the tribune of the people?

Today, a phrase in the Guardian’s report on Pope Francis’ first Easter sermon grabbed my attention, as the author used the following words to describe the new Pope:

The pope – who has sought to make himself the tribune of the poor, disabled and disadvantaged

The emphasis is mine, as this is the phrase caught my eye. I’m assuming it was a deliberate choice of description – I hope it was, as it’s a title that strikes me as something that should mark out church leadership generally. It is also, I suspect, be one that might fit Francis well, in all its complexity.

pontifex maximusLet’s start in the middle, as it were. The Roman emperors, starting with Augustus, took on the title of tribunus plebis– the tribune of the plebs. Constantine (yes, him, first Christian Emperor, blight on the future of the church, etc etc) would have held this title – along with that of Pontifex Maximus, which remains one of the titles of the Pope. Tribunus Plebis, as far as I can find out (my knowledge of the intricacies of Roman Catholicism being shaky however, so please correct me), isn’t. This is interesting in itself, as somewhere in the evolution of the papacy and the split from the principate the title that describes the Pope as the chief priest was retained from the imperial role, while the one that described the same individual as a representative of the people seems to have disappeared.

Now let’s go back towards the beginning: towards the reasons why Augustus wanted to hold the title Tribunus Plebis. Historically/Historiographically (depending on how much you want to believe the Roman historians of the Republic – but historical certainty is much less important than common understanding and rhetoric for this discussion) the office of the tribune of the plebs was created in the early days of the Republic to give the plebeians a spokesman in their struggle with the elite patricians. As it became established the identity of the office centred on the social status of its holder: plebeian – basically, one of the masses not the elite (although, plenty of the social elite were actually plebeian, but hey…) and the status of those the office the tribunate represented: also plebeian, but also generally the lower classes and less wealthy. Equally important was the fact that tribunes were inviolate and sacrosanct: a key, traditional part of their role being to literally stand between a magistrate and a citizen who was being unjustly threatened. As the highest Roman magistrates carried bundles of rods with axes tied into them (though the axes were symbolically removed within the city), being protected from physical violence was a real protection that the tribunes could provide.

So, for Augustus (and later emperors), being tribunus plebis provided physical protection as well as an identity as a representative of the mass of the people as well as an official of the senatorial elite, connecting him with their interests and, hopefully, their affection and support. But of course, you couldn’t guarantee that support without doing something for the people you represented, and by the time Augustus came along, the office of the tribunate had become associated with young men (because the tribunate was an early career move for would-be politicians) proposing laws that would benefit the mass of the people against the interests of the elite – access to land, to the law, and to the wealth that came from Rome’s empire. And particularly with young politicians, such as the two Gracchi or Clodius, who would go to almost any lengths to get these laws passed – leading to political violence in the city, up to and including the violent expulsion of Antony as a tribune from the senate in 49 that finally triggered civil war. Augustus himself turned to the gifting of ‘bread and circuses’ as a part of this.

But what does this have to do with Pope Francis? Well, there are two ways there’s a connection, I think: the first more generally related to church leadership, and the second (more speculatively) related to his own personal history.

Firstly: the place of a Tribune as a sacrosanct person, who could stand in the gap between the magistrate and the citizen, shielding the week from the strong has potential relevance. In Ezekiel (22:30) God looks for someone to stand between God and Israel, to: “Build up the wall and stand before [him] in the gap on behalf of the land so he would not have to destroy it.” Standing in the gap has become an important idea for some Christians for intercession, be it for a sinful world before God, or between the weak and the strong in the world. Connecting this with the formal, political and legal role of the Roman Tribunus Plebis has the potential to provide a strong concept for church leadership engaging in civil and political matters, placing themselves between those who cannot always protect themselves and the political powers that might threaten them. Writing this in the UK on 1 April 2013, as a raft of changes to society’s support net are about to come into effect, this is a role I’d like to see the church in England take up for itself.

Yes, it gets more complicated than that. For a start – it’s not only political powers that possess strength and might threaten the weak. Religious powers also get caught up in this, and Pope Francis has to negotiate the recent history of the Catholic Church to truly take up a role as tribunis plebis, while churches in England have to, for example, to negotiate the way they treat women and people who are LGBT. But it’s a way of being to aim at.

Secondly, it gets more complex for Pope Francis in particular, given the rumours and stories that exist about his personal history in Argentina and his engagement in politics there, as people try and work out how ‘true’ his personna as a would-be tribune might actually be: is he the man serving the poor, or is he the man compromised by contact with the junta?

Roman historians frequently get themselves tied up in knots about the motivations of Roman tribunes and politicians with regard to the tribunes – but without going so far as to say motivation is irrelevant, actually getting at the roots of isn’t dramatically vital in many ways. Getting lost in a debate to say that a tribune was either motivated by the needs of the masses or using the office to raise his own profile and further his ambitions is to get lost in a false dichotomy: of course you could be both, especially given the place of the tribunate as a low rung on the career ladder. What matters is that this was a delicate balance to be negotiated, that there were ways of negotiating it, and some politicians were more successful than others at negotiating it.

It’s as likely that Roman tribunes were likely to be both men of the people and ambitious politicians as it is that Pope Francis is both a man serving the poor and a man somewhat compromised by his personal history. That is to say – very likely. He’s a human being in his mid–70s, he’s lived in a part of the world that’s seen a lot of political turbulence, and for a some of that time he’s been a prominent figure with a voice to be accounted for: of course it gets complicated.

Given his personal history and the recent history of the Roman Catholic church, the idea of him as a tribunus plebis has a certain attraction, currently for the media, and probably in the longer term for the Pope and his church. We’re generally not great at embracing complexity in public discourse, and certainly not where sex, politics and religion come into play. For the media at the moment, Pope Francis is a dramatic change from his predecessor, and it is well expressed by picking up the imagery of Rome’s political history as well as the imagery of Christ’s example. And for the church in the longer term, I would imagine that countering suspicions – both of the pope’s past and the church’s institutional issues – with the rhetoric of Pope Francis as a tribune of the poor, standing in the gap to help the helpless, is terribly tempting for the church – and something that the media will be tempted to tear down.

I hope that they don’t, however. On both sides.  I would like to see them try to negotiate the complications of history.  The new Archbishop of Canterbury recently spoke about the danger of pinning hopes on individuals in politics and public life, because we’re all fallible. If we don’t remember that, then, when the rhetoric of the Pope-as-Tribune falls down (as fall it inevitably will), the reputation of Pope Francis will just have further to fall, damaging him, his church, and the church as a whole .

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