POWER OF THE POPE
Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine
at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Until recently, she
was Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of
Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics
and Law at McGill University, Montreal. Her most recent book is
Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture
Wars. This article was first published in The Sydney
Papers of The Sydney Institute.
never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it
from religious conviction.
without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.
many divisions does the Pope have,
Stalin once sneered.
None, but immense soft power.
a text message: We’d like you to talk about God.”
There was no indication on the text who had sent it. My first
thought was “I’m no expert on God! I’m not even
a theologian or historian like Paul Collins.”
however, a bioethicist, a member of the relatively new profession
of applied or practical ethics, who are the latest group to be
accused of ‘playing God’ – they seem to have
taken over from doctors in doing that. (It brings to mind the
old joke that the new arrival in Heaven asked St Peter who the
man was rushing about in a white coat with a stethoscope around
his neck and St Peter replied, “Oh, that’s God playing
doctors.” Perhaps these days he’s playing bioethicists).
are also sometimes described, often with some hostility, as the
‘moral police.’ That characterization tells us that
ethicists exercise power and authority and, like the Pope’s
power, this is ‘soft power’ that is power exercised
through persuasion and influence in contrast to ‘hard power,’
that exercised through coercion, such as military force or economic
sanctions. A difference between soft and hard power might be that
soft power is given by the people over whom it is exercised, they
choose to be influenced, whereas hard power is taken by those
exercising it in forcing the people over whom it is exercised
to comply or conform.
that Francis has described this difference is as between helping
people to ‘fall in love’ with the Church’s moral
teachings as compared with convincing them to ‘fall in line’
with those teachings. But, whether soft or hard, power and authority
must be exercised ethically, which raises the issue of what that
requires. Interestingly, there is almost no research or literature
specifically on the ethics of ethicists.
Collins gives us some insights into the ethics – or otherwise
-- of Popes. So might one way to view the Pope’s soft power
be that he is seen as the Chief Ethicist in the Catholic Church
and his power comes from being respected as such, including by
many people who are not Roman Catholic or even religious. As an
aside, it’s notable how many younger Catholic bishops and
priests have academic qualifications in theoretical and applied
ethics, whether in moral theology or moral philosophy, including
Francis focuses on areas such as social justice, poverty, homelessness,
the plight of refugees, those harmed by war and violence especially
children, and protection of the environment, where we are likely
to find agreement on right and wrong, ethical and unethical, that
is, we can find some shared ethics. This is important as it allows
us to participate in an experience of belonging to the same moral
community. It also allows us to start from where we can agree
on our values and what ethics requires, rather than focussing
just on our disagreements, as is so often the case.
from where we agree to where we disagree alters the tone of the
discussion that surrounds our disagreements. That discussion is
less hostile and more respectful.
also gives strong emphasis to the role of individual conscience,
which helps people to see those with whom they disagree, not as
the enemy or evil, but as sincere people with different values.
Graham Greene explains such an altered perception as arising from
the pity or compassion we can’t help feeling when we see
another as a person, because we can’t hate those for whom
we feel pity or compassion. This means that hate for our opponents
results from a failure of our imagination to see those who disagree
with us as a person. (The Power and the Glory, Penguin
we often depersonalize and dis-identify from those whom we treat
in a way that we would not want to be treated ourselves in order
to treat them in that way. Torture is a paramount example of this
soft power have limited hard power or even, in some cases, displaced
and defanged the latter? Communications technologies, the instruments
of soft power, operate on a global scale, with almost instantaneous
connection and involve huge numbers of people.
just Catholics, Francis has over one billion followers around
the world. Unlike hard power, soft power tends to be non-hierarchical,
although despite that it too can be used tyrannically –
through naming and shaming, attributing guilt by assertion and
not proof, emotional tyranny, and so on. Soft power also crosses
boundaries that are impermeable to hard power. And young people,
in particular, are forming online groups to exercise soft power
– whether to save the honey bees from neonicotinoid insecticides
or expose slave labour situations in the cheap clothing industry.
they feel a compatibility with Francis and even see him as a leader.
The Pope is primarily a religious figure and post-modern Western
democracies are often described as secular societies, so is there
a paradox in the Pope being such a powerful, influential figure?
