Pope Francis arrives for a prayer service in an empty St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 27, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Governments around the world are comparing the fight against the pandemic to war, and whether or not you agree with the metaphor, Pope Francis and the Vatican do face a “warlike” situation. Italy is in lockdown, the rites of Holy Week and the Easter liturgy will be celebrated without people present, and a papal trip to Malta planned for May has been postponed indefinitely. Indeed, for the first time since 1979, there may be no papal trips for an entire year. Francis himself now even uses the word “caged” to describe the effect of the limitations imposed on him. And yet, over the last two centuries, several of Francis’s predecessors have faced similar conditions.

During the pontificate of Pius IX (1846–1878), for example, the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a short-lived republican government in Rome, following the flight of the pope to the southern city of Gaeta, in the territory of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1848 to 1850. This coincided with the end of the short liberal phase of the then-new pope, who in a reactionary turn adopted anti-modern social and political teachings. It arguably led, at least indirectly, to the formation of modern Italy and, as one of the unintended consequences of the Vatican Council of 1869–1870, to an ideologically anti-modern but bureaucratically modernized papacy. The council was interrupted by the invasion of Rome by the Italian army and the collapse of the Papal States in September 1870, and that was the beginning of a long reclusion of the pope, who now saw himself as a “prisoner in the Vatican.”

The pontificate of Benedict XV (1914–1922) was tested by World War I, which began right before his election in September 1914. His interpretation of the role of the papacy and of the Holy See in that unprecedented conflict served as the origin of the modern teaching of the church as engaged in working for peace, as well as on the neutrality and diplomacy of the Holy See, and on multilateralism, international institutions, and nationalism. The collapse of the empires following the end of the war led to a rethinking of the relationship between colonialism and the missionary activity of the church (in the encyclical Maximum illud of 1919). 

The pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958), of course, is still largely to be explored by historians (his archives, opened on March 2, are now closed again because of the pandemic). But it’s well known that World War II threatened the papacy and the Vatican in a very particular way. Mussolini, who received the political backing of the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church during his rise to power in the 1920s, incurred the wrath of the ecclesial establishment after allying with Hitler, which put the pope in danger. The war and the Holocaust tested Pius XII as a diplomat and as a pastor, but also as a theologian. His silence on the Holocaust, both during and after the war, of course remains the most politically and theologically controversial aspect of his papacy.

War also shaped the pontificate of John XXIII (1958–1963). In serving as a military chaplain during World War I, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was able to encounter people of other faiths—non-Catholic Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He wasn’t a pacifist, but he clearly rejected the rhetoric of war and did not (as other priests did) become absorbed by nationalist-religious propaganda. Then, as a papal diplomat in Turkey during World War II, he was instrumental in aiding the flight of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe toward the future state of Israel. He became pope at the height of the Cold War, and in its most dangerous moment—the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962—he intervened directly with both President John F. Kennedy and Secretary General Nikita Khrushchev. Months later, in April 1963, he published his last encyclical on peace and human rights, Pacem in terris, one of the most consequential papal teachings ever.

The papacy, institutionally situated within the headquarters of the Vatican, is afforded a kind of physical immunity from what happens beyond its walls. Yet sovereignty isn’t a shield against pandemic. Crises like these tend to have an effect on popes as human beings, and on the papacy as institution. We can already see it beginning to happen. 

Like a war, the pandemic is limiting the ability of the church to function normally, liturgically and institutionally.

In terms of the effects of the pandemic on Francis’s papacy, there are three aspects worth considering. The first is how his handling of the pandemic affects the mystique of the papacy. The Catholic Church, as it developed historically, cannot do without the people, and it cannot do without the pope. There is a tradition of the pope as defender of the church, of Rome, and of civilization, going back to Pope Gregory I “the Great” (590–604), often considered the first medieval pope. This came to mind while watching Francis walk the Via del Corso in a totally deserted Rome on his pilgrimage to two churches on the afternoon of Sunday, March 15, and his extraordinary Urbi et orbi blessing against the pandemic, lonely in an empty St. Peter’s Square, on March 27. If there is a canonization process for Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the future, these two moments could be an important part of the dossier—a pair of iconic images from his pontificate.

The second aspect concerns magisterial teaching. This global-health emergency is yet another instance of the crisis of globalization, and it confirms the prophetic insights of certain key tenets of Catholic social doctrine, including universal access to health care, international cooperation and solidarity, the role of states and governments in the protection of the common good, and the cooperation between church and secular authorities for the common good. But we are also seeing a rebalancing of power in favor of national governments. For the second time in his life (the first being the dictatorship and dirty war in Argentina), Francis finds himself in a situation where the church has to walk on a very fine line between fundamental freedoms (including religious freedom) and the limits imposed by national governments. For some Catholic leaders (clergy and lay), whatever a state or government does is necessarily hostile to the faith; they fail to see, or choose not to see, that what government does can be essential for the common good.

This brings us to the third aspect, the impact on the institutional system of the Catholic Church. Diaries and testimonies left by influential church leaders in times of crisis reveal the understanding they had of how crises can impact the intricate operations of the papacy and the Vatican: from relations with the state and with local churches, to the management of Vatican finances, to the diplomatic activity of the Holy See, and more. One could only imagine, for example, what it would mean if a conclave had to be called in this situation. But there is also the ongoing project of the reform of the Roman Curia, on which the council of cardinals has been working since at least 2014. It would be naïve to think that this pandemic will not have an effect on it—not least because of the impact on the finances of the Catholic Church both locally and in the Vatican. More generally, international crises as momentous as this tend to expose the weaknesses of the ecclesiastical status quo. For example, in an important memo drafted in the summer of 1945, Jacques Maritain (then French ambassador to the Holy See) endorsed the widely circulating idea of a de-Italianization of the Roman Curia together with a new system of international protection for the Holy See bypassing the Lateran Treaties of 1929. That was perceived as a threat by an Italian-dominated Curia. What followed in Pius XII’s pontificate was the maximization of authoritarianism and verticalism, with the pope micromanaging the work of the Vatican dicasteries, and a more prominent role for the Secretariat of State, which was under the direct control of the pope himself. The Holy Office started to play the role of a super-dicastery. French Dominican Yves Congar, under investigation by the Holy Office, in his December 6, 1954 diary entry, defined the Supreme Congregation in these terms: “The Holy Office is the crux of everything, the unnamed mover, the absolute to which everything is referred and before which everything must bow down. Nothing else exists.” 

This is not a war. But like a war, the pandemic is limiting the ability of the church to function normally, liturgically and institutionally, around the world; that includes the Vatican. The sovereignty of Vatican City does not confer immunity against the invisible threat of the virus. People inside the Vatican residence have tested positive for COVID-19, and though Francis has tested negative he continues to hold audiences and is visibly more at risk than most of us in lockdown. The modern papacy requires visibility and it is therefore essentially incompatible with a rigorous regime of self-isolation. Social distancing means that the institutional church is visible only through the media. This state of liturgical and institutional suspension, especially during Lent and Easter, is recentering media attention on Rome and on the pope. Francis has emphasized the need to decentralize the church, and the lockdown comes at a very delicate moment in the pontificate. This is the kind of emergency that in the last two centuries has amplified the advantage the institutional papacy has over local churches. We don’t know if that will be the case this time. Nor do we know how it will affect the ever-delicate ecosystem consisting of Rome, the Vatican, and the papacy.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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