Why Divinize the Pope?

Last month, I discussed the tendency among prominent supporters of Pope Francis to speak as if he had very special and even divine qualities.

Where does it come from? Some possibilities seem obvious. Any argument looks good if it favors the desired outcome, meaning that people who are convinced the pope’s new initiatives are right are easily tempted to hear his voice as the voice of God. After all, isn’t he saying the things all good people believe God wants to say?

The pope himself sometimes seems to take some such view, as when he spoke of opposition to the new departures connected to his stage-managed Synod on the Family as resistance to the Holy Spirit.

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The temptation to such an approach becomes stronger when Catholic thought and tradition don’t support the new directions. Suggesting the Church has received new divine guidance is a quick and easy solution to the problem.

But such explanations don’t fully account for the situation. If people have doubts about the pope’s direction, why would extreme claims on his behalf settle them? The claims aren’t Catholic, so they should multiply rather than reduce doubts when they’re put forward to support dubiously Catholic initiatives.

If intelligent and well-informed people nonetheless make the claims, it could suggest they are useful. It seems that in spite of history, doctrine, and even the Gospels themselves, there is a widespread tendency among Catholics to attribute divine authority to all the pope’s words and actions. “The pope wants this” is, for many people, a conclusive argument no matter what.

But why is this so? One answer is that the pope holds a teaching office that sometimes extends to infallible pronouncements. Since this is the case, who would want to oppose what he says about faith and morals? Also, spin and sophistry can make it difficult to determine what the teaching of the Church really is on many points. So why not eliminate this difficulty by stretching the pope’s teaching office and identifying Catholicism with whatever he says and does? Isn’t elimination of doubts the reason for having a pope in the first place?

But there must be limits, because the system should make sense as a whole. When Alexander VI threatened his mistress Giulia Farnese with excommunication if she went back to her husband—an effective rejection of long-settled Catholic principles regarding marriage—she wasn’t obliged to treat his attempt at discipline as authoritative. Nor are we obliged to accept claims that it is the God of Surprises who now wants to bring the Church more in line with the outlook of the well-placed and powerful on such matters.

The Catholic faith is about reality; it overcomes the world; and it’s not fideistic. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and there is no 2+2=5 in theology. Therefore, what the Faith proposes must make sense on its own terms, and it must stay the same. Why, in a supposedly rational age, do people speak as if they believed the contrary, as if the pope and his interpreters were charismatic prophets charged to lead the Church wherever they believe the times require?

To a large extent, such attitudes stem from the anti-transcendental nature of modern thought. Catholic doctrines relate to things that can’t be seen, weighed, or measured, so it’s become difficult for people to take them seriously as statements of truth. Instead, they view them as poetic or mythological ways of dealing with this-worldly matters. From this perspective, the reason we would say marriage is “a sacrament” and “indissoluble” is that people want stable committed sexual relationships, which are good for the children, and so we support these relationships by saying nice things about them.

But why treat these make-believe stories as authoritative? Suppose Bob’s marriage to Sally didn’t make him happy, and now he’s with Joan. To many people today it seems a cruel mockery to insist on taking the talk about indissolubility and sacramentality seriously under such circumstances. That would be acting like a doctor of the law. Instead, we should act like merciful pastors and support Bob and Joan where they are while maintaining the original story about indissolubility for those who still get something out of it.

But how would that work in practice? After all, traditional accounts of sacraments and indissolubility won’t do much for anyone if they’re ignored when inconvenient. Future Bobs and Joans will know that all will be forgiven and in effect regularized after they run off together and thus establish the new normal. So why should they ever take Church teaching seriously?

One response to such doubts is to overwhelm them by holding a very high view of papal authority. We can’t see God but we do see the pope, and the pope (or those who interpret him) can tell Bob that if he’s confident that what he is doing is the best that can reasonably be expected of him then it’s what God wants him to do. Since he now seems to have the pope’s backing, Bob would then be justified in sticking with Joan and forgetting about Sally notwithstanding 2,000 years of thought and practice to the contrary. After all, can’t God dispense us from his own laws? And didn’t Christ tell us that divine authority trumps traditions?

It seems a neat solution to a practical problem, and it brings Church practice more in line with current secular thought, therefore modern churchmen like it. The cost to the rational credibility of the Faith is of course immense, but modern churchmen aren’t much interested in rational credibility, which in any event looks like one of those “doctrinalisms” that are now out of favor.

But rational incoherence does have a cost. If the authority of the pope outweighs tradition, Scripture, and reason, then where does our confidence in his authority come from? The visible position of the pope as head of the universal Church gives what he says great presumptive authority. But its binding force on conscience is a conclusion from Catholic tradition and doctrine, on which it is entirely dependent. So when a pope or his supporters put those things in question they are destroying our reason to take the pope seriously. If the God of Surprises can tell us to ignore long-settled views regarding family life, why not ignore those of the pope?

It’s evident that there is a profound need among many people in today’s Church to conform to secular views. If they don’t know anything definite about God, because current ways of thinking put dogmatic knowledge out of reach, then their guide can only be willfulness, submission to worldly powers, or someone’s inarticulate sense of what’s right (i.e., “discernment”). This would give us three supreme powers, which can’t possibly work.What if willingness were put at the service of worldly powers? This would at least give the Church definite guidance and a definite place in the world, and it seems to be the choice many today would make.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. If the function of the pope is to conform the Church to what the New York Times says, why not go straight to the source and leave out the middleman and all the complications? Many Catholics already do just that because of the view that Vatican II “opened the windows” and created a humble Church in service to the world. We can expect changing views on the papacy to lead many more in the same direction.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA)

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