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!”

You can consider this the beginning of my “papist triduum”, as the next three posts will concern the Pope. Many of you reading this will have an almost natural repulsion to the Commonweal attitude towards the Church. Believe me, I share it. For the same sort of mindless assent that they criticize in neo-ultramontanists is the same that they give to the “super-council”, Vatican II, that defined nothing, and in my mind sought only to “suggest” an updated way to approach the Faith. They should pardon those who, after some reflection and having formed their consciences well, find such suggestions to be utter rubbish. The ultramontanism of the conservatives finds an inverted reflection of itself in the parliamentary constitutionalism of the liberals.

That being said, I find all such posturing to be tiresome. The article still has some good points, though. In all of these tendencies, what is often absent is a “gut Catholicism”; a Catholicism that is believed because it has an organic relationship with life. Indeed, I have only found this in some of the most liberal, Call to Action, Berkeley Catholics that I fed the homeless with back in my student days. Conservatives and traditionalists seem to just be playing dress-up, pitting one Pope against another Pope, one encyclical against another encyclical, and so on. The Catholics I grew up with were either guitar-strumming liberals, mindless pew warmers, or devout grandmas of all ethnicities who carried unpretentiously the flame of old-school Catholicism. To become a partisan Catholic is in many ways to break out of the shell of what has always been done; it is to regard the Church as something that is primarily “out there”: in the Catholic blogs, the online debate fora, and in that prisoner of the Vatican dressed all in white, just like the Blessed Sacrament locked away in the tabernacle.

This is not a call for Catholics to get involved in their own parish. To steal someone else’s line, if you looked up “non-joiner” in the dictionary, you would see my picture next to it. But it is a call to “get real” about religion, and to realize that the line between faith and hobby is a very fine one in the modern world. Personally, that is why I enjoyed immensely teaching children out of the old style Baltimore Catechism. In such pithy, non-descriptive statements of the Faith, I realized how little we really do know. Mentally gnawing on such child-like statements of what we believe perhaps leaves us mentally unsatisfied, but it makes us also realize that what we don’t know is almost as important as what we do know. I find that “traditional Catholicism” is better for my own tendencies towards agnosticism and mental autonomy. Yeah, some of it sounds ridiculous. But what sounds even more ridiculous is trying to make too much sense out of it, as I think the post-Vatican II church tends to do.

The organic nature of religion is then what I am most concerned about. My own version of Newman’s toast (first to conscience and then to the Pope) is much less individualistic. For I acknowledge that what I have I have received from others, and my own conclusions are the result of putting already assembled blocks in the places where I think they best fit. But the people who gave me these blocks were not the popes, not EWTN, and not the blogs. They were simple folk who showed up at Mass every Sunday and did what they always did, without thinking about how “correct” it was. So if I were forced to make religion a subject of after-dinner toasts, I might toast to the Pope eventually, but first to all of those people, the grandmothers, the old sacristans, the “bad cultural Catholics, and then to the Pope.



10 responses

18 02 2010
Tom McFadden

I wanted to just make a quick correction to this post and say that the president of Christendom College did not write a book called The Glory of the Papacy, rather, he hosted a show on EWTN of that name. That’s it.

12 02 2010

On the problem of Papalotry:

I’ve been half-mad, half-inspired lately. Its hard to organize my thoughts, to get to this point; but I’ve been deeply troubled since yesterday morning regarding this very very important issue.

Ensuring the holyness of the high priest is the forte of those in your camp, not mine (my concern is with creating conditions of heroic and noble practical leadership); but there are even larger issues here than simply ecclesiastical ones; issues about authority itself, its role and its organization.

I don’t know if this makes sense to you. I believe there is one correct model of human government, but there are three major temporal problems that profoundly interfere with it:

1) There are times and places when multitudes of people have no loyalty, honor, faithfulness, honesty, or duty. Then, it is easy for those following a subsidiary model (like one below) to rebel, branch off and form a separate hierarchy with themselves at the pinnacle. The original principle has no control other than personal suasion over his followers since he cannot use his follower’s followers against them. He can “enforce” nothing without the consent of his followers; he can enforce nothing upon his followers without their consent.
I think it obvious that without robust inner unity (family, friendship, faith) subsidiary systems immediately fragment, and the powerful in it take positions to buy the loyalty of multitudes, and then use those multitudes to enforce their will upon rank after rank of the few.

2) There are times and places when there are few “few”. This is because they are only *created*; they do not arise by chance. Unfortunately, we are in such a time, and getting worse in this regard. That fact is precisely one of two causes of tyranny and “cults of personality”. When there are no local priests, no local parents, who are people to look towards? If there is no local leadership that they know, people will dream of a global leader they don’t know. When there is no local “center”, the global center becomes the most local one by default.

3) There are times and places when there is no locality in any event, or when a powerful distant has overwhelmed a weak local.

