LORD ACTON

By Christopher Zoukis

I recently had occasion to watch the movie Absolute Power, starring Clint Eastwood.  The imaginative and provocative title of the flick was borrowed from one of the most famous aphorisms ever written:  “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  An aphorism, of course, is ‘a short, concise statement of a principle; a maxim.’  The term comes from the Greek aphorismos, which referred to a definition or a short pithy statement.

The aphorism under discussion – “absolute power” – was composed by Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, who was born in 1834 and died in 1902.  Lord Action was an erudite historian, and a bit of a rabble-rouser, for he was the leader of a liberal Roman Catholic minority that refused to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility.  The concept of papal infallibility for those who don’t know asserts that the Pope, as the supreme pontiff, is protected from the human capacity for error, when speaking about faith and morals.  This protection is provided by God Himself.  In other words, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, he is non posse peccare, infallible.  The doctrine, sanctioned and published by the Vatican Council in July, 1870, is not a trifling matter.  The Holy Office firmly believes the doctrine to be true.  Anyone who disagrees is branded with the identifying mark of heresy. 

Lord Acton’s famous aphorism may or may not refer directly to papal infallibility.  In any event, the oft-quoted aphorism functions as part of the repertoire of those who detect the inexorable menace of Big Brother everywhere.  Typically, such people subscribe to conspiracy theories of every conceivable color. 

Noted Boston University historian Carl Ogelsby, in his book The Yankee and Cowboy War, published in 1977, expanded on Lord Acton’s aphorism, when he wrote, “Conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means” and “Conspiratorial play is a universal of power politics, and where there is no limit to power, there is no limit to conspiracy.” 

After watching Clint Eastwood as he confronts and then battles the absolute power of Gene Hackman in the movie, I was forced to conclude that Lord Action was probably correct.  Absolute power does corrupt absolutely.  Which may explain why the Roman Catholic Church, has ceded incorruptibility to the Pope.  The Popes have absolute power, which means they can.  So they did just that.  In other words, because they have absolute power they decided to assure everyone (over 1 billion of the faithful) that their absolute power has definitely not corrupted them absolutely.  And the reason it has not corrupted them absolutely is because the Pope is above and beyond such mundane corruption.  He has the personal protection of God from making such a grievous and all-too-common mistake.

The perfect example of The Completion Backward Principle.  So everyone can relax as far as the Church is concerned.  What a relief!