It’s raining spiritually again. The Pope has scandalized faithful Catholics and delighted progressives of every stripe by expressing support for civil same-sex unions. Waugh fans will recall one of English literature’s most obnoxious Canadians, Rex Mottram, receiving instruction for baptism from a priest who quizzes him on his grasp of the doctrine of infallibility. What if the Pope were to say it was raining, but it wasn’t? Well, Rex says, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.”
Once again, our beloved Holy Father has put us Catholics in the spot of figuring out whom we’re going to believe: him, or our own lying eyes. What’s particularly frustrating this time is that both he and said lying eyes are telling us the same thing, and so no escape is possible—except for those agile intellects who defy any circle to resist their powers of squaring. It must be rather amusing from the Devil’s perspective, watching Catholics tear their hair out trying to reconcile their allegiance to the Pope with their allegiance to the Faith. Wasn’t there an era when the sheep didn’t have to bend their wooly, easily muddled wits to such complicated matters? “The time is out of joint; o cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right,” as Hamlet groaned.
But Divine Providence has placed us (poor ovines that we are) in this situation, and saying things like “O cursed spite” is precisely the wrong response. We were handpicked by God to live in this era, so there can’t be anything cursed about that. It would seem more productive to ask God, since He put us here and now, what we are supposed to do about it?
In fact, this particular situation doesn’t seem quite as bad to me as the controversy surrounding the Pope’s attempt to change Church teaching on the death penalty, or the Abu Dhabi declaration, or the approval of idolatry in the Vatican gardens. There’s no way a remark made in the context of a documentary counts as part of the Magisterium of the Church, let alone enjoys the infallible protection of the Holy Ghost. And while it will doubtless encourage souls on their merry way to Hell, at least it doesn’t directly deny the true God and the duty all men have to worship Him in accordance with His expressed wishes. It’s less bad, shall we say, to promote sins of the flesh than to promote worship of false gods.
That doesn’t mean I think Catholic commentators should downplay the damage caused by scandal. We know what our Lord said about those who scandalize little ones. We are little ones, and we are scandalized. But how much worse is this for uninstructed Catholics, or non-Catholics who look vaguely towards the Catholic Church to uphold some kind of moral standard? There are very clear things written about millstones and the bottom of the sea.
What Catholic commentators should be very careful of, it seems to me, is any distortion of how this latest scandal should affect our relationship with our Sovereign Pontiff. While our emotional relationship with the Pope may change, as our emotional relationship with a parent would change if we witnessed them committing some terrible deed, our spiritual relationship with the Pope does not change, just as our father remains physically and ontologically our father, no matter how far from him we have to run for safety.
Pope Francis remains the Bishop of Rome, the visible Head of the Church, and the Vicar of Christ. It seems to me not terribly productive for us lambs to speculate on whether he could be deposed and who could do it, especially when God is in charge and could remove this Pontiff at any second should He choose to do so. We are duty-bound to pray for the visible Head of the Church and to support him when he fulfils the duties of his high office. We are, however, entitled to distance ourselves from him and even to disobey him when he asks us to help him betray the duties of his high office—out of love for that very office.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king refuses to act as a king. Instead of shouldering his responsibilities and living justly, he decides for the sake of greater comfort to divvy up his kingdom and give it away to the daughters who flatter him the most. Those who truly love him—Cordelia and Kent—refuse to play along with this destructive behavior and are banished for their pains. The kingdom quickly falls into disarray, and Lear himself ends up insane with grief, wandering the moors with a motley and inglorious crowd: the disgraced Kent, the Fool, and the true heir masquerading as a madman. The kingdom is only saved through the sacrifice of the innocent Cordelia.
Who was truly loyal to the kingdom and the King? Those who loved him enough to tell him the truth, of course. (Even the Fool told Lear what he thought, but being a Fool got away with it.) Yet none of them cast Lear off or changed their allegiance because of his irresponsible, even wicked decisions. When Lear and the kingdom needed their help, they were ready.
Without wanting to downplay the doctrinal tangle into which this pontificate has cast us—a tangle that desperately needs to be sorted out—let us recall that true loyalty to, and true love of, the Pope and the Church remains an honor and a privilege as it ever was. This does not mean we should condone behavior or words that are offensive to the Faith given us by Christ and his Apostles.
Our loyalty is not just to Rome of 2020, but to Roma aeterna, the Rome of all time. Our love is not just for the Pontiff, but for the papacy as instituted by Jesus Christ in existence for two millennia, and no clever deviltry should make us think that one can be legitimately used against the other. Our loyalty is to the Church, which exists not just in space but in time—to Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.
Let us not waver in our allegiance and our love for Peter and the Petrine office. When Peter eventually stumbles out onto the moors, battered by rain and disfigured by sorrow, he will need loyal sheep, ready to huddle around him and fight at his side, ready to restore what must be restored and rebuild what must be rebuilt. It demands great patience and great holiness of us sheep, that we may truly know and profoundly love the Faith to which we would be loyal. It doesn’t sound easy, but Our Lord who knows all things, knew that this particular moment in history would come. “Fear not, little flock,” He said, “for it hath pleased your Father to give you a kingdom.”
[Image: Domine Quo Vadis by Annibale Carracci]