Be a good Catholic: prepare yourself to resist the Pope. That’s the message of the new column by Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative Catholic who says that the habit orthodox Catholics have gotten into of hero-worshiping the Pope is ahistorical and, well, un-Catholic. Prior to the age of modern communication, popes were distant figures who rarely figured in the daily lives and thoughts of the Catholic faithful. Excerpt:
But the social crosscurrents of the last 50 years of Catholic life have made the pope a more intimate figure in the lives of Catholic believers. During the post–Vatican II upheavals in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, conservative Catholics developed a mental architecture that told them that even if their parish priest or local bishop was lax, immoral, or even vaguely heretical, there was practically a living saint in Rome, whose unassailable orthodoxy, personal charisma, and good works were taken as the living sign of the indefectibility of the church. The solidity of the message coming from Rome has been for many Catholics the practical experience of this truth about the church.
The near omnipresence that the modern papacy achieves through media makes me worry that the institution of the papacy would have already hit upon a grave crisis if it weren’t for the unusual theological ability of Joseph Ratzinger, first as cardinal and later as Pope Benedict XVI, acting as a ballast. Modern media, especially the modern Catholic media, has brought the pope into our homes, across the radio, in television, and into our niche media world. He’s in the browser of many Catholics every day. And conservative Catholic media relies heavily on the inflated imaginative role of the papacy, just like British tabloids rely on the royals. The pageantry, mystery, and fame attached to the office are a great way of selling magazines, getting clicks, or raising funds. He is the worldwide celebrity that represents “us.” He’s the reason the Faith gets talked about by others.
When you add to this the fact that the cultural formation of most engaged Catholics is primarily the ideological combat of political and cultural factions, they tend to treat the pope as their “party leader,” and to treat “the world” as an opposing party. It’s difficult to describe how distorted this mental image is to true faith, but some examples could suffice.
This is really insightful about the way the figure of the Pope has become a totem for conservative Catholics. Dougherty says that many conservative Catholics fall all over themselves to construct post facto rationales for anything Pope Francis says or does, because they’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of the pope as more of the leader of the Catholic Party than the leader of the Catholic Church. More:
The Catholic Party eclipsing the Catholic Church has a distorting effect on the world’s perception too. If the loudest and most prominent orthodox members of the church in the media treat the pope like a party leader and are so quick with clever-dick rationalizations of the massive changes to the practice of the Faith over the past 50 years, why should they be surprised that the world conceives of the doctrines and dogmas of the Faith as mere party planks or mutable policy, to be exchanged, updated, or abandoned as the times change?
And why should they be surprised that even their co-religionists fail to understand the Faith? In truth, the most salient fact of contemporary Catholic life in the West is the way it is pervaded by the pattern of saying things and then acting as if something else were true.
You really should read the whole thing. Dougherty points out that Church history is full of popes going off the rails, and the faithful rebuking them. The Divine Comedy is filled with Dante reading the riot act to the popes of his time, accusing them of prostituting the Church for the sake of political power. Dante excoriated the popes to defend Holy Church — but he also defended the papacy quite strongly. In the Commedia, the great villain of villains is Boniface VIII, but Dante condemns the agents of the French monarchy for slapping Boniface around physically. As corrupt as Boniface was, Dante believed he was the Vicar of Christ, and deserved respect because of his office. But it is precisely that respect for the office of the papacy, and the sanctity of the Church and its teaching, that fueled Dante’s condemnation. (In Paradiso, he also lays into the corrupt Franciscans and Dominicans).
Dougherty’s column is a broadside against fellow Catholics who have become prisoners of the papalist narrative. A couple of years ago, I wrote about conservative Catholics who couldn’t deal with the plain fact that the beloved Father Benedict Groeschel had said some despicable things about the sex abuse scandal. I wrote then:
One reason people find these remarks of his so shocking is they clash with the received image of Groeschel as a Good Guy, at least among conservative Catholics. It’s the same reason, on a vastly smaller scale, why so many people for so long could not accept the fact that Pope John Paul II handled the Scandal badly. The Preferred Narrative had it that JP2 was a Good Guy; when evidence suggested a more complicated narrative — e.g., the possibility that JP2 really was a Good Guy, but that he had a tragic blindness on this particular issue — many partisans ignored the evidence and doubled down on their devotion to the Preferred Narrative. Hence my coining of the term Mottramism, after the character in “Brideshead Revisited” who, eager to become a Catholic in good standing, