Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Pope Is Not That Important

Life remains fairly quiet here in Combermere, with it being another week of more or less just taking care of the ordinary things that need doing. So I thought I would skip the popular ‘This Week in Madonna House’ post that I usually write this day (you can just read last week’s post—nothing much has changed!) and write something a bit juicier.

I do confess that the title of this blog post is intentionally provocative, even a bit outrageous. All right – it’s click bait, I admit it! But I’ve got something I want to say about the subject, and what’s the point of saying it if nobody reads it, eh?

Those who are long-term readers of the blog, or who know me personally, know that I am as faithful and orthodox a Catholic as you can find, with a great love and respect for both the office of the papacy and for its current occupant. Not that my opinion counts for a great deal one way or the other, but I think Pope Francis is quite wonderful and I appreciate deeply his talks, homilies, speeches, his emphasis on mercy and evangelization, poverty and joy.

I would also maintain, and maintain quite firmly, that I have not yet read a single word from this man that does not reflect faithfully sound Catholic teaching, as it is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Is he a perfect human being? Of course not, and Peter’s sede would be permanently vacante if that was the criterion for filling it.  I will confess that I find his off-the-cuff speaking style (i.e. these mile-high press conferences he gives) a bit casual and imprecise for my taste, a bit too easily misunderstood or distorted by those who have an agenda to distort. But c’est la vie—every Pope has areas of weakness, and who am I to… well, you know the drill.

What I want to speak about here, though, is something a bit deeper that has been on my heart for awhile now, since before Pope Francis was elected, to be honest. And it is this: the Pope is, truly, not that important. He is important, that is to say, but not that important. I have been concerned for some time now that there is a papal-centrism that has come into how Catholics appropriate, express, understand their faith, and I think it is off-kilter.

One could point to the rock star charisma and personality cult that built up around Pope John Paul II to account for this, but I think it started a few popes earlier—say around that whole ‘prisoner in the Vatican’ business (was that Pius IX—must look that up before posting this entry…). When the papacy was attacked by Garibaldi and the papal states forcibly taken by him to become part of the emerging Italian nation state, there was a strong sense of personal loyalty to the pope and a fierce identification of Catholic piety with that kind of personal devotion and dedication.

All of that is commendable, of course. And with the specific instance of Pope John Paul II, there is no question that the doctrinal and moral confusion of the 1970s and 80s in the Catholic Church needed to be redressed by a strong unifying figure, someone who was both a clear teacher and a charismatic leader. And so God gave us our beloved Polish pope for all those years, and he was exactly what the Church needed at that time.

All that being said (and I realize I’ve given a very potted and partial history of things here), our balance is out of whack at this point. The information revolution has fuelled this, of course—never before has every papal utterance, every weekday homily, every tweet for crying out loud, been instantly transmitted to the four corners of the earth. And there can be a tendency to make the pope and his teaching office the whole center and focus of our Catholic faith, our Catholic life. 

And this can be very disorienting, when you have a succession of popes like we have just had, from Benedict to Francis, where the doctrinal content is (yes, I insist) the same, but the style, the personality, and the specific pastoral and theological focus, is quite different. Do we have to change our whole approach to being Catholic every time a new occupant of the Chair of Peter is elected? Do we have to change our entire spirituality, our own pastoral and apostolic priorities, our own personal way of following Christ and living the Gospel, depending on what Cardinal gets elected next? Change our whole vocabulary of the faith every few years, to match the style and mode of expression of Pope (insert name here)?

Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Nonsense on stilts. Nonsense on steroids. Mega-nonsense. The Pope is important. But he is not that important. We have to recall that, for much of the history of the Church, most Catholics were only vaguely aware of the name of the current Pope, and certainly had no access to anything he said or did.

And yet somehow—somehow!—they managed, eh? The monks said their prayers. The priests celebrated Mass and heard confessions. The laity carried on with their daily tasks. The faith got passed on, generation to generation, badly or well. 

