Catholics and the Pope, a year later

I

Fr. Hunwicke had a great post up a few days ago reflecting on the Pontificate of Francis one year after his election. He remains prayerful and hopeful but frankly acknowledges the Holy Father’s contribution to a certain poisoning of the discourse among orthodox Catholics (with predictable consequences), which he attributes to their tendency toward servility and Papal idolatry:

Despite the facile cliches which are so invariably abundant after conclaves, we have no divine assurance that any Pope since S Peter ever has been or is “God’s choice”. Even as a corporate collegium, the Cardinals are not protected in their prudential decisions. That would be an absurd dogma. I will not insult my readers by inserting here a history lesson about ‘bad popes’ … except to say that we can find more whole-hearted moral evil in quite a number of First Millennium popes than in the iniquities of an occasional Renaissance libertine. Popes, needless to say, are protected from proclaiming heretical propositions ex cathedra; but they are not vi ipsius muneris necessarily good or wise or nice men.

. . .

Nor is a world-wide personality cult of the Roman Pontiff required by Catholic Dogma. Such a cult might, indeed, be a corruption of the Petrine Office, and indicate too much influence within the Church of the cultures of our modern Media and of our global village. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the first glimmerings we got of it were during the 1930s, the decade of the Nuremburg rallies, when Cardinal Pacelli enjoyed displaying his charisma on foreign, even world-wide, tours and became known as il vice-Papa, il Cardinale volante. I wonder if these circuses have disadvantages as well as advantages. Papa Ratzinger obviously loathed doing them, but went through it all out of a sense of duty. Even Madonna seems to do them less.

We need to clear out of the way the fawning superstition that faithful, obedient Catholics, episcopal, clerical, and lay, are supposed to regard the bishop of Rome as some sort of god-like superman who never makes mistakes and is above criticism (until he dies or abdicates … when, of course, the vermin all emerge from the bilge of the Barque of S Peter). When a ‘liberal’ American Catholic can express his hope that a newly-appointed bishop will prove a “worthy representative of Pope Francis”, the fool needs to be taught that bishops are not Romani Pontificis vicarii. We need to do what we can to educate the wilfully obtuse Media to abandon their conviction that the Catholic Church is some sort of Stalinist dictatorship in which a throw-away, off-the-cuff remark in an airliner constitutes the discarding of the teachings of millennia.

I made a similar point here (and beginning at the fifth paragraph here). It’s one thing to evaluate a particular Pope or bishop as being especially virtuous or brilliant; it is quite another to say that he is necessarily those things. To imagine that his election and/or every word he speaks is necessarily a product of divine inspiration seems, to me, to be not orthodoxy but an insidious pietism, the product of a malformed ecclesiology, and an artifact of the “spirit of Vatican I.” An invention, in other words, of recent origin, beginning with the absolutism of Pius IX (“I am the Church! I am the Tradition!”), metastasizing under Pius XII, and hitting its nadir with Paul VI’s supremely hubristic act of legal positivism. It is a fruit of the same poisoned tree that gave us, in opposition to the liberal Catholic error that treats the hierarchy and the Church as distinct or even in opposition, the neoconservative Catholic error that conflates the two, and which imagines the laity, not as members of the Church, but as slaves of it. In its severest form, it is not only alien to a healthy Catholic piety, but a substitute for it.

II

Now maybe it is, after all, just media distortions that make Francis look like a partisan for the Catholic left (and maybe it isn’t); but there is no disputing that his words have proven a source of discomfort, confusion, and, yes, even scandal for many Catholics, who are at least as entitled to “pastoral” treatment as any unrepentant sodomite or powerful politician. What they get, instead, are thundering denunciations from the Mark Sheas of the world, accusing those who express their difficulty with this-or-that Papal saying of attacking the Church like the self-entitled elder brother of the prodigal son — a treatment that amounts to shooting the wounded so as to avoid embarrassing the general who is far-removed from the field of conflict. And then there’s this; did anyone think that, within a year of Benedict’s abdication, we’d be talking about this?

This past year has been a deeply inauspicious start to Francis’ Pontificate. Let us pray things improve.

