Bread and Circuses

by | April 27, 2014

The spectacle of the canonization of two popes in Rome on April 27 has it’s roots in the last centuries before the Common Era in a phenomenon characterized by the the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal as “Bread and circuses.”  The phrase

is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative.” Juvenal decried it as a simplistic motivation of common people. The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.

It is no surprise that more than two thousand years after Juvenal, the Vatican continues to follow

the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power.

While a Google search brings up numerous articles on the first ever, joint canonization of two popes, one is sufficient to highlight the propaganda, enthusiasm and objections that surround the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II, who are described in the New York Times article:

Pope John XXIII was the rotund Italian pontiff with a common touch, who told jokes, embraced the poor and became beloved as “the Good Pope.” To many liberal Catholics, he is still revered for the Second Vatican Council, the landmark event of the 1960s that sought to move the Roman Catholic Church into the modern age.


Pope John Paul II was the charismatic Polish pontiff who liked to sneak away from the Vatican to ski and who retooled the papacy in a new era of globalized media. His vision of a more rigid Catholicism made him a revered figure among many conservative Catholics suspicious of the liberalizing spirit introduced by John XXIII.

All of this is gloss, of course, a way for the present pope to fuse the two descriptions to create himself:

Francis, is making his most public attempt to sew together the two men’s different legacies as he pushes his own vision of a church under a big tent.

Despite the assertion by one admirer, “We love both popes,” the reality is very different. John Paul II is criticized for

his retrenchment of church power to the Vatican ultimately led to scandals, and for his failure to confront the clerical sexual abuse scandal, even as evidence mounted of a widespread crisis. . . .Advocates for sexual abuse victims have come to Rome to protest that he is unworthy of sainthood.

While there appears to be little or no criticism of John XXIII, it would be naive and criminal to believe that John XXIII was not aware of sexual abuse by clergy.

It is more realistic to ask, as Professor Duffy and other experts have done,

“Are we going to have every pope canonized now?”

because every pope, past and present, is guilty by association for every crime against humanity perpetuated by the Catholic Church.

5 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses

  1. Patrick Clare

    It’s becoming almost the new norm to canonize popes, to the extent that omissions become glaring. What was wrong with Benedict XV?

    We know that Pius XI was a nasty character and a strong supporter of Mussolini and Fascismo (see David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini [2014]) so he’s out. Pius XII is one step below “blessed,” notwithstanding his conduct toward the Jews during the Second World War. Pius IX is one step below sainthood despite participating in a kidnapping (see David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara [1997]) and engineering to have himself declared infallible.

    John XXIII probably deserves the halo—for what it’s worth.

  2. Veronica Abbass Post author

    “What was wrong with Benedict XV?”
    He was a pope of course: that’s what was wrong with him.

    As for John XXIII, I admit some ambivalence about him. He was the pope of my unenlightened young adulthood, but I am so much wiser now.

  3. Corwin

    I’ll bet Roman “circuses” were a lot more interesting than modern canonisation ceremonies, too.

  4. billybob

    Can I have some brie with my bread?

    This is a PR coup, got to admire their ability to rally the troops.

  5. Robster

    It’s all little more than a propaganda theatre performance on an impressive scale. A part of the Vatican plan to save the Italian economy with a tourism influx/plague and a big run on red wine and crackers with a incense chaser. It’s too good an opportunity to miss to model the exciting new 2014 range of silly hats, red booties and gold encrusted robe thingies. There were millions there and the Italians were very happy.


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