The pending papal election gives brief but telling permission to dream—even publicly—about the happy promise of a benevolent monarch. The pope is, after all, a benevolent monarch par excellence. And the period leading to his selection and ascension is the perfect time to consider why such rule still holds such manifest appeal—and at the very least why it still commands popular attention.
If the media and the public are set on bending the papacy to fit "the times," they do so with clear deference to the unswerving character of the office. In other words, while we hear about the need for the next pope to alter Church teaching on contraception and women's rights, we rarely if ever hear that the next pope shouldn't be pope—i.e., that he shouldn't be a Catholic monarch. And this despite the ubiquitous sentiment that democracy alone is what's fitting rule for good, free people.
Maybe popular attitudes toward the papacy teach us something about the real value of benevolent monarchy. Maybe they point out the case wherein monarchy makes sense; not just minimally, but to a great degree.
Around Ethika Politika, we talk a lot about the common good. In some cases, this good is best ensured by dispersed efforts. When we defend liberal democracy, it's because there's a sense in which its aims most closely approximate the real common good of society. But dispersed efforts and structures can't be mistaken for a good that, while instantiated across a people, is also held entirely in common by them. The good of democracy isn't the common good, itself. Rather, it's a means to achieve that good.
If monarchy is valuable, it suggests that sometimes the common good requires less dispersed structures (at least on the level of legislation and administration) and more central authority. Although democracy is sometimes possible, it's not always so. Equally, monarchy is sometimes necessary to preserve order and right rule.
The papal interregnum, even by popular media accounts, is something serious. This suggests plainly that the selection of a new pope, a new monarch, is something worth understanding. Moreover, the almost total absence of serious criticism regarding the Church's style of governance (i.e., "a bunch of old men living in the Vatican" rants, aside)—as opposed to the content of its doctrines—should remind us that monarchial rule isn't nearly as passé as many would think in our culture of solipsism and self-indulgence.
Far from being a relic of less enlightened times, monarchy—in the form of the papacy—shows us that the primal desire for right rule speaks to something more basic than aspirations to manufactured fairness. We're still willing, in spite of ourselves and our world, to consider the legitimacy of an absolute authority. And we hold out for the possibility that such a ruler might, against all odds, turn out even to love us.