Few readers will be unfamiliar with Lord Acton’s dictum about the effects of power. But, before looking at some more modern evidence, we should note that he is primarily writing of power conferred by office. Let’s put him into context to get a clearer picture.
After arguing that the absolute power of the papacy was the real cause of the breach with Luther, and arguing that popes of the 13th and 14th centuries were individually and collectively responsible for the policy of persecution, Acton continues: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
But popes are weighty men dealing with weighty matters. We can come a little closer to home.
In our time we have seen numerous examples of the dehumanisation of power. Jews and unborn babies come immediately to mind. Cynics might argue that the treatment of Palestinians is dehumanisation coming a full circle. I couldn’t possibly comment.
A number of studies have been done to measure this. Although they are necessarily somewhat artificial, they work by giving certain people a sense of power and then comparing their decisions with others who have not undergone this. They all show that the “powerful” people have a general tendency to treat the people who come into their scope as inferior, and they are inclined to make harsher and more cruel decisions about them than the control groups who have no particular sense of power.
Of course this would not include us: our religious attitudes teach us to be merciful even to those we see as wrongdoers. Sorry, the evidence says, no. We are likely to be more judgmental than those who do not have religion in mind. This might be, the scientists suggest, because religious people have a clearer view of the norms of right and wrong or perhaps because we are drawn to condemn what we believe that God condemns.
If we put power into the question, it emerges that corrupt politicians and chief executives who do not practise what they preach are just what we should expect. The greater the power the greater is the propensity to combine condemnation of inferiors with bad personal and private behaviour. As well as the formal studies, we do not need to look far back in contemporary history to see the evidence for that. Only those who feel that they may be unworthy of the power they hold avoid this temptation. But the value of this humility may be counterbalanced by the greater tendency of the bosses who are uncertain of themselves to bully.
Nor are we surprised to discover that the powerful not only overestimate the accuracy of their judgment, they are also disinclined to pay proper attention to new ideas which threaten their assumptions.
Interesting, I think, in many contemporary contexts is how people see their own moral worth. Here we observe that frequently those who do egregiously good works may correct the balance by behaving badly in other areas – just as their bad behaviour motivates them to compensate by good works. One recent example is that of the late Fr Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who turned out to have been an exceedingly corrupt cleric. Maciel was supported for several years by Pope John Paul – which may be an instance of a powerful person having too much invested in his own judgment.
Although by some standards the level of public corruption is low in our society, we have seen evidence of this in Parliament and others in civil authority. Interestingly, corrupt societies seem to do surprisingly well, provided that corruption is held within limits. This, it is suggested, comes about because, while we are subject to the force of law, the law enforcers – who get the benefits of corruption by way of money or ability to ignore the law themselves – are motivated to ensure that we keep the law even if they don’t. But, beyond a certain level of corruption it all breaks down, as I daresay the shades of Presidents Nicolae Ceausescu and Hosni Mubarak would tell us.
But the universality of the corruption of power reminds us that we are all vulnerable. And indeed any sense of moral righteousness about the behaviour of those whom we think ought to behave better is a warning klaxon of this unfortunate legacy of Original Sin.
This is one reason why I am suspicious of enthusiasts who claim to have the answers to the reformation of the Church. History teaches us that today’s liberals may be tomorrow’s enforcers. The best we can do is to stumble, with humility, in the direction of the light. This is the ecclesia semper reformanda. And Christ showed us what to expect when he picked Peter as his first vicar. He chose a man whom he was to call Satan and a stumbling block, a man who would deny him, and even misunderstand the universality of his message. Why would we expect the Church to be more perfect than Christ’s appointed representative? But, with Peter, where else would we go, given that that she alone has the words of eternal life?