You don’t have to defend every word the Pope says.
Even if you consider yourself an enthusiastic and faithful Catholic of any stripe you are not obligated to defend every utterance in every papal interview or even every papal homily or declaration.
Popes – all popes – can say things that are wrong, incorrect, ill-informed, narrow, short-sighted and more reflective of their personal biases, interests and limitations than the broader, deeper tradition of Catholicism.
Which is why, traditionally, popes didn’t do a lot of public talking.
Quite a few issues have popped up recently – well, more or less continuously over the past three years, but I want to begin by addressing what I see as the fundamental, underlying problem apart from any particular priorities Pope Francis may have. That problem is the importance given to papal statements. Papal paragraphs. Papal sentences, participles and even papal pauses.
All of which require continual, exhaustive and exhausting rounds of what I’ve come call Popesplaining.
It’s a perfect storm, really, and Francis is merely the moment when the winds have reached their height (we hope).
The storm begin with constant, instant communication. We are accustomed to thinking of this as an advantage in terms of evangelization. Hey! The Pope can Tweet! You can get his daily thoughts in your inbox! You can Skype with the Pope!
The enthusiasm seems to be misplaced. When you combine instant communication with the other winds coursing through the the storm – a celebrity culture and a culture (even a church culture) in which we are told to seek God in the act of relating to other people’s presence and personalities above all, well, there’s your storm, one in which the focus of faith becomes the speaker rather than the Word.
Eager evangelizers then take advantage of this moment by hanging the faith on the (to some) charismatic individual, and so we have bishops falling all over themselves, sometimes in hilariously awkward ways, making sure we know that they’re trying to be more like Pope Francis, books inviting us to consider what Pope Francis would do, spiritual initiatives inviting us to “walk with Francis” and a Vatican website that used to feature the liturgical season on its splash page, but has not done so much since 2013.
Perhaps you see this as a positive development. Guess what again. It’s not.
I fail to see how this current mania helps address Protestant concerns that Catholicism holds the Pope up above Jesus and Biblical faith.
Because when even Fr. James Martin is checking himself, you know things have gone overboard:
Perhaps it was the same under John Paul II and Benedict, but the pope was the center of almost every conversation in Rome. Now, I bow to no one in my admiration for Papa Francesco, but at times I wondered if there was anything else to talk about! It reminded me of a group pilgrimage to Lourdes, when it seemed that the only names on our lips were those of Mary and St. Bernadette. After one Gospel reading at Mass, a Jesuit companion turned to me and said, “Ah, Jesus! I’ve missed him!”
One day I was returning from an appointment with a Vatican official to the Jesuit curia, a few hundred feet from St. Peter’s Square. As I made my way to my room I passed the larger-than-life statue of Jesus which stands on a high ledge overlooking the Curia garden. Underneath the statue was the legend: “Salus Tua Ego Sum.” Yes, I don’t know much Latin. But this was easy: “I am your salvation.” And I thought, well, yes, not the pope. It was a good reminder for someone like me, who idolizes Francis.
This is pretty crazy, but it’s also predictable. Students of religious movements and even students of sociology and mass psychology could predict it: When you strip principles away, personalities and emotional connections step in to fill the vacuum.
Religious history, and Catholic history is not an exception here, lurches between the institutional intellectual and charismatic or enthusiastic elements of faith. But the beauty of Catholicism has always involved an eventual balance between these elements. The pendulum swings too far, corrections pop up here and there – in reform movements, devotional movements and the giving of permission and suppression.
What holds it together is not a human person, but a Person. We look to Jesus, through this mystery of his Body, to gather us in truth and life. We believe that the Church is not an accidental human development. We believe that fallen creation has been redeemed by Christ and that every kind of brokennesss is answered by the Way, the Truth and the Life, embodied, as he willed it – through his Body, the Church.
The Church – in its teachings, sacramental life and spiritual Tradition – does not stand in the way of human flourishing and redemption, but is the way to it, because Jesus is the way.
People are drawn to the Church through the writing of its great spiritual writers, the power of its sacramental life, the beauty of its material presence in the world and the witness of its saints and martyrs because through it all, their questions are answered, their fears are assuaged and their brokenness is healed. In Christ, through his presence on earth.