That depends on what the term secular societies means, which raises
a wider issue, namely, what is the proper role, if any, of religion
in the public square, in particular, in informing public and social
policy, in such societies?
societies, most people support every person’s right to freedom
of religion – the right to choose one’s religion and
not to have a religion imposed on one by the state or to have
a state religion. They also support freedom for religion –
the state must allow the practice of religion within the law and
not interfere in purely religious matters.
last twenty or so years, however, there have been strong claims
by secularists that there is a right to freedom from religion,
that is, that religion has no valid voice in the public square
and the views and values of religious people, whether lay or clergy,
should be excluded.
in this argument is that everyone, including secularists who argue
for the exclusion of religious voices, has a belief system –
a world view, indeed, secularism is a secular religion –
and in a democratic society every voice has a right to be heard
in the public square. It is as wrong to exclude religious voices,
as it would be to exclude secular voices.
strategy used to dismiss the arguments of people with conservative
or traditional values is to label the person and their values
as religious and propose that, therefore, they should be excluded
from public or social policy decision making. The corollary strategy
is not employed. That would be to dismiss the arguments of people
with so-called progressive values by labelling them and their
arguments as atheist and, propose that, therefore, they should
be excluded from public or social policy decision making.
values divide in our Western societies, at present, is between
those with conservative or traditional values and those with progressive
values. My most recent book, Bird
on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars
(Montreal: MQUP, 2015) examines various examples of that
values divide. As I explain in the book, there are major differences
between the two sides – although there are in fact multiple
camps, not just two sides.
tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual person and
take into account only what will be the impact of their values
decisions in the present – an approach I call ‘presentism.’
In contrast, while conservatives also take into account impacts
on individuals and in the present, they look, as well, at what
history, ‘collective human Memory,’ can teach us and
what warnings our ‘collective human imagination’ can
provide with regard to future consequences of the values we adopt
and the laws we pass or actions we engage in, especially in relation
to ensuring protection or otherwise of the common good and of
a strong believer that First Nations people, who, for us in Australia
are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, have much wisdom
to give us in these respects. For instance, they regard their
values as present through time – past, present and future.
suggest that the Papacy, which is currently personified in Francis,
also represents this “wisdom travelling through time”
approach and is one basis for the power of the Papacy –
Popes are seen as the leaders of a community of faith travelling
through time right back to the Hebrew story. It’s a recognition
that the past is not just about the past, but it’s also
about the future and, consequently, that it is a serious mistake
on the part of progressive values advocates to dismiss the past
as having any relevance in the present.
factor contributing to the Pope’s soft power is that people
are longing for an experience of transcendence – the feeling
of belonging to something larger than themselves and that what
they do matters to more people than just themselves. Most people
used to find this experience in religion, today many look elsewhere.
We need to bond with others to have this experience – religion
comes from re ligare, to bind together. Francis’s
pronouncements have made many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic,
who otherwise felt excluded, feel that this bonding is possible
is this more manifest than in the huge crowds that attend Francis’s
weekly public audiences in St Peter’s Square.
also suggest that Francis’s power comes from his being perceived
as a person of integrity and not tainted by corruption, as, sadly,
many leading world figures are. He is seen as humble, kind and
genuinely humane and empathetic. Francis is not working for his
own aggrandizement or to attain selfish goals, but for the welfare
and wellbeing of others especially the weakest, most in need,
most vulnerable of our fellow humans.
walking down an aerobridge to board a plane recently and there
was a poster, if I remember correctly, advertising the HSBC Bank.
The poster had a message promoting respect for animals and a quote
from Francis: “They are God’s creatures too.”
It brought to mind what an extraordinary reality and gift all
life is and a theme I’ve been working on that science and
religion are not in opposition, but complementary. I suggest that
Francis helps many people to see that, in part because he is joyful
view the knowledge that science opens up with amazement, wonder
and awe, and we avoid cynicism, we can experience hope and act
ethically. I call it the ‘wonder equation:’ AWA –
C = H + E. We need to keep in mind Socrates advice that “Wonder
is the beginning of wisdom,”
that so many people respond to Francis because he makes hope and
ethics seem attainable. If you were a Catholic you would see this
as the working out of the Holy Spirit’s master plan.
hope that I’ve persuaded you that the first quote from the
philosopher Blaise Pascal at the beginning of this short article,
that men of religious conviction do evil, does not apply to Francis,
and that you feel confident that the second quote does apply to
Francis by his using the power that Paul Collins has told us he
has to promote justice.