Catholic theologian Adam DeVille says people need to quit getting so worked up, for good or for ill, over what the Pope says. Excerpt:
We are drowning under far too much commentary on the papacy, almost all of it adolescent and fatuous. With so many hyperventilating over every word, and people alternately predicting catastrophe or a new springtime for the Catholic Church, it’s time that everyone (especially Catholics) observes the blunt counsel of Thomas Merton. Merton, a monk who died suddenly in 1968, once summed up the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism thus: “Shut up and go to your cell!” People running on at the mouth are not able to pray to God in the silence of the heart, which is the only truly important job for everyone.
This excessive focus on the pope is the poisoned fruit of a marriage surely ripe for wholly justifiable divorce: nineteenth-century “Ultramontanism” and the technology-fueled celebrity culture of the twenty-first century that broadcasts every tweet and twerk around the world. Ultramontanism, whose most absurd spokesman in English was that of W.G. Ward, is best summed up in Ward’s famous demand: “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with myTimes at breakfast.”
Unlike Ward I do not get up in the morning wondering what the pope is thinking or hoping he’ll tell me what to think. I know my responsibilities in life and, however poorly, I get up each day to try and fulfill them without caring a whit for what the pope thinks of them, of me, or of much else besides. But it seems I am in a minority. It is amazing that more than 130 years after his death, Ward walks among us still in myriad blogs, papers, and even pulpits that hang on every papal word and haunt us with their treacly and juvenile reactions.
You know, he’s right about that, isn’t he? If your idea of what a pope does was formed by John Paul II, as was mine, and as was everybody my age or younger, this will seem like an alien concept. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, we look to the Moscow patriarch as our top spiritual leader, but aside from praying for him, and all our bishops, in the liturgy, we never think of him. And that’s a great relief, to be honest. In Orthodoxy, the teachings of the faith are so fixed that you don’t have to worry that a bad patriarch is going to come in and muck things up.
I do want to push back a little bit on Adam’s claim, even though he’s right as a general matter. When I came into the Catholic Church in 1993, it was really surprising to me how little impact Pope John Paul II had on the daily affairs of the local church. This made me sad and frustrated. I honestly believed that what you saw and heard from the Bishop of Rome would be what you saw and heard at the local level. Not true, at least not universally. The local church was often in the hands of liberal bureaucrats. As a Catholic, I came to appreciate John Paul for his evangelical witness, but gradually I understood that what goes on in Rome pretty much stays in Rome, for better and for worse.
It seems to me that there’s a third element to modern papolatry left unmentioned by Adam. Well within living memory, the Catholic Church changed radically, with the Second Vatican Council. It was a decisive break from what came before, and its effects were felt in every corner of the Catholic Church. If you’re, say, 55 years old or younger, you have no cultural memory of the Church before Vatican II. Pope John XXIII called that revolutionary council. I’m not arguing here that Vatican II was a good or a bad thing, but all of us can agree that it dramatically changed the Catholic Church. Because a single pope instigated the council, it’s not hard for me to see why Catholics today get so worried, or excited, by what the Pope says. You never know what revolutionary thing he might do. True, no pope is free to reinterpret dogma and doctrine as he wishes — the media never seem to get that, thinking that each new pope is like a new American president — but that doesn’t mean that the pope can’t have real effects on how the church over which they preside presents those truths.
For example, nearly everybody would agree that the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago was an archliberal. I doubt very much that he would have denied, at least publicly, a single point of Catholic doctrine. But he didn’t have to. In the appointments he made as the chief administrator of his archdiocese, he made his priorities known. An orthodox Catholic theologian friend from Rochester, NY, used to tell me chapter and verse about how the extremely liberal Bishop Matthew Clark, who retired only last year, wrecked so much in his diocese. Perhaps the most consequential thing any pope does for the lives of ordinary Catholics is appoint the local bishop. And even then, it seems to me that that bishop would have to go out of his way, either from the Right or the Left, to make a dramatic impact on the local church. The dogs bark, but somehow, the caravan moves on.