[Today one travels to Beijing in the time that for millenia it took one to journey to one’s county or parish center. Vacations in the heavens are purchased (via Richard Branson or the Russian Space program.)]

Hierarchy must become flawless if we are ever to have peace on earth. Of course that isn’t possible, isn’t conceivable to the “realist”, the utilitarian, the neo-Stoic. Their genius lies in their mastery of preparations for The Worst. But have no choice but to prepare for the worst since within their society, what is worst bleeds beyond inevitability, drains past normalcy and winds up pooling into ubiquity.

But a “flawless hierarchy”? Only if each level only commands the level immediately below, *personally*. And the above and the below must be within one’s circle of intimacy, by the means of real friendship, true family, or honest intellectual society (for example, revered teacher to fellow learners).

So any given one only ever commands the few, tiering down (or up, as the case may be) until the many are all part of a few, led by some one, who is friend, family, or teacher. If a Pope or a great man are to be publicly known, or publicly seen, it is as Icons, not as demo-crators, as one sees the sun– *briefly*, shining, distant yet strong, but best indirectly or by reflection. Note, this is what is done– by instinct or reason I do not know– already by most high nobles and hierarchs.

I say venerate the Pope, and perhaps the King; but help them exercise rule by mediated subsidiarity alone. Let it be those who personally know them who assist them in each thing as is worthy. It is these followers who will find a way to make the leadership correct and effective, since it is they who in every way understand the strengths and limits of their superior. It is the superiors constant task to make sure he is worthy and in possession of his immediate followers allegiance. He can, or should lawfully exercise no more force that that of one over a few.

Problem: Following local leaders is not possible when there are no leaders, no localities, and no followers.

This is why we have tyranny, and distant impersonal hierarchies, and immense centralization where one center commands a vast periphery.

Do you have a Solution?

For my part, all I can think of is to avoid government or leadership until the three conditions I first enumerated can be remedied. I suspect that the Church remedies these conditions from the top down; perhaps the truly Noble do so from the bottom up. Is this close to where we are today? A beginning?

10 02 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

This is much clearer than some of your recent posts (you’re still leaving yourself plenty of margin for error, but who can say everything at once?) and it helps me to begin to form a picture of what you’re getting at. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness … is that it? but what do you propose as a response, not merely to patent evil, but to small errors that accumlate from one generation to the next or even from one Mass to the next?

10 02 2010
The Modern Cult of the Pope « The Anglo-Catholic

[…] Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity. The article that particularly interests me today is On Papalotry. Between those who deny the Pope entirely and those who worship him, we indeed live in unbalanced […]

10 02 2010
A Sinner

The ironic thing is that “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”…can be equally applied to non-dogmatic statements of Councils as much as to those of Popes. In their non-dogmatic statements…councils aren’t some sort of Divine Mandate. They’re a collection of individual bishops writing more or less (more in the case of V-II) ambiguous texts (as all texts are) and then going home to implement what they thought it all meant. This sort of positivism towards authority and doctrine…is very troubling.

10 02 2010
Robert Thomas Llizo

This is what I found befuddling about the devotion to the papacy I found during the pontificate of JPII. A book comes to mind by the president of Christendom College: The Glory of the Papacy. Being a medievalist, no one, and I mean NO ONE, not even the most zealous Guelph, would write a book like this. This devotion to the papacy was largely absent-with the possible exception of St. Catherine of Siena-throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern era. At best, the popes were these vague figures that your parish priest-barely literate, with enough Latin to make it through the mass more or less-would commemorate in the canon of the mass (again, in bad Latin, therefore unintelligible to the faithful). At worse, he was a troublesome politician. Was the papacy “glorious” under the Pope Alexander VI? Many faithful Catholics did not think this was the high-watermark of papal glory.

9 02 2010

Keep chipping away Arturo… post after post…

9 02 2010

This whole mess started along before the Second Vatican Council. You can draw a straight line between Vatican I and Vatican II. At Vatican I, the Pope became the “master” of the “Word of God”, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

9 02 2010

Part of the problem is that so little of traditional Catholic culture is left that the papal cult of personality is made to stand in for it. The elephant in the living room is that the religion now going by the name “Catholicism” in the typical parish is not the same religion as the one that went by that name fifty years ago. Conservative and even some traditionalist Catholics devote an extraordinary amount of psychic energy to ignoring that fact, which given the scale of the catastrophe is sort of like a Titanic passenger ignoring the iceberg. For many Catholics, the pope is all that’s left of Catholicism, and if every word he utters is not gospel, then chaos beckons. It is sad and its pathetic and I have to admit that at times I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time imagining Paul VI in a very uncomfortable place, but it is real.

9 02 2010
Joseph Caudle

Excellent post Arturo. As much as Commonweal is supposed to make “good” Catholics squirm, I often find myself really agreeing with their critiques on issues like this. They certainly have their own blindnesses, but they do a good job of pointing out those of their opponents on the “Right.” I look forward to the coming posts.

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