Sometimes I think Pope Francis is a gift to the Catholic Church, especially when he says something silly, clumsy, or even stupid. He allows serious Catholics to take the papal cult less seriously than they have been doing for generations. Overall, that’s a good thing.
It began almost gently, as a matter of style, with the way Pope Francis offered pungent insults in his homilies and interviews. He called out archetypes. He slammed what he called “airport bishops.” He characterized Christians who complain too much as “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” He belittled certain types of nuns as “old maids.” Suddenly, the almost Olympian dignity of the papacy was replaced by something else.
The cult that has surrounded the papacy in recent decades is not entirely Catholic. Much of it is driven by celebrity culture, and the demands of an unending news cycle. The pope functions in the mainstream media as a kind of living symbol of all Western religion. In the Catholic media, he’s the man who can move magazine covers, or get you to click. He’s the most famous Catholic, and he’s covered as if he were providing “the religious view” of current events.
One way or another, people look to him as a living oracle. Many believe, falsely, that a pope has the authority to change unpopular moral and theological teachings of the Church, as if he were the leader of a giant political party and decided that a few planks in the party platform needed to be changed to ensure his party’s relevance.
But in some ways, the exaggerated cult of the papacy has roots in the Church itself. The doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council was clearly a reaction to the age of revolution. Romantics within the Church wanted to re-invest the papacy with an authority that no politician or political movement could claim. The definition the Council promulgated fell far short of the ultramontanist ideal, and was in fact framed as a brake against novelty. The pope should invoke his infallible authority only when teaching what the Church has always taught and believed.
But faithful Catholics also used this doctrine of infallibility as a kind of security blanket during a long period of theological and doctrinal confusion. They reconciled their conviction that the Church was “indefectible” with the reality of apostasy all around them by clinging to the papal magisterium for stability. Joseph Ratzinger, first as a kind of ghostwriter for John Paul II and then as Benedict XVI, gave that sense of unshakeable solidity to the papacy.
Francis is now something less than a symbol of religion, or the living representative of Catholic faith on earth. He’s not a sign from God for all living in this moment. Through his own loquacity, he’s reduced himself to a stereotype that has become familiar to many Catholics: He’s the old liberal, who is just appalled by the young Huns entering his religious order.
Last week, Pope Francis was speaking to a group of liturgists in Rome, and summing up the 20th-century history of liturgical reform in the Roman Church. He told a very simple story of how conservative popes encouraged reforms throughout the 20th century, and then the Second Vatican Council issued its opinion, shortly thereafter, that there should be a new liturgy in the vernacular, one that encouraged more lay participation. In the midst of this clichéd and not altogether illuminating hash of history, he used language invoking his authority as pope in a rather clumsy way. “We can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”
This little sentence caused liturgical traditionalists to erupt in shock and horror, and liturgical progressives to chortle in victory. But all this is premature. In the era of Francis, papal utterances no longer end debates — partly because Francis seems to open up debates that were previously closed under the previous pontificates, and partly because no one can quite tell you what, specifically, Francis means, or if he means anything at all.
How can a process of reform be “irreversible,” if it is also subject to continuing revision and application? “The practical application,” Pope Francis admitted in the same address, “is still ongoing.” In reality, the pope was merely gesturing at his great authority, as if that itself settled an ongoing dispute in the Church about whether the modern liturgical reform was a success or a dead end. In a way, he was trying to use papal authority as a kind of video-game cheat-code. And by doing so, he has once again reduced it.
Simply put, we don’t have to listen to popes when they are talking out of their rear ends.
Simply put, we don’t have to listen to popes when they are talking out of their rear ends. What Francis describes as an orderly procession of liturgical reform in the 20th century will very likely one day be seen as one of the greatest spams of iconoclasm in the history of Christianity.
And the fact that Francis is so wrong on this, as on many other things, will, one hopes, break the exaggerated papal cult once and for all. This period of time in the Church, in which its lay intellectuals and bishops turn almost exclusively to recent papal utterances rather than to Scripture and the doctors of the Church, will one day look very unusual. In God’s permissive will, and in his Providence, Pope Francis is hastening that day. For that I’m grateful.