“I’m happy to hear anyone’s problems with me. Don’t worry about the bodies.”
Peter III of Russia stands before his royal court, with several human corpses hanging behind him from the rafters in his palace.
The emperor has survived a poisoning attempt, and the bodies belong to everyone known to have handled the food before the emperor ate it: the footman, the chef, the kitchen helpers, the farmer who grew the produce. Peter is shocked that someone out there might not love him.
His court, before such a display of the king’s wrath, cannot think of any problems worth mentioning.
Instead, a cry of “Huzzah!” echoes through the palace.
In the American series The Great, produced by Hulu and now airing on Channel 4 in the UK, the characters yell “Huzzah!” – often while simultaneously breaking a glass in celebration – over any apparent victory or even minor moment of joy, even if such moments are dripping with irony.
When the vain, inept Peter — brilliantly played by Nicholas Hoult — has done something especially absurd, such as throw a dog over the ramparts to test a parachute, the cry is raised. No matter what Peter has done, it is celebrated.
When the emperor fears a plot against him, he has the court nobles tortured according to a schedule to discover the culprit. Peter is surprised that his court wasn’t in a joyous mood when he met them for dinner later … why should a little torture get in the way of their love for him? Still, after a rousing speech by his wife, Catherine – the true instigator of the plot – the members of the court rise to their feet and give a rousing Huzzah!
The Great is a bawdy, adult entertainment about the rise of Catherine the Great, and has dispensed with any effort to be historically accurate: It is even subtitled “An occasionally true story.”
Yet it is also an intriguing look into the dangers of absolute power, and how absolute power affects those within its orbit.
Peter regularly has sex with his best friend’s wife. This is no secret affair: Sometimes the husband Grigor is in the room while the sex is taking place, and Peter often mentions it in casual conversation with his boyhood friend, as if it was normal behavior.
Grigor’s wife sees her position – literally – as what keeps them in favor with the emperor. The couple is the only one spared from the torture mandate. The archbishop uses Peter’s dreams to try and sway his decisions; his wife, the promise of leaving the shadow of Peter the Great (his father in the show, his grandfather in reality).
To change domestic policy, or even the course of a war, it is more important to amuse the monarch than inform him, and an insinuation will work better than an argument.
At every level, the rule of law is subject to the whim of the emperor. If there is a law against beards, Grigor can still have one, since it is declared stubble. Peter tells an army officer to fight him man-to-man, and then stabs him repeatedly. The only possible response is: Huzzah!
Spoilers: Peter III didn’t last long, and Catherine goes on to be The Great.
Such capriciousness at the highest levels of power is the source of instability and resentment, and helped lead to the end of the European Ancien Régime in the long century from 1789-1919.
Yet it still continues at the Vatican, and is even built into the Church’s legislation. The Code of Canon Law presents various exemptions and possibilities of dispensations, even at the diocesan level.
The pope can dispense with even the most celebrated Vatican laws — against sexual abuse, for example — or simply choose not to use them at all.
Why was this bishop removed, and that one allowed to stay on? Why did this Vatican official get promoted, and that one get thrown out? No one knows for sure, but much like the fictional court of Peter III, it seems to many observers that getting the ear of the pontiff is more important than mastering the laws on the books.
When Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta had porn on his phone, Pope Francis believed him when he said it was hacked. No proper forensic investigation was needed. Giovanni Angelo Becciu says he was given no chance to defend himself when he was stripped of his cardinalate powers last year.
Not only prelates are caught in this Kafka-esque reality: Several workers at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State found themselves without jobs after the alleged financial shenanigans that led to Becciu’s defenestration, despite never facing charges. At the same time, the butler at the heart of the first VatiLeaks scandal under Benedict XVI was ensured of a position at a Vatican-owned hospital after being convicted by a Vatican court.
Just as with Peter in The Great, one is always mindful of the bodies hanging from the rafters when speaking to the ultimate power – and always ready to respond with a Huzzah!
The theologian and canon lawyer may feel the need to step in and explain: The pope enjoys absolute power in the Church – he is judged by no one, and his decisions offer no appeal.
This is, as a matter of law and principle, true. But it is also true, albeit to a lesser degree, in many constitutional monarchies in Europe. Although the British monarch does not enjoy the same vast powers of centuries ago, the royal prerogative is still substantial.
How popular would Elizabeth II be, however, if she started issuing royal pardons based upon the feelings in her gut, especially if her closest friends seemed to benefit?
Thankfully, the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession gave the upper hand to Parliament in the British system, meaning the UK monarchs knew better than to test their power. This is why most of the monarch’s theoretical powers are either exercised through her Ministers, or not exercised at all. Such discretion helped keep the British monarchy popular, and keeps Parliament from chipping away what remains of the royal power in theory.
There is no reason for such a principle not to be established at the Vatican, no reason for legislation not to pass without loopholes, no reason for the pontiff’s fingers not to be kept off the levers of justice, including the penalty phase.
The papal prerogative, like the royal prerogative, would be held in reserve, as opposed to flaunted to detrimental effect.