III

Here, I should pause to say that I’m on board with Zippy (and I think his diagnosis that Argentinian provincialism is the key to understand this Papacy is proving stunningly accurate): anyone contemplating departing from the Church because of Francis must not have a very clear understanding of what the Church is, or a very informed faith. Consider, for instance, Rob Dreher who abandoned Catholicism on the basis of defects that are accidental to her character, as if bad homilies and agonizingly banal liturgies somehow falsify the Great Commission. He’s wrong to have left the Church for such reasons and he will have to answer for his wrongness at judgment. But surely the Church is not just for those strong in the faith, is it? Is that our plan, to alienate souls from the sacraments by peddling weak medicine and then wondering, when they leave, why everyone can’t just be great-like-us? A faithful wife is obligated to remain with her husband, and it speaks badly of her when she doesn’t — but isn’t it precisely that fact that obliges her husband to comport himself in a manner worthy of her devotion?

IV

If you are, indeed, struggling with developments of late, I sympathize. I think the best you can do is to consult and memorize Bonald’s similar agonizing over a year ago now.

The Church itself is often likened to an Ark on the choppy waters of the world, ferrying us to our destination. It would be wise, when that Ark delivers us to Heaven (if we cling to it firmly enough), not to be so attached to it that we refuse to disembark — because the Church is a thing for this world, and souls truly thirsting for holiness will never feel at home in the world. So maybe your disillusionment is a grace given to you so that, disgusted by the transience of the world and its baubles and the faithlessness of men, you will love more deeply Him who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Straight is the gate, and narrow the way, and there are few who walk it.

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11 thoughts on “Catholics and the Pope, a year later

  1. To be fair, I can see why many conservatives embraced the papal cult of personality. Most of us are not strong, so we look to the hierarchy for leadership in faith and morals. But if it’s the 1980s and your leader is Mahony, or Weakland, or Hunthausen, then it’s understandable why you’d cling to EWTN and JPII like a life preserver.

    If God inflicts bad bishops and bad popes upon us, then perhaps he’s trying to tell us to focus less on the King’s ministers and more on the King of Kings.

  2. It’s just very difficult to practice a serious Catholic faith in your average N.O. parish. I worry about my children. How can they take it seriously when no one around us does?

  3. I thank you for what has been to me a very helpful article.

    Bruce, I share your anxieties, but perhaps we should put our Hopes in the common desire to eventually know the Truth?

    • What good is that when you lose your children completely? I’d rather raise them around “schismatics” that actually act like they believe the faith so that they become and remain believers. Then, when they’re (believing) adults they can decide if becoming canonically regular is important to them.
      Modern people (including most who go to church) are lost because they simply don’t believe.

  4. “the absolutism of Pius IX (‘I am the Church! I am the Tradition!’), metastasizing under Pius XII”

    A tangent to your main point here, but do you have any other thoughts developing this idea, either in itself or in connection to the errors of PP. Paul VI? My first reaction is that “I am the Church, I am the Tradition” is exactly the right thing for a prince to say, and if the Pope is not saying it as Pope, then the bishops should each be saying it as bishops.

    • I think the best argument against it is that Pius IX himself didn’t fully believe it; he refused, for instance, to revise the Pro Iudaeis (with its controversial reference to “perfidious Jews”) on the grounds that he didn’t have the authority to tinker with the Mass in that way (though he was sympathetic to those who wanted it reformed).

      Presumably he didn’t believe he lacked *canonical* authority and, if he did, future Popes have proven him wrong in that respect. So presumably he was appealing to a different kind of authority — what Fr. Hunwicke has called “auctoritas” — a sort of “authority of the ages.” In other words, the faith is not something that solely exists in the here and now. If we are truly a communion of saints, as we believe, then it involves too those who have gone on to their reward before us in a kind of oligarchy of the dead. And we ought to be averse to upsetting lightly the arrangements which nourished and sustained our ancestors for centuries, even millennia, on the grounds that we, today, happen to be unable to see the point.

      • You seem to be conflating the absolutism of a good king, who is custodian and head of the nation, with the absolutism of a dictator, who dominates the nation. I see “I am the Church, I am the Tradition” as belonging to the first absolutism, but liturgical revision as belonging to the second absolutism, and the two are very opposed.

        Someone once made a point something somewhat like this (and I suspect it was even on this blog): that even an overreaching king in former centuries would not pretend that he could revise the name of a city, as the Russian governments did in St. Petersburg. That’s not quite right; I wish I could remember the context. Anyway, it seems to make an excellent analogy here.

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