More Papal than the Pope

The election of Pope Francis has lured from their lairs a number of Catholics who are more papal than the pope. I am referring to theΒ  bloggers and commentators who are quite sure that they know better than the pope what true Catholic doctrine is and its correct liturgical expression. They tend to be selective about their acceptance of the Councils of the Church and condemn the present successor of St Peter, along with several of his predecessors, to the circle of hell reserved for heretics and obstinate preachers against truth. Overstated? Yes, but I want to make a point, and at least that has got you reading.

Every Catholic knows that the doctrine of Infallibility applies to the office of pope, not his person, and is so ringed round with qualifications and caveats that it has only once been invoked since it was formally proclaimed. Not everything, therefore, that a pope says or does is to be regarded as ‘authoritative’. There is, however, a long tradition in the Church of receiving the teaching of popes and bishops with respect. Sometimes, however, respect seems to be the last thing anyone thinks about. During the last few weeks we have seen something of a divide along soi-disant conservative and liberal lines.

The so-called liberals have hailed every act of Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air, a return to the days of good Pope John. The so-called conservatives have quailed before every liturgical change and muttered darkly about infidelity. In my simple way, I think the liberals will be disappointed and the conservatives find they have nothing to fear. The pope doesn’t make it up as he goes along. There is a deposit of faith which he articulates; and the Holy Spirit is the ultimate guarantor of the Church’s fidelity to the truth. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there won’t be changes which some will find heartening and others dispiriting. In fact, it is a guarantee that there will be change. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing’ is true in every generation; so, something to please the liberals and appall the conservatives after all? Perhaps. I’m not a soothsayer.

What really interests me is this. When did people start to think that they could call themselves loyal Catholics but believe the pope and bishops to be in error? That cuts both ways, across both liberals and conservatives. We have liberals believing they can do anything, especially if they invoke ‘pastoral necessity’, and conservatives believing that they can condemn anything, especially if it has ‘Vatican II’ anywhere in its make-up. It is a rather odd situation. I myself think it is fundamentally unCatholic, but then, I disappoint my liberal friends by being a traditionalist, and my conservative friends by sitting more lightly to maniples and birettas than they.

I write this with a smile, as befits a Saturday morning post, but underneath there is a serious question. The unity of the Church is a mark of her Catholicity. We all have a duty to preserve that unity, whatever labels we want to give ourselves. Might it be time we asked whether we do or not?


24 thoughts on “More Papal than the Pope”

  1. I’m an outsider, but one of the things that has struck me about some Catholic reactions, especially here in South Africa, is that some of the liberal or progressive response to the new pope seems more ultramontanist than anything else, focusing to the nth degree on the person of the pope. One expects that of some conservatives (of the post-Tridentine sort), but when it comes from the other side its really odd and possibly opportunistic.

    While I’ve been impressed by Pope Francis, I do find the tendency to play him off against Pope Benedict very trying. And, perhaps strangely, I’ve noticed something similar with the new Archbishop of Canterbury – reports noting how “with it” he is etc. It seems that we now have a pope of Rome and an Archbishop of Canterbury who are better with soundbites than their predecessors were. But Benedict XVI and Rowan Williams were two of the great Christian leaders of our time. That they tend to be dismissed because they were not good with soundbites speaks volumes about our contemporary world!


    • I tend to agree. What strikes me about both liberals and conservatives is that they often adopt the positions they impute to the other, the liberals being doctrinaire about their liberalism and the conservatives very choosy about their conservatism. Benedict XVI and Rowan Williams are indeed great men and I think the Church has been blessed to have had them as leaders. For the rest, we wait, hope and pray.

  2. I have to admit that I’ve mainly ignored what has been written about Pope Francis, but I do receive the Vatican daily updates which list his activities and give the texts of any homilies that he delivers.

    I maintain an interest in Catholic affairs even though I am an Anglican – but I’d rather decide for myself what to understand about the Pope, without any insights or opinions from others.

