“Power” as “Service” Print
By Flavio Felice and Maurizio Serio   
Tuesday, 16 April 2013

It’s only a little over a month since the pontificate of Pope Francis began. But we already find ourselves facing some important indications of his teaching, which demonstrate that we are living in many respects through an extraordinary period.

We refer especially to his interpretation of power as a kind of “ministry,” as “service” – even though the seeds of such a view had already appeared in the teaching of Paul VI. And it also appears in the Augustinian framework of Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not new to such reflections either.

On August 7, 2005, he went deeply into this theme in a homily that he gave on the Feast of St. Gaetano, patron of the work of the Argentine Church. The then cardinal of Buenos Aires read the Christian conception of power as a fundamental element in a spirituality of the Cross and in a theology of the Incarnation that reveal to us the authentic meaning of the mission of Christ and of His Church in coming ages.

The fearsome love of God towards men becomes clear in a gesture that astonished even the Apostles themselves in its radicality (and simplicity): the washing of the feet. How can it be, as Peter asked himself, that the King of the Universe made Himself the servant of His own servants? What is this unheard of force that turns upside down our usual thinking and scandalizes our limited rationality – which, when it comes to power,  most often seems to conceive of things solely as a matter of command and obedience?

The paradox of liberty and of authentic Christian liberation lies wholly in this gesture. How far all this is from our commonly accepted notions of power! Further, this rejection of the usual stance, Bergoglio continued, is evident in the parallel gesture to the washing of fett: Pilate’s washing of his own hands, using his power to ignore the truth and to swallow lies, in a sad arrogance unable to understand the direction of history.

“With this gesture,” says Bergoglio, “he entered forever into the history of the ridiculous. And every time that we hold power and wash our hands, putting the responsibility on others – on parents, children, neighbors, those who preceded us, the world situation – on realities, on structures, on whatever other thing, for even the least suffering our brothers have to endure, we put ourselves in Pilate’s position: we are increasing the pathetic crowd of all those who use their power for their own profit or their own prestige.”

In this perspective, power is reduced to “politics,” a mere assemblage of “interests,” to the commands of whoever (person or instituion) is considered the absolute sovereign, or else is free of any relationship and responsibility towards the destiny of others. When, instead, our neighbor is the ultimate end and the primary cause of every authentically human act, as even Immanuel Kant had to recognize.

There’s enough here to invite us to rethink our notion of power. In what way? In the way indicated by Pope Francis. “Don’t ever forget that true power is service. And even the pope, in order to exercise power has to enter ever more deeply into that service that has its luminous height on the Cross.”

Power, in as much as it is service, rejects every idea of “governmental action” as “administration,” or even as imperium. And along with this, we no longer assume the prospective of unified government, but the prospective of open and multiform governance. This last embraces, in a substantive continuity, historical manifestations that are different among themselves, like the Res publica of the ancient Romans, the Administration of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and even what Don Luigi Sturzo, one of the early theorists of Christian Democracy,  defined as “power and administration of the common good.”

The bishop of Rome definitively invites us to live the theological category of the Cross as an attribute of power, a dimension that needs to be implemented, even politically. In that regard, we believe that subsidium and “service” are precisely the closest expressions to the notion of “administration,” and are capable of desacralizing definitively the notion of political power. And by this, to reject the voracious political pretentions that have darkened recent European history.

And this will also reinforce the real and sole reason for exercising political power, solving problems, in so far as they are limited and balanced by the realism of being a creature, or rather by the pluralism of knowledge, competencies, and functions.