I think this analysis suggests a positive case, in the American context at least, for a papacy that simultaneously calls U.S. Catholics away from a too-close entanglement with the fortunes and platform of the Republican Party, and that consistently reminds non-Catholics and non-Christians that there is more to Christianity than the particular set of issues that have (understandably) kept many American believers in a right-of-center political orbit. This is, again, something that the last two popes did as well — but if Pope Francis’s public profile continues to come across as more “liberal” than theirs, it might actually play a helpful role in complicating the “partisan captivity” scenario that Reno sketches out.The temptation to papolatry is especially strong in times of crisis. The election of JPII - and the founding of EWTN in the United States - was a breath of fresh air for orthodox Catholics who had endured years of doctrinal and liturgical insanity. When the local parishes and diocesan establishment only offer mashed up baby food, then Catholics will begin looking elsewhere for meat. Mark Shea speaks derisively of "Conservative Catholic Folk Heroes," but even he concedes that they exist because, rightly or wrongly, lay Catholics do not trust their pastors or their bishops (in many cases, rightly so.) The internet exacerbates this tendency by making it possible to follow the daily goings on in Rome and every little thing the popes say. If the pope likes ham and eggs for breakfast, then sure enough there will be some Catholics who insist on having ham and eggs for breakfast every day as well. I, being the cantankerous disobedient Rad Trad that I am, will of course loudly denounce the pope for not including bacon.
So that’s the positive case. The more negative case is that to the extent that conservative Catholics in the United States find themselves actively disagreeing with Pope Francis’s emphases, whether on political issues or matters internal to the church or both, it might help cure them/us of the recurring Catholic temptation toward papolatry.
This temptation was sharpened for many Catholics by John Paul II’s charisma and Cold War statesmanship and then Benedict’s distinctive intellectual gifts, and by their common role as ecumenical rallying points for orthodox belief in an age of heresy. But if the tendency is understandable, it’s also problematic, because the only thing that Catholics are supposed to rely on the papacy for is the protection of the deposit of faith, and on every other front — renewal, governance, holiness — it’s extremely important for believers to keep their expectations low.
Charity requires us to pray for the pope and to have reverence for his office. He is Christ's Vicar on earth, but he is not Christ (and contra one professor at my old seminary, the pope alone is the Vicar of Christ.) Charity does not require willful blindness. It is not necessarily disrespectful or disobedient to note that by every quantifiable measure the Church has been in free fall for fifty years. Obedience does not require us to praise every word that comes from the pope's mouth or to laud his every prudential decision as not only wonderful but the best possible decision that anyone could have made. Michael Brendan Dougherty rightly notes that one stray remark by the pope during an airplane interview does not overturn two millennia of Catholic moral theology.
I freely admit that Pope Francis's liturgical preference for stripped altars makes me want to rend my garments. I urge him to make good on his promises to reform the Curia. I'm deeply suspicious of his recent curtailment of the TLM for the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. Other than those things though, I like him just fine, heh.
h/t: Rod Dreher