The role of servant leadership, from laity to vowed to ordained, is to serve the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Tomorrow (February 22) is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. So this is an apt moment to watch these discussions kick into high gear.
Among the numerous testimonies of the Fathers, I would like to quote St Jerome’s. It is an extract from one of his letters, addressed to the Bishop of Rome. It is especially interesting precisely because it makes an explicit reference to the “Chair” of Peter, presenting it as a safe harbour of truth and peace.
This is what Jerome wrote: “I decided to consult the Chair of Peter, where that faith is found exalted by the lips of an Apostle; I now come to ask for nourishment for my soul there, where once I received the garment of Christ. I follow no leader save Christ, so I enter into communion with your beatitude, that is, with the Chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built” (cf. Le lettere I, 15, 1-2).
Dear brothers and sisters, in the apse of St Peter’s Basilica, as you know, is the monument to the Chair of the Apostle, a mature work of Bernini. It is in the form of a great bronze throne supported by the statues of four Doctors of the Church: two from the West, St Augustine and St Ambrose, and two from the East: St John Chrysostom and St Athanasius.
It is not that bishops or popes should not be active or creative leaders – it is that the kind of leadership Jesus calls for is servant-leadership, in service to the truth of the Gospel and in service to the Body of Christ. Always wary of placing the self, rather than Christ, at the center. Embedding oneself and one’s decision-making in the deep, broad life of the People of God, supported, as Benedict alludes to above, by the Spirit working through that great Tradition.
The relative formality of apostolic Christianity – for that is what Catholicism is – is about safeguarding the Faith against the temptation to allow the priorities of one particular age or individual from having too much influence and for allowing “space” as it were, underneath that highest level for various movements, influences and emphases to arise, dialogue, be refined, embraced, discarded and take their place.
A formalized liturgy is an expression of this: a liturgy in which the ministers are the servants of the Word and Sacrament, not designers of it, imposing their “vision” on others. Liturgical vestment and papal ceremony is also an expression of it – we say, “Oh, it’s so stiff and confining and formal” – well, it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to give embodiment to various aspects of the faith and more or less bury the personality of the individual bearing it all so that Christ can shine forth.
It sort of works.
And it works to the extent that the organic nature of these bodily processes is respected on all sides.
Do you see what I’m saying?
I’m saying that the Pope, as an individual, is not supposed to be that important.
All popes have their individual priorities and areas of expertise. Sure. But…
Which is why it’s all the more important that they humbly submit those interests and priorities, those particular charisms, to service of the life of a complex, deep, broad Church that belongs to Christ, not to them.
Before I move on to specifics, I want to say something about discussing these issues.
And it’s time.
Well, it’s been time for a while – it’s never not been time, but, well, it’s really time now.
And it’s time to do so without the spectre of being caricatured as a a “Francis-Hater” or that you must consider yourself “One of the Greatest Catholics of All Time.” Ignore that kind of discourse. It’s lazy.
It’s time to do so without the discussion-silencing claim that any critique of the current papacy must – must – come from a fearful identification with American capitalism rather than an embrace of Catholic social teaching.
There’s also no reason to feel guilty about engaging in this discussion or – honestly – not liking Pope Francis very much. It is awesome to be in the presence of the successor of St. Peter, and it is a great gift that Jesus gave us, Peter, the Rock. But it is just a matter of historical fact that not all popes are great, popes make mistakes and sin. Respect for and value of the office does not mean we must feel caught up in emotion about any pope, even the present one.
Years ago, I was in intense email discussion with someone who was considering leaving the Church, so scandalized was he by the sexual abuse scandals. He was not personally affected, but he had intimate knowledge of it all and had to write about it. I absolutely understood his pain, because it’s pain anyone would – and should – feel. But I made this argument to him over and over:
Look. The Church we’re in is the Church that is not confined by time or space. The Church we’re in in the present moment is the Church of 42, of 477, of 1048, of 1684, of 1893. The institutional sins and failures of the present moment are real, but no less real are the sins, failures and general weirdness of the past 2000 years. Look at the history of the papacy in the 9th and 10th centuries. If you can hold onto apostolic succession after studying that chaos, then nothing else is ever going to shake you.
