics, you know something is seriously wrong.

His words were somewhat overshadowed by the shopping, partying and unbridled hedonism that marked last week’s festival of Saturnalia (the revival of an ancient Roman feast that now replaces Christmas).

It’s worth revisiting what he said.

The pope listed 15 “ailments” – enough to suggest the curia should be on life support. Perhaps the most devastating was that it was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

He said: “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias; in those who build walls around themselves, and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

“Spiritually and mentally hardened,” he accused the curia of lacking coordination and trying to thwart “the freedom of the Holy Spirit”.

The pope sees clerics who are boastful and jockeying for position: men (yes they are all men) worrying over their appearance, the colour of their vestments and their titles.

He attacks the sickness of “those who live a double life… losing contact with reality.” And he condemns the “terrorism of gossip”, and the sickness of sycophancy. Hoping for advancement, clerics “honour people who are not God”. And he talks of a Church whose leaders are indifferent to others, and who take “joy in seeing another fall”.

The curia promotes a Church of “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism”, forming a closed circle that seeks to be stronger than the Church itself, men who “insatiably try to multiply their powers”. This the pope described as “a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”.

It had to be said: tough love and all that.

The risk for Pope Francis is that the old guard – the enemy within – will bide their time and wait for regime change. The danger for the Church is that they will succeed.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on December 30 2014