    And I pray for Unity of the Churches Universal even if it’s unlikely until some deeper exploration of what divides us allows the Holy Spirit to bring this about.

    I believe that Pope Francis is different from his predecessors, just as they were different from theirs. He will be guided by the Holy Spirit and the thing that comes across clearly is a humility and compassion for the poor and suffering which we might wish to share among our own churches.

    I come here for common sense and learning about Catholic matters, this allows me to be informed and gives me a better grasp than I might receive from reading other Catholic blogs or publications.

    My Spiritual Director is an Anglican Priest. He reads the Tablet and occasionally shares articles with me which he considers appropriate. I also follow some of the former Anglicans who have joined the Ordinariate, although, after the initial rush of activity, things now seem to have settled down to a steady state.

    They seem to be full of joy about what they have done, but there also seems to be tensions under the surface as they struggle to express their identity as Catholics within the wider Church. It will come in time, but their struggle for resources seems to indicate how reliant they are on good will from the wider Catholic Church to remain a viable expression of Catholicity.

  3. I would simply like to say thank you for this, Sister Catherine. I too have been appalled by comments of some bloggers elsewhere – we humans seem unable at times to appraise anything or anyone other than by comparing with others (yes, I see that in myself often enough!) but that is so destructive. Like UK Viewer I come here for balance and charity and once again you’ve helped soothe my spirit! Thank you.

  4. I am a Liberal Catholic and as such, don’t come under the See of Rome – however, I have hyge respect for the New Pope and for what he is able to do within Christendom. I welcomed him in with prayers of thanksgiving and hope. We live in an age where seemingly criticism is given instantly and vhemently – with the internet, everyone has a voice and many use it (including me). I think an intelligent and measured approach, offered with grace and charity is one to aspire to. I have been appalled at some of the things being said – not only about Pope Francis, but about the late Margaret Thatcher… Politics and religion both bring out the loudest voices of dissent and support. Retreat to the mountain top for prayer and contemplation is necessary sometimes, just to find soothing and balance – as Antonia just remarked. This website is indeed one such mountain top…

    • Thank you. I think respect has not only gone out of fashion, it is sometimes seen as a limitation on personal freedom. Yet it is such a beautiful thing to give to another, that ‘second glance’ which speaks volumes about how we value them.

  5. Hmm… very interesting. Whilst I completely agree about our loyalty to the Holy Father, and adherence to the Deposit of Faith, surely it is very early days in this Pontificate.

    Holy Church survived some pretty ghastly popes in medieval times, not all of who saw the Petrine Office in perhaps the same way as we have come to expect it to be seen. Pope Francis can not be all things to all men, but as long as his Pontificate is centred on Christ, we have nothing to concern ourselves be we liberal or conservatives.

    Btw, I rather like a nice biretta πŸ˜‰

    • Thank you. I think we do need to be concerned about the unity of the Church and the way in which as individuals we either contribute to or detract from it. I was just thinking about some of the less glorious popes we’ve had and considering how outstanding people like St Catherine of Siena dealt with them. It reminds me of what St Benedict has to say about the way in which we are to act towards the abbot β€” or the doing of impossible things!

      • Perhaps by saying ‘we should not be concerned’ I made a misleading statement. The unity of the Church is of course very important, and not for one moment had I intended to convey otherwise, but I was referring to the office of the Pontiff.

        The part of the Rule you mention is relevant – ” The Abbot is not to disturb the flock entrusted to him nor to make any unjust arrangements, as though he had the power to do whatever he wished. He must constantly reflect that he will have to give to God an account of all his decisions and actions”. (63:1)

        Though a Jesuit if the Holy Father abides by this, as I am sure he will, then there will be no disunity of the Church amongst the faithful – but I suppose realistically there will always be factions with alternative agenda’s.

