Monday, January 16, 2017

When Rome Doesn't Exist

A moment ago I did something I rarely do anymore: read something about the pope. As a good son, I do not uncover my father's nakedness. It was an easy virtue to have when I had in Benedict a pope who, in my estimation, was as near to perfect as a pope can be. It's darn near impossible for me now. So I don't comment on the papacy. I don't say anything about Amoris Laetitia, about the dubia, about 'mercy,' etc.

In terms of the institutional growth of the Church, in these few short years we have nearly lost everything we had gained since JPII and BXVI. The Church was being recognized, finally again after the horrible post-Vatican II years, as meaning what it says and saying what it means. Again, it took 30 years of two amazing popes to do this. This is one of the most important measures of effectiveness: is it known what you stand for and are you perceived as being serious about its importance? Do you live your convictions, whatever they are? Don't lecture me about global warming while jet-setting. The Church was finally on its way back to being taken seriously as meaning what it says. It wasn't liked for this, but it was respected.

And you may agree or disagree with my approach. I don't comment on Church politics online, I don't talk about them among my friends. I have nothing to say, and my choice to ignore it reinforces my decision not to talk about it. "I don't know anything about it," I say. Ask me about footnote 54 or whatever it is as much as you like. Don't know, don't care.

So, what's lost? I didn't become Catholic because of the papacy. A great man was pope at the time, yes, but it had nothing to do with my decision. The pope isn't explicitly mentioned in the Bible, nor in the Creed. The pope meant very little to Augustine, somewhat more to Athanasius, he meant a lot to Aquinas, but without, somehow, finding his way in the Summa Theologica, at least not prominently. (Go ahead and type 'pope' into the NewAdvent search engine, if you don't believe me.) I'm not saying you can have a Church without a pope, but I am saying you can have a Catholic without a pope. For most Catholics throughout history, the pope meant very little. After all, most Catholics have been uneducated farmers.

But unity is a wonderful thing in the Church.The pope is the centre-point of this unity. He holds the place the heavenly Father has in the earthly Church. That's what he does when everything is working as it ought. There have been times when it has not, like during the 14th century schisms. But he was a point of pride for the Medieval Latin Church when it compared itself to the craziness of the East.

Image result for pope innocent iii
Knock off the verbal diarrhea!
Most of the saints in the history of the Church never met a pope. They barely concerned themselves with him. They likely prayed for him, but he probably wasn't much more real to them than their king was. Of course, that was then and this is now. We have the internet. The pope can be as close to us now as anything else. I have never been to Tolstoy's home in Yasnaya Polyana, but I could tell you a great deal about it. Thanks to modern technology, if I wanted to, I could read or listen to basically every word the pope speaks. Thanks to modern publishing, I can even know far more about Pope Gregory I than 99.9% of his contemporaries. All this being said, the pope can (should?) take on an importance in the spiritual life of Catholics that he never had in most of the history of the Church, at least for those 19 centuries that followed Peter's papacy, when all Christians basically knew each other by name, and certainly knew Peter by name and by sight. This is a great burden for a single individual to take on. Any given bishop cannot be everything to the 100,000 people of his diocese. Any given priest cannot be everything for the 2000 people of his parish. I cannot even be everything for the 7 other people in my house. That's not realistic, nor even good. I am not God, priests are not, bishops are not, the pope is not.

That being the case, I think that we need to (and this is why I have done so) calm down on our papocentrism. The pope needs to calm down on it too. The spiritual life is 99.999999999 about God. The pope fits into a small fragment of the remaining small fragment. Chesterton once wrote that being in the Church means that for us a Plato and a Shakespeare remains with us still to speak and to write to us. He meant that the Church was a living, revealing creature. I doubt he every thought that the Church in the person of the pope could ever develop verbal diarrhea and that so many of us Catholics could ever do anything else but feed off of it.

Every time I see a picture of a Catholic event with a cut-out of Pope Francis surrounded by a group of smiling young people, I ask myself, why? The unity and centrality of the Church is the Holy Eucharist that can never disappoint. The pope is supposed to be a sign of unity, but he can fail in that task. I think we Catholics are getting what we deserve for our idolization of the papacy under JPII.

Image result for hermitsIt's much harder to live an internal life, one devoid of external encouragements. The pope has been discouraging for people who think about the Church's mission to convert the world. He has been just one more thing to add to the 'cons' side in the list of reasons to think that the Gospel is doing its work in the world today. I am sure that even the saints were effected by good and bad news. I am sure they were encouraged when they heard that a great and arrogant prince had humbled himself and entered a severe monastery to do penance. I am sure they were disappointed when they heard about an adultery, about a failed crusade, the growth of a heresy. But they didn't make their spiritual lives about that, depend upon that.

The spiritual life is difficult precisely because it is about the intangible. You cannot take spiritual pleasure in matter, thus, you should not be able to be discouraged by it either. The character of the bishops, the quality of Catholic education, the mindset with which couples enter into marriage - none of it matters to you. What is it to you?

So, in the midst of this discouraging set of circumstances, I am reminded once more to think upon the transcendent God. Also, to remember that Catholicism is what Catholics do, and I can live it, and should live it, according to the resources that God has given me. I can and should continue living this Catholic life without worrying about what anyone else is up to.


  1. Are we getting what we deserve for our idolization of JPII? Or are we paying the price for JPII's tendency to encourage idolization of the papacy? And/Or are we living in a new world of mass 'communication' which makes a certain 'idolization' (images everywhere) of the papacy (the king, the president, etc.) - for good or for evil - inevitable? (You may plead (prudential) ignorance, but in fact you know we know you know (sic!) and care more than you're willing to admit.)

  2. Sometimes the effect is to care so much that you end up not caring at all or at least much less than you should.