Joseph Stalin is famously said to have asked an adviser, dismissively, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Had the adviser possessed greater courage, he might have replied: “How many does he need?”
Observing the many government leaders gathered at the Vatican for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, we might well have suspected that the world’s politico-military chieftains need what the Pope has more than the Pope needs what they have.
Governments have physical force — control over a society’s most decisive means of dispensing violence. They may try to disguise this essential attribute by cloaking it in measures ostensibly for the enhancement of the people’s “welfare” and “security”; they may paint its hardened, harlot face with cheery “democratic” cosmetics; but when push comes to shove, all governments fall back on their superior ability to beat, shackle, imprison, and kill those who challenge the exercise of their power.
They prefer, however, to avoid such resort to violence, because it is too obvious, too difficult to misrepresent, despite their adamant claim that war is peace when they do lash out. If they routinely smash dissidents and opponents with violence, they will be seen clearly for what they are: killers in crowns, mobsters in dark suits, white shirts, and red neckties. They would rather present themselves in a different guise — a kindlier, gentler semblance that not only proclaims their noble intentions but mollifies many of their subjects who might otherwise grow restive or even revolutionary. The rulers don’t want to seem to be just the most powerful thugs in the neighborhood.
They crave legitimacy because, apart from its intrinsically gratifying character, a thief and a murderer can go farther with legitimacy than he can go without it. But how are such reprehensible human beings to acquire what, in the nature of things, they manifestly do not possess? Well, if there is guilt by association, might there also be virtue by association? The rulers think so.
Hence their appearance at John Paul’s funeral. Clearly religion did not bring them: few of them even claim to be Catholic, and many belong to groups that have been at war with the Catholic Church for centuries. No, these rulers came in order to be seen in the presence of something not one of them will ever possess: genuine moral authority. They hope that by sitting beside the dead Pope’s casket, some of his towering moral stature will seep onto them and make them appear to stand a little taller in the eyes of those over whom they rule and upon whom they prey.
I doubt that their ploy will succeed. The contrast between those filthy political reptiles and the beloved Pope could scarcely be more striking. On the one hand, we see a man who placed his faith not in bullets and bombs but in the everlasting love of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. On the other hand, we see a pack of political schemers, thieves, and murderers. Christian charity stood out in bold relief when the Church permitted Tony Blair and George W. Bush to come onto the Vatican’s premises. The departed Pope had more moral authority in one of his eyelashes than Blair has in his entire body, and Bush is not morally qualified to inhabit the same planet as John Paul II.
Still these vile politicians and all the others came to Rome; and, most important, they were seen to have come. Appearances count for something in political life — that’s why so much official effort goes into creating and manipulating them. Now that the U.S. government has created a Department of Homeland Security, perhaps the next big bureaucracy will be a Department of Pretense (DOP, pronounced “dope”), to centralize all the efforts along these lines now taking place in each of the existing federal departments. One of the administration’s resident spinmeisters can then be elevated to the new cabinet position, and federal grants can flow copiously to a battalion of politically well-connected contractors in the public-relations industry.
For the time being, however, we may expect the U.S. government to continue its heavy reliance on raw force in those precincts, such as Iraq, where sheer bamboozlement yields little if any payoff, notwithstanding all the hoopla surrounding the recent phony-baloney elections. Hence, the old question arises in a new form: How many divisions does Bush have? Well, evidently not enough, judging by the inability of his forces to pacify even the city of Baghdad, much less the shattered little country of Iraq. Perhaps it’s time to send in the Pope.