And everyone sinned and messed up a lot, and hopefully most people repented and asked God for mercy, and I fervently hope most people somehow, through the unfathomable grace of God, bumbled and stumbled and fumbled their way into heaven. All while barely knowing the name of the current Pope.

The center, the focus, the fulcrum of our Catholic faith is not, not, not the Pope. It is Jesus Christ, crucified for our salvation and risen from the dead, with us always to the end of the ages and constantly gracing us with the grace we need to follow Him and be saved. Tomorrow I will talk about what the role of the Pope is in all of this, but that’s enough for today.

Let us not be upset then, if the Pope says something to a group of reporters that we don’t much like, or if his personality displeases us, or if we don’t agree with his pastoral priorities or his characteristic vocabulary or whatever. Who cares, really? Get on with being a Christian, why don’t you? Live the Gospel, and be faithful to what God is asking you to do today. Because that is what is important, now and forever.


  1. Absolutely true. However, I am embarrassed in retrospect by my former papolatry. How is that I can be inconsistent? And, I fear, if we ever get another Benedict XVI I would return to my filth!

  2. classic ultramontanism further perverted by the immediacy of modern communications.

  3. Well said! Liking the pope, or your bishop for that matter, is not required for living out one's faith. Respecting their office and loving the sinner in it is though.

    1. Yes! See my follow-up post for further thoughts on the matter!

  4. Well, I LOVE this way that I have never loved any other pope...however, respectful I have been of their office.

    At least several mornings a week, I read his homilies. A homily that shows a deep intellectual grounding, rooted in a powerful biblical sensibility, and adroit at analyzing the problems of the modern world and of the contemporary church. His holiness is evident , most especially, in his lack of triumphalism. In his humility.... In his charity.... He has a heart so warm and full, it pours out to those around him, especially the poor, the infirm, the very young, the very aged... the whole world has noted this ..

    I welcome his words. I find he helps me in my life...

    I was tired of the old narratives. I was tired of the responses to the old narratives...about a church in an almost inevitable but heroic decline, beset by the forces of an increasingly hostile culture, certainly not at fault for its own lack of moral authority...

    I welcome this Francis...who so often says "I am a sinner". Me too.

    Let the dialogues begin!

    1. Oh, I love him too! Don't misunderstand me - I think he's just great.

  5. During every pontificate (and episcopate, and pastorate), there are those who are enjoying it and those who are enduring it. They frequently trade places when there is a change of leadership. Those who are enjoying it, at any time, ought to be compassionate toward those who are enduring it, because they will likely trade places again.
    To quote a wise old Anglican lady, “Never make your pastor your faith.”

    1. Very wise counsel, Fr. Michael. And a good reminder to all to be really charitable towards one another - obviously, we all don't see things the same way, and yet we're all called to be part of the body. Kindness goes a long way.

  6. “The pope is not that important”… Hmmm. A little paradoxical for a blog that started out as “Life with a German Shepherd”. Or could it be damage control. There has been a change hasn’t there. Catherine is happy.

    What are we to make of this new pope? Darling of the media. For those of us guilty, perhaps, of “popolatry” in the past it is disorienting to put it politely.

    Not really surprising. For the past fifty plus years (my entire life) the Church’s teaching on sexuality (theology of the body) has been a core and ever-blossoming presence. Its sheer beauty, its central, essential place in understanding what it is to be human, its indispensability to understanding a properly ordered social justice: we learned these things at the feet of Pope Paul VI and “JPII”. Contraception, abortion, homosexuality were not just moral “issues” to us. They were the very fabric of living, where the rubber meets the road, the real. Our ability to negotiate our human sexuality defined for us: “vocation”, “self-sacrifice”, abandonment, trust, holiness.

    Enter Pope Francis. A few quotes:
    “The Church has been obsessed with contraception, abortion and homosexuality” (There are more important things than 65,000,000 dead in North America alone since 1970?)
    "When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?" (Homosexuality is a cross, no better, no worse than many crosses. Surely we must not judge. But is it really charity to pretend it is not a cross?)
    “That example I mentioned shortly before about that woman who was expecting her eighth (child) and already had seven who were born with caesareans. That is an irresponsibility…” (Wait…. What happened to “Who am I to judge”?)
    “Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood!” (Yes, this is indeed a problem deserving of mention, all those Catholics out there having huge numbers of children irresponsibly. Am I on a different planet?)

