THE CONCLAVE which elected Pope Leo XIII in 1878 was very different from almost every conclave that has preceded it for several centuries. For the Papacy had recently lost all vestiges of temporal power and the heavily political element that has been present at most previous conclaves was now absent.
Since the time of the Emperor Charles V, however, the Catholic powers of Europe had had, until then, considerable influence as to who was elected pope, with Spain, Austria and France being entitled to veto any candidates they did not favour, This veto was abolished by Pius X in 1904.
To this day, however, the Papacy has not been able to rid itself of many quasi-political burdens. The reason for this is that the Holy See, though primarily a spiritual force, attempts to exercise its influence by diplomatic means. The Pope is even bound, it seems, by the invidious precedent which obliges him to receive in audience any recognised world statesman who is visiting Rome and requests a Papal audience.
This inevitably causes great embarrassment when men like Yassar Arafat and, more recently, Prime Minister Botha of South Africa, request and are granted audiences. And now it is rumoured that General Gaddaffi hopes to visit Rome. If he requests a Papal audience, will his request be granted? What would happen, moreover, should the head of Provisional Sinn Fein (an elected Westminster MP) request an audience? Where, in other words, must force majeur be invoked to override what has surely become an ambivulent and potentially dangerous precedent?
As we were reminded on the eve of Mr Botha's visit to Britain by our own Bishops' international affairs department, the South African Hierarchy has, over many years, "called attention to the intrinsic evil of discrimination based on race and colour, and to the flagrant injustices consequent on apartheid."
Such South African bishops have thus been made to look foolish when the Pope, for whatever reason, officially receives the principal agent of practice considered to be "intrinsically evil." For that expression, in the language of moral theology, is just about the strongest that can be uttered. If, hypothetically, a world statesmen notorious for having initiated an intensive programme of artificial contraception to ease his country's problems, requested a Papal audience would the Pope be bound to receive him officially?
In the case of the Botha audience, the Vatican authorities took the unusual step of issuing an immediate press release stating that the occasion was not to be seen as any kind of endorsement by the Pope of the principal of apartheid. Rather, as it is always explained,.does the Holy Father take such opportunities . to put over the corrective Christian point of view to the '1i:tithing politician on these occasions.
Some indeed feel that it is better for the Pope, with his charisma and authority, to receive allcomers in order to exhort them to alter such policies as are thought to be evil. Others hold that "to shake hands with the devil", however lofty the motive, can never be right.
Certainly it is true that if the Pope had refused to receive Mr Botha, his action would have made sensational headlines the world over. No more eloquent condemnation of what had already been condemned at source as "intrinsically evil" is imaginable. But the Pope, it appears, is debarred by diplomatic niceties, from making any such world-shattering gesture.
He is reduced to arguing the Christian case with his visitor, perhaps following his audience with a general reference to the subject in a subsequent statement. Pope Pius XII, surrounded almost on all sides by evil, similarly felt bound to confine himself to general statements of right and wrong, while deeming it necessary to maintain the strict neutrality of the Holy See. But such "neutrality" is , surely, a diplomatic convention only. Must it be for ever be carried by the Pope in the form of a burden which, in practice, appears to make him "neutral" when some grave moral question effectively comes before him but on which he has a probably unrepeatable opportunity to make a resounding judgement—by actions rather than words?
Leo XIII made courageous use of the Holy See's new found freedom from political alignments. Has the time come for another bold move forward?