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The pope is a transnational actor ex officio. He fills the highest position in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church which makes him: head of a state, head of an NGO-like organization, head of a huge religious organization, and spiritual leader of a transnational community.

However, the current discourses on the election of a new pope reveal that the affair has more layers than the universal doctrine of the church suggests. Discussions on ‘papapile’ cardinals included strong national allocations. Furthermore, focusing on internal challenges of the organization belittled the external relevance of the decision and the pope’s role as an advocate. With this blog, I want to shed light on those different dimensions of papacy and the Roman Catholic Church against the backdrop of the recent election of Franciscus I.

What the pope is and what he is not

Of course, the pope is the absolute head of a state. Since the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the Vatican is a sovereign state accepted in the international community. The pope is part of political struggles. However, he is no usual head of state. As a non-member permanent observer state since 1964, the Vatican representative has no right to vote at the United Nations (although all other rights of full membership were granted in 2004).

Analytically, the Roman Catholic Church is maybe best described as a unique hybrid on the world stage with state and non-governmental characteristics.

The Church today regards Vatican City as part of the infrastructure for carrying out its true mission. In the language of international relations, the Church understands itself as an NGO, and it additionally employs the benefits of sovereign status in the service of its advocacy interest. (Ferrari 2006: 40)

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The holiday season seems a good moment to explore the contradictory nature of Christmas as a holiday that has become nearly globally observed while at the same time still being considered deeply nationally entrenched in many countries. Take Germany, for example: Considered as the homeland of Weihnachtsstimmung (Christmas mood), Christmas trees and Christmas markets, few would doubt that there is something a like a really true deutsche Weihnacht. Across the Atlantic, Americans equally claim to have their American Christmas, which, by the way, is the only federal holiday in the United States with a religious connection. Yet, celebrating Christmas has also an inherent transcendental dimension that goes beyond national borders – no matter whether people observe it as a religious or secular holiday.

To better understand the contradictory global and national character of Christmas, it is useful to go back to the long 19th century in which the modern Christmas was re-invented in a series of developments. During this period, Christmas celebrations became increasingly linked to national sentiments but they were also shaped by a multitude of imagined cultural encounters and transfers between countries. Building on the abundant scholarly literature on the history of Christmas, this blog post aims to sketch some developments which had a lasting impact on modern Christmas as it is familiar to us today. In particular, it draws on the wonderfully detailed books of Joe Perry and Stephen Nissenbaum, as well as an article by Neil Amstrong (references see below).

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Many believe that global markets are a new phenomenon. But that is not the case. Not only had the late 19th century already reached a level of global trade and financial flows which approached that of today, but there have been long distance trading circuits across jurisdictions and continents which date back as far as medieval times. In the 12th and 13th century, the Italian city states of Venice and Genoa maintained long distance trading networks that reached as far as North Africa and Central Asia, providing the basis for ‘global’ markets for luxury goods, such as spices and silk.  In the North, the Hanseatic League formed a federation of trading cities along the coastlines of the Northern and Baltic Sea generating cross-border markets for bulk goods such as fish, salt, grain and wood.

These markets were transnational in the sense of their interconnecting economic actors from multiple political jurisdictions (i.e. kingdoms and city states) across the world into a multilayered system of rules and regulations which governed their exchange relationships.

Economic historians have produced a rich literature on these markets which is also instructive for economic sociologist studying the governance of contemporary ‘global’ markets. In a recently published article I combine both approaches to analyse how key coordination problems were resolved in medieval long-distance trading systems.

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The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
September 2019
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