(Oh, it didn’t work. He left the Church. For another church, no less scandal-ridden than this one, but oh well)
This applies to the discussion at hand, as well. Frantic, defensive fear that critiquing any aspect of any recent papacy would call into question one’s faith in Christ’s gift of Petrine ministry is silly. Our discussions should be grounded in humility and an acceptance of our limited understanding, but wondering if a Pope is doing or saying the right thing does not make one an unfaithful Catholic or a sedevacantist.
The inevitable concerntrolling respone is going to be, “Sure, you can say all that, but you know that a lot of the people speaking about Pope Francis are…”
Hey, guess what?
I don’t care.
It is admittedly challenging to discuss Pope Francis, though, because as much as he talks, there is still often an ambiguity about what he means when he does so. It is difficult to talk about his statements without imposing meaning or motivation from one direction (he doesn’t seem to believe much of anything) or the other (he obviously believes it all, but is just reaching out and being pastoral and accesssible).
So for me, the most fruitful path is to begin by looking at the nature of his speech and the role of the papacy – of any Catholic leader or catechist.
So I’ll begin with the notion of humility.
There is no way for one person to judge whether another is a “humble person” unless he has intimate personal knowledge of the other. One could work in a soup kitchen all day long and still be terribly proud. Someone could cook her own meals, wash her own dishes and embrace the beggar on the corner and still be an arrogant jerk in private – or be lovely. We just can’t tell from those external actions. We just can’t.
But what is a bit easier to discuss in a fair manner is the question of humility in leadership, and I think this is worth discussing in relationship to Pope Francis, for the notion that his papacy is marked by “humility” is used as an interpretive tool to the point that it becomes blinding and shuts down discussion. In fact, I think it’s essential that it be discussed, for what concerns me is the misappropriation of that word: “humble.”
Pope Francis, it seems to me, is described as a “humble” leader for a few reasons:
- He rejects various aspects of papal ceremonial.
- He moved out of the papal apartments.
- He says things like bishops should “smell like their sheep.”
- He emphasizes the “bishop of Rome” title.
- He says he values decentralization and dialogue, has had a Synod and tweaked the Curial structures just a bit.
But perhaps it is also fair to ask…
..knowing the role of the Pope, and understanding how easily misunderstood the role of the Pope is by most people today, is it a mark of humble leadership to allow your own words to become the dominant public face of Catholicism – on a daily basis?
So here’s the paradox. No, the contradiction: to brush away certain external expressions of papal authority while actually doubling down on the authority. Communicating in one way the supposed diminishing of the role while at the same time using the role to speak authoritatively to the entire world out of your own priorities on a daily basis.
If this isn’t clear, think of it this way: Change up the situation and imagine it happening in your workplace, your school or your parish with a new boss, principal or pastor.
What would you think then?
Here’s another comparison:
The Catholic Mass developed over time as an elaborate ritual in which the priest-celebrant was hidden behind a mysterious language, ceremony and vestments. It was, it was claimed, necessary to strip all of that so that the people could more directly encounter Christ. The end result is that all we have to look at now is the priest, and the “proper” celebration of Mass is completely dependent on his personal manner and how his style makes us feel.
One wonders if this is the best way to encourage humble leadership.
So to bring it back around to the matter of the individual and the value of formal structure that I raised above, the argument is made, “It is good for the Pope to break free of all of that. People need to encounter the Pope as a person who cares about them. It’s super humble.”
True to an extent, I guess, but again the risk of personality enters into it. I suppose I have to ask, bluntly, why is it important that I be assured that the Pope cares about me or wants to hug my kid or looks me in the eye? More importantly, is it good that I should feel that I need that and that a leader feeds into that need?
Is that encouraging me to look to Christ alone as my solace? Is it humility?
Any servant leader must be a listener, be open and engaged. We meet Christ in each other and by loving others. But the current discussion – that doesn’t begin with the present papacy, and goes, rather, back to John Paul II – that we know Jesus better because the Pope tells us he gets us and he loves us and carries his own briefcase! – is not healthy, feeds into the equating of emotionalism with faith, and is borderline idolatrous.