Thursday, May 8, 2014

He's a father, not a General Secretary

Catholics must learn to resist their popes - even Pope Francis:
Pope Francis has a funny way of naming and shaming certain tendencies in the church, using insults that are inventive, apposite, and confounding. His ear is finely tuned for the way the Catholic faith can be distorted by ideology. And I'd like to imitate his example when I say this: Most Catholics are completely unprepared for a wicked pope. And they may not be prepared for Pope Francis either. They are more loyal to an imagined Catholic party than to the Catholic faith or the church.
Between Pentecost and the launch of, most Catholics did not have access to the day-to-day musings of their pope. The Roman pontiff's theological speculations have been of almost no interest to Catholics throughout history, and never became so unless he was a great theologian already, or there was a great controversy which the authority of the Roman Church might settle. To the average Catholic living hundreds of miles from Rome the Faith was the Faith, whether the pope was zealously orthodox like St. Benedict II or a sex criminal like Pope John XII.
But the social crosscurrents of the last 50 years of Catholic life have made the pope a more intimate figure in the lives of Catholic believers. During the post–Vatican II upheavals in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, conservative Catholics developed a mental architecture that told them that even if their parish priest or local bishop was lax, immoral, or even vaguely heretical, there was practically a living saint in Rome, whose unassailable orthodoxy, personal charisma, and good works were taken as the living sign of the indefectibility of the church. The solidity of the message coming from Rome has been for many Catholics the practical experience of this truth about the church.
That squares with the feeling I've always had about a certain kind of Catholic. I used to be that kind of Catholic. It's a great emotional comfort to believe that even if the local parishes or the diocese are run by rank Modernists, the pope will protect. It's not the healthiest way to live the faith to put it lightly. Popes can be good or bad, and history is rife with examples of popes who have been very bad indeed. What will the good conservative Catholic do if we see another Alexander VI, or John XXII, or Benedict IX, or Stephen VI?
Look for instance at the reaction of conservative Catholics to the pope's phone call to Jaquelina Lisbona, a woman in Argentina civilly married to a divorcée, in which Francis supposedly counseled her to practically ignore church teaching on divorce, adultery, confession, and Holy Communion.
Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture speculated, "[F]or all we know, she and her husband are now living as brother and sister, in which case there would be no reason why she could not resume receiving the sacraments." Of course, if this were the case the parish priest could have determined this without the extraordinary phone call from Christ's vicar.
Before deleting it (perhaps in embarrassment), Jimmy Akin reminded his readers at the National Catholic Register that the pope has the power to act as the church's chief legislature and to execute judgments immediately, and so therefore he could annul the first marriage and radically sanction the second, implying all this could be done over the phone. That he would have short-circuited the church's entire juridical process, undermined faith in the church's discipline, and undercut Catholic priests seems to bother Akin not at all. This same defense was used to justify the pope's breaking of liturgical rubrics, essentially employing the Nixon defense that "when the pope does it, it's not illegal."
 This defense, whether it's the president or the pope, is nonsense on stilts. It destroys the notion of Faith as something revealed by God and turns it into philosophical pragmatism. The Church ceases to be an infallible guide to the Truth, and becomes the manufacturer of "truth."
Let me suggest that these two good Catholic men are acting not as church men but as party men, and falling into what Hillary Jane White aptly diagnosed as "papal positivism." Lawler and Akin are not alone. The bulk of Catholic media is devoted to moon-faced speculation about how the discreet governing decisions, words, and gestures of the pope are accomplishing some larger goal that we further speculate must be in the pope's head or heart. It's very easy to make the pope into a saintly superhero when you act as his ventriloquist.
 Papal positivism; I'm going to steal that term.
Party membership and church membership are not alike at all. Party bids its members to spin, minimize, and explain away supposed contradictions between one party leader and the next, to hide deviations by party leaders from the party platform. Because party members cannot know the outcome of the next election, crimes, oversight, or simple mismanagement by the party leader are treated as much less serious offenses to the cause than the scandal that would come from admitting or publicizing them in the sight of the opposing party.
Unlike a party, the church already knows the outcome of its election; the blessed reign, the accursed don't. The church already has victory. And so the church and its believers do not depend on the righteousness of the pope; the papacy and the church depend on the righteousness of Christ. The Catholic faith teaches that the pope has the same duty to remain constant in the faith as we do, the Holy Spirit doesn't turn him into an automaton upon his election. If he lies, we must rebuke him in charity. If he fails at something, we should help him. He ain't just the Catholic heavy, he's our brother.
Church members have assurance that comes from God not Rome, the type that if it ever sunk in would prepare them for martyrdom. Party members suffer from a twitchy, defensive anxiety, the type that when it sinks in makes them petty see-no-evil demagogues.
Ideally, clergymen are supposed to be shepherds and spiritual fathers. Some are good at those roles and many are not. Personal holiness in your parish priest is a beautiful thing and it can serve to strengthen our own faith. Ultimately though, we are not judged on what our priests do or fail to do, but on our personal faith and personal actions.
The Catholic Party eclipsing the Catholic Church has a distorting effect on the world's perception too. If the loudest and most prominent orthodox members of the church in the media treat the pope like a party leader and are so quick with clever-dick rationalizations of the massive changes to the practice of the Faith over the past 50 years, why should they be surprised that the world conceives of the doctrines and dogmas of the Faith as mere party planks or mutable policy, to be exchanged, updated, or abandoned as the times change?
 There's been a terrible rupture between Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the last fifty years. Too often clergymen forget lex orandi, lex credenda, the law of prayer is the law of belief. There's been more radical upheaval and chaos since Vatican II than in the previous 1950 years of Church history put together. For the record, the Novus Ordo is a valid Mass. The fact that I even have to add that qualification speaks of how much things have changed. We think of the sacraments in terms of bare bones validity, as if anything goes so long as the matter and form are present. Technically, Father could come down to the altar in his golf clothes and say the words of consecration over some bread and wine, and it would be a valid sacrament. The ars celebrandi of that particular occasion would tell everyone present that the Eucharist is nothing serious. Every parish appears free to mold the Mass according to its own personal preferences. Anyone who is involved in the life of their dioceses can readily tell you which parishes celebrate the Novus Ordo "reverently" and which do not.

The overall impression it gives outsiders is that the Catholic faith exists as a set of Platonic ideals that doesn't have much influence on the way Catholics actually live their faith. For Catholics who try to take the faith seriously, it creates cognitive dissonance: "The Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary represented to God the Father with all of the angels and saints present here at the foot of the cross, but everyone is here in Hawaiian shirts and shorts, laughing and carrying on before, during, and after Mass."

The pope is a father, not a General Secretary. We love and respect our father, but sometimes for his own good we need to rebuke him if he goes off the reservation.


  1. This same defense was used to justify the pope's breaking of liturgical rubrics, essentially employing the Nixon defense that "when the pope does it, it's not illegal."

    In a very real sense, it simply turns the Pope into a latter day Mohammed, receiving his latest "revelation" to change whatever he feels necessary as circumstances require.

    1. I'm convinced that if we had better priests and bishops, the papal cult of personality wouldn't be nearly as strong.