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.