The Princess and the Pope

Two of the Western World’s most venerable institutions are the Holy See and the British Monarchy. Love them or hate them, between them they encompass a large chunk of religious, cultural, and political history; without them, our world as it is would be unimaginable. At the moment, however, the one is led by an avowed lover of “shaking things up.” The other is being challenged by an actress-consort of one of its junior members. Without wanting to judge either their motivations or their conscious intents—and even less desiring to blame or justify either of them in their actions—it would be useful to see what unites these two figures, the Princess and the Pope.

Of course, what is most obvious about Princess Meghan and Pope Francis is how they differ—in age, gender, nationality, appearance, and trade. But culturally, they have one important thing in common, which for our purposes outweighs their differences: they are both Americans! Now, I am using that word in the sense that Spanish-speakers do—as opposed to Europeans. Those of us from the United States of America tend to arrogate that word to ourselves, where our Latin brethren describe both us and themselves with it. In exploring the commonalities between two denizens of the Western Hemisphere who find themselves in leading positions at centuries-old European institutions, the superior accuracy of the Latin use of the word shall jump out at us.

Regardless of language, the American character has been forged by two major historical realities. The first is the settlement of the frontier (be it the American West, the Amazon, or the Pampas), with the original pioneering stock reinforced by immigrants from Europe. These latter were religious, economic, or political misfits, and they were as anxious as the pioneers to carve out niches for themselves, and as keen at establishing their own identities and destinies. The second was the political origins of both Anglo- and Latin-American republics in violent rebellion against constituted and traditional authority. This was done (as far as the leadership were concerned, anyway) in pursuit of some abstract idea of freedom.

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The first phenomenon created a culture that valued individualism and personal initiative over almost anything else. The second ensured that in the New World the balance between Authority—the right to say what ought to be done—and Power—the ability to make things happen—would be very one-sided.

In much of Latin America, the whole concept of Authority became vestigial, as elected presidents and self-imposed strongmen succeeded each other with weary irregularity. In the United States, such Authority as exists has resided in the Constitution on the one hand and the electorate on the other. Some would argue that the Supreme Court has dispensed with the former’s Authority as it successively abandoned Original Intent of the Founders and Natural Law as bases for its judicial reasoning; those who hold that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent tacitly believe it completes the abolition of the electorate’s share thereof.

As the years have gone by, and life becomes ever more secular and culture farther removed from reality, American “rugged individualism” has for many transformed into a self-centeredness that easily feels itself oppressed and abused—unless it is catered to. When such a personality finds itself in a position of office, it delights in remaking the position according to its own standards, regardless of that office’s traditions and duties. Having no concept of Authority and what it requires of its wielders, this sort of individual in charge knows only the joy of wielding the office’s powers—and woe betide any who point out that neither Authority nor Power exist for their own sakes, but for the sake of those subject to the office.

Which brings us once more to our Princess and our Pope, both products of this process. For Her Former Royal Highness, raised upon Hollywood films of outsider princesses bringing life, light, and goodness to stuffy old royal courts, reality must have been a horrible shock. Beneath the color and the ceremonial there was simply the unending grind of duty: often boring, and never welcoming of individual creativity.

The same has doubtless afflicted our Holy Father, who from his refusal to reside in the Apostolic Palace has shown a desire to remake the Papacy and the Church in his own image—and has appeared deeply frustrated when all of his power has failed to achieve what he wants. In both cases, frustration and petulance are thus quite understandable and ought not to surprise us.

In the future, however, Royals seeking spouses and Cardinals electing Pontiffs would be best advised to avoid so honoring those of us from the Western Hemisphere. It may be a century or more before we are ready to take on those sorts of positions—Princess Grace notwithstanding. She really was the exception that proved the rule.

[Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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