In September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made an official state visit to the UK, touring the country and visiting leaders in a converted Mercedes colloquially referred to as the “Popemobile." The state visit lasted three days and cost the UK taxpayers £10 million (excluding policing costs), much to the ire of the majority of the (non-Catholic) British public. Organizers of the event defended the costs, saying that the Pope, as head of state of Vatican City, should be considered a diplomat on an official state visit. This controversy highlights an important issue in an era where religious faith is waning and the influence of the church is approaching a nadir in global politics: Do we need the Pope anymore?
Historically, yes, the pope was very relevant. All leaders in the Christian world held unswerving allegiance to the pope for over a millennium, and the actions carried out by those leaders at his behest had repercussions far outside of Christendom. It could be argued that he played a necessary role then; as the infallible representative of God on Earth, he was in a unique position to serve as power broker between feuding monarchs in an era otherwise marked by unfettered bloodshed, anarchy, and chaos.
The era of papal relevance is long past, though. Papal influence on macro-level politics began its decline when the first regents in medieval Europe stood in opposition to the will of the Holy See during the reformation, and continued its decline until the Papal States fell in 1870. While some leaders today still hold respect and swear fealty to the pope, even the most ardently Catholic politician in a democratic country would likely choose to follow the prescriptions of their electorate over those of the pope. Excommunication is no longer the ultimate punishment that a leader can face, and popes in the modern age issue “advice” and “guidance” to leaders, as opposed to the “edicts” and “commands” of old.
Even on a micro-level, the reformation had a strongly negative impact on papal authority. As viable alternatives to the Catholic Church became available, the pope’s political influence waned among the people. With the tide of scientific advance and the liberalization of information, the church has seen its role in the lives of its own adherents wither further. Sex abuse scandals and controversy over the church’s antiquated views on homosexuality, contraception, and the role of women (among others) have largely discredited the church and made ecumenical opinion less relevant in the minds of the average Catholic. The concepts of infallibility and divine authority are increasingly less accepted by a public that has been brought up with deeply ingrained ideas of democratic choice, rational examination, and human equality.
Both on a macro- and micro- political level, the pope is far less relevant today than he has historically been. Do we still need him? Well, if by “we," you mean the wider population of the world (non-Catholics included), I would say no. Not as a political figure, anyway. The pope is not democratically elected, not held to any standard of accountability by virtue of his "infallibility," and is irrelevant even in the minds of many of his own adherents. Where he is relevant, he is often malevolent. Take Uganda, a majority Catholic country that is currently debating whether homosexuality should be a capital offense; it decidedly doesn’t help that the pope has chosen to repeatedly come out strongly against homosexuality, calling it a “disorder” and a "threat to civilization," while remaining silent on supposedly Christian principles of mercy and forgiveness. Or we could speak about the most AIDS-ridden parts of Africa, where the pope has admonished the use of condoms to the point of warning that they increase the chance of AIDS, thus fanning the flames of an epidemic that is strangling the continent.
When governments pay official recognition to this antiquated despot, they only serve to buttress and legitimize the unfounded political influence he still does hold in places like sub-Saharan Africa. The era of papal political power has passed, so let the pope be revered now only by the faithful who choose to so revere him, not by democratically elected representatives of secular states.
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