On Papalotry

9 02 2010

In my small town growing up, Commonweal was one of the only magazines that the local library had that had any significant theological content. So it is no surprise that I am used to what they write at this point, and I quote from a recent article concerning the Pope and his relationship to the Church:

When I find the equivalent of such pictures hanging in the minds of first-rate intellectuals, however, I cannot help but wonder. I confess that a great deal of reading in the very spotted history of the Left in the twentieth century has forced me to ponder the resemblance of papal adulation by some Catholic intellectuals to that of various Great Leaders from Lenin to Fidel to Mao by some left-wing intellectuals… there seemed something disturbingly similar in this impulse, and not just in the case of John Paul “the Great,” to highlight and extol virtually every papal deed and statement while finding a way to deflect or ignore almost all criticism…

But the practical effect of all this does not bother me, though perhaps it should, as much as the questions it raises about the Catholic intellect. Catholic thinkers are well aware that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not worked straightforwardly in the history of the popes and, furthermore, that there has not even been a clear relationship between personal sanctity or theological acumen and institutional leadership. I pay attention when Benedict issues an encyclical. I welcome it as an occasion to reexamine my own thinking and choices. But knowing how many papal encyclicals are justly forgotten today, I do not feel the need to treat it as inspired or devise complicated excuses for why he should not be held responsible for the parts of it that seem to be wanting.

Why should grown-up, well-educated Catholics indulge in this tendency to treat the pope like the Dalai Lama? (Or, on the other hand, like Torquemada?) It seems childish. It gives a bad witness to the maturity and the integrity of our faith.

A comment on this post is also worth quoting:

The adulation, near-adoration, of the Pope is a fairly recent development–19th and 20th century, it seems. Perhaps it began with the sympathy for Popes Pius VI and Pius VII when each was made a prisoner of Napoleon. In any case, under Pius IX, as several studies have shown, the figure of the pope was exalted to near-divine status. Some talked about Christ’s presence in “the three whites”: the Virgin, the Eucharist, and the Pope. Some changed the words of the ancient hymn, “Rerum Deus tenax vigor” to “Rerum Pius tenax vigor.” When a Cardinal at Vatican I gave a speech on papal authority that Pius IX did not like, he was called in and dressed down. When he protestaed that his position was traditional, the Pope expostulated: “La tradizione, son’io!” “Tradition? I’m tradition!”

Yves Congar spoke of the “incredible inflation” of the papal teaching office that has occurred in the last two centuries. He also spoke of the methodological significance for a healthy, balanced ecclesiology of the millennium-long canonical and theological reflection on the possibility of a pope’s becoming a heretic. He often quoted the remark of an Anglican churchman who commented on the fact that the last series of popes were, individually, good even holy men. “What we need,” he said, “is a really good bad pope!” In Congar’s French: “un tres bon mauvais pape!”

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On the kiss

9 02 2010

My heart, bring me some sign plucked from the roses of hope’s garden
You cannot bring a flower in bloom? Bring me an autumn leaf
Companion of my begging days, get up and go out quickly
Pawn anything- your life, your clothes- and bring abundant wine
O God, You have brought forth all this from what was non-existent
Bring me a kiss or two, brought from the corner of her mouth

– from The Seeing Eye: Selections from the Urdu and Persian Ghazals of Ghalib, translated by Ralph Russell