  6. I so agree with your comment, Sr Catherine, about the pot and kettle situation found in both camps. I confess to having caught myself out in this regard. I also strongly agree with Marion Luscombe’s last sentence. One of the many reasons I rejoice about Pope Francis is that I see both wings of the Church in him and believe he can reconcile them if they themselves are willing to be reconciled. He will also, I hope, be open and compassionate to those with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye, without compromising the truth. Wherever we stand, we need to always respect the conscience of the other and be open to the possibility that we are wrong.

    • In a monastery you’ll find that monks and nuns think their superior can do anything he/she likes β€” provided the said monks and nuns agree with it. If they don’t, ‘dialogue’ is the order of the day. Or, as one monk said rather more bluntly, ‘He should have asked me, dammit.’

    • Thank you for letting me know, Patricia. The blog was invisible to the internet for about a fortnight because the RSS feed had acquired some oddities and wasn’t working, but I couldn’t find the time to trouble-shoot. Now I’ve done so, everything should be working as before. I don’t know why you are receiving an email version. Did you sign up for one? You can always alter your preferences. Or it may be I’ve tweaked something I didn’t intend to . . . πŸ™

  7. Of course you are correct in saying that the Pope is not infallible in all he says: but you must be aware that many Roman Catholics – particularly the elderly – do tend to treat everything he says with more than reverence. I am sure the reason my wife’s mother did not remarry after her husband was killed in the war was because the Pope said there would be nothing wrong in remarrying but it would be nice if you didn’t.

    • Thank you. I was, of course, talking about the lack of due respect or reverence rather than any excess. By the way, it wasn’t really ‘the pope’ as such who said there was nothing wrong in remarrying but it would be nice if you didn’t, there’s a long history of second marriages being regarded askance in the Church. I haven’t time to go through the history here, but it is the flip side of the way in which the sanctity of the marriage bond was revered and promoted. That’s a tendency throughout Church history: to get at the positive through a negative, which often means that the negative tends to be what we all latch on to.

  8. I have concerns with what you wrote because I don’t think many of the statements can be borne out by fact or history.

    I’ll take a crack at a response later today on my own blog because, while I disagree with your position, I DO THINK it’s an important discussion to have

  9. My husband and I, together with our fellow parishoners, were relieved, overjoyed to welcome Pope Francis as the emptiness of the chair of Peter was felt as keenly as that of the empty chair at a family table. The rhetoric of which you write was spoken to us by those friends who had left the church and so had an axe to grind, as well as those outside of our faith who felt it a good opportunity to get their pokes in. We heard no end of negative commentary concerning the doctrine of Infallability, the church’s position on remarriage after divorce, child abuse, etc. For the most part the understanding of these issues was inaccurate, self serving. As for the radical traditionalists as well as the extreme liberals, we have read their knee jerk reactions, and it is pathetic. People who are steeped in selfishness, who live lives of disobedience at many levels, who want, want, want, will never be satisfied. We are happy with Pope Francis, believing the Holy Spirit called and sent him to us, whatever changes come we’ll adapt to, at our grass roots level in our parish, in our personal lives, nothing has shaken our faith. The people who are the most unhappy with our current pope or who hold their breath in anticipation of his next move should return to the Gospel and realign themselves with Jesus’ teachings because currently they are aligned with worldly motive and there is no peace to be found there.

  10. I try to look at the issue like this. There are things that the Pope/Church will do that I will not like/understand. I remain loyal despite my concerns and questions; I am not an expert and while I have a brain and opinions, the best guidance comes from the Pope/Church.
    There are things about Pope Francis that seem appealing or refreshing to some, challenging to others. This is not the point. Unity does matter. At Mass in my parish there are many people all with different views but we are there with a common purpose and faith – united in the celebration. We are right to ask questions and reflect, but to pick holes and find fault?

  11. Thank you for all your comments. Judging by my inbox, many people have resonated with the plea for Church unity although a few have been mystified by my style (hint: the point is in the last two paragraphs). The important thing, surely, is to do what we can as individuals to build up rather than tear down and to persevere in prayer.

Comments are closed.