Last weekend, my partner and I went to see a production of Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession,” a play that recounts the events surrounding the death in 1978 of Pope Paul VI, the election of his successor, John Paul I, and then the subsequent death of the latter only 33 days after his election. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or who is otherwise unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summary.
Paul VI’s 15 year reign largely undid many of the liberal gains made by Vatican II, the General Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965) that had been called by Pope John XXIII. The election of the liberal-minded John Paul I in 1978 to succeed Paul VI held out the promise that many of these liberal reforms, scuttled by his predecessor, might be reinstated. It also became clear at the same time that the new pope might deal with some of the many scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, which had been accused of money laundering and other financial dirty dealing, as well as possible Mafia connections. John Paul I had, in fact, intended to make a number of shocking changes in regard to the Curia, the archconservative administrative arm of the Vatican, including who headed the Vatican Bank. However, the night before he was to make these changes public, he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had never complained of prior heart problems, nor did he have any medical history of heart disease. In fact, it appeared that he had been in excellent health. Additionally, there were questions as to who found the dead pope, exactly when that was, and what he had been reading at the time of his death, that is, whether it was reports on these Church problems he had been wrestling with, as the moderates believed, or the Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional book, as the conservatives maintained. Some of the more moderate cardinals, headed by Giovanni Benelli, Cardinal Archbishop of Florence (portrayed in the play by David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame) called for an investigation. But powerful members of the Roman Curia put an early stop to this, and eventually Benelli himself, and his moderate supporters, agreed that it would be better “for the good of the Church” not to insist on an autopsy, in spite of persistent rumors of poisoning that circulated in the aftermath of John Paul ’s death. As a result, John Paul I was quickly buried and no investigation was ever undertaken. Many years later, just before Cardinal Benelli, himself, died of a heart attack, he destroyed all of his notes (his “Last Confession”) on the events leading up to John Paul I’s death.
These are the barebones of the story. Theatrically, there is a lot more to tell, including the complicated role played by Cardinal Benelli, who had in effect been king-maker (i.e., pope-maker) in both papal conclaves, the one leading up to the election of John Paul I, and later to that of his successor, John Paul II. In fact, Benelli came within just a few votes of becoming pope himself. But what may be of greater interest here is to examine the general themes of the play, rather than delving into the convoluted political ins and outs of the Vatican, as played out between conservative and moderate cardinals. And what more obvious theme can we point to than that of a naked grab for power, on the one hand, and the difficulty in defining the intersection between power and religion – to say nothing of spirituality – that is perhaps the hallmark par excellence of politics in the Vatican?
The desire for power is hardly a new theme, either in the theater or in life, itself. And as one character says to Cardinal Benelli early on in the play, “Be careful of power. Your punishment may be finding it!” There is probably many a politician, looking back on a long career wielding power and being affected for good and for ill by it, who may understand this admonition only too well. Such a person would likely understand not just the admonition, but the limitations of power. No doubt, presidents often go into the White House at the beginning of their term, eager to make a difference and chafing at the bit to make use of the awesome power of the office, only to realize soon enough just how restricted that power ultimately is. Popes, too, find themselves faced with a similar conundrum. In this sense, the Holy Father is as strong, or as limited, as his Curia allows him to be. Even popes have to work with their collaborators, whether they be friendly or unfriendly, or whether he agrees with them or not, or they with him.
In his famous 1919 modernist poem, “The Second Coming,” the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats examines these notions of power. As he says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The ceremony of innocence is drowned…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not something we see over and over again related to the acquisition of power, that those least prepared for it, those most prone to its excesses, are the ones who often seek to achieve it?
Yeats was probably talking most directly about the horrors of the First World War, or perhaps even more directly still about recent unsuccessful attempts in Ireland to throw off the colonial grip that Great Britain had had on it for centuries. But, as with all great poems, his Second Coming also speaks to the millennium.
Which leads us back to the notion of the intersection between power and religion. It has always seemed to me that the two go together hand in glove. What, for example, was Jean Paul I trying to change, or to restore? For one thing, it’s clear that he was attempting to reinvigorate the debate within the Church on birth control within marriage, which many bishops and theologians attending Vatican II wished to discuss during the Council (remember that “the pill” had just come into popular use in the early 1960’s). As such, John XXIII had established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, which was to report to the Council. No one knows how John XXIII would have come down on this important issue, since he died before either the commission or the Vatican Council could complete its work. However, to be sure, Paul VI soon quashed all descent, and in 1968 issued one of the most famous and far-reaching of 20th century encyclicals, entitled “Humanae Vitae” (Latin for “Of Human Life”), which fully reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching related to sex in marriage, and roundly condemned all forms of artificial birth control. This remains orthodox Catholic teaching up to this very day, even though a recent Gallop poll affirms that some 78% of US Catholics (more in Europe) support the use of modern birth control.
Perhaps not much has changed between Jean Paul I’s uninvestigated and even questionable death and the present day when, in spite of the kinder and gentler exterior exhibited by Pope Francis, Church dogma and teaching remain the same. Which might make us question the reality of the new pope’s supposed liberal intentions. He has, after all, declared himself to be “a true son of the Church,” and who knows if he will ever address some of the sweeping changes that Jean Paul I spoke of before his untimely death?
Yeats says, “The darkness drops again,” and at the end of his poem he asks “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Bethlehem was the place of Christ’s birth, but the poet speaks here instead of some rough beast. Could this be a reference to the lower parts of ourselves, filled with desire and fear, eager to control others and the world around us? Is this, once again, the intersection of power and religion that has plagued us from the beginning? Or, instead, might a visionary poet not equally be speaking of a rebirth, a Second Coming, admonishing each of us, churchmen and laity alike, to rise above our humble beginnings, our primitive urges, and to live a life beyond that all too human need for power, or even perhaps for religion itself?