    I’m definitely on a learning curve about the papacy.

    1. Yes, you certainly do seem to be on a learning curve. Aren't we all? And isn't that a good thing! I started blogging about Pope Benedict, not because he was pope, but because I considered (and still consider) him to be the greatest theologian of the 20th century, and I was (and am) concerned that his writings have been marginalized. My 'Life With A German Shepherd' blog had nothing to do with a personality cult for Pope Benedict, but a boundless esteem for Joseph Ratzinger - quite a different thing.
      I honestly do not believe Pope Francis has changed any teaching, nor contradicted anything of what prior popes say about sex, marriage, and family life. The quotes you quote are all out of context, partial, and ignore the five hundred other things he has said that reaffirm quite strongly what the Church has taught, always will teach, about these matters. Pope Francis is great - but he sure does have a different style of expression, that's for sure, and my main point is that, if his way of putting things doesn't appeal to you or help you... it's really not that important. Peace to you.

  7. I love this post Father Denis! I think God has given us this pope to "stir the pot" of our world's current complacency and Christians' self-righteousness. All kinds of people are noticing this pope. People are eager to hear his words... he's got us talking - and thinking!

  8. It should be clear that “Jorge Bergolio” (or any of the other men who were Popes in the past 60 years) but the Papacy seems to be very important. In this age of globalization, Internet communications and all the challenges of renewing the church so that it can proclaim the gospel to the world…the papacy has become very important.

    We should not just listen to textbooks and catechisms, but listen to what the spirit is doing and saying to the church through the papacy these past 60 years. It would seem the spirit has been transforming and preparing the papacy for new role and service as pastor of the universal church. There seems to be a special prophetic role to the papacy, not because of anything special about the men but because the spirit chose them. The problem seems to be there are thousands of little popes pontificating all over the press and Internet that end of just making noise. What is need are people who are humble and simple and can hear the spirit speaking through the pope to the church and the world.

    In regards to Pope Francis, it just seems to me that we have had so many documents,
    Synods, studies, and encyclicals over the past 50 years that the challenge is now to live all this and to walk the talk. We can read all the cook books, write delicious and healthy menus but if we do not know how to go into the kitchen and cook it up and feed to the world…what is the point. If one reads “The Joy of the Gospel” it is clear that Francis is not saying anything new, he is just saying lets get out their and do it.

    1. in the first sentence i meant the "men" are not "important" but the papacy is very important today for a new ministry in the universal church. no cult of personalities, but listen to what the spirit is doing and saying to the church through their ministry.

  9. Some Catholics who are ...ummm more progressive than I ....have been very critical of my affection for Francis. For many of them...and me too...there were years of bitterness and division. Those friends that remained urged me to see this (having a pope less pastoral and more rigidly orthodox) as a way to grow. It was seen as a help to break out of the false bonds- clericalism, and the adulation of the papacy. So, I sort of hear that message in reverse here.

    Francis is ...for me... So like able and do obviously committed to the marginalized. These progressive friends warn not let your need/desire for a benevolent , spiritual father lull you back into an unhealthy submission.

    Please pray for me. The pope is just not that important.

    I need to present my personhood to God, be honest about what I see and hear. I can grow. Otherwise, my personhood...and the papacy itself can become an object of affect, adulation...and God is overlooked. We end up seeing only ourselves.

    We need to pray for each other.

    Bless you

    1. Amen. Let us pray for one another, indeed. God bless you.

  10. I read my post over...I see I have not expressed myself very well. It is really not my intention to be critical of anyone. I guess I was trying to saw ...all of these things ...bring us closer to ourselves and one another....and ultimately to God. They are not meant to be distractions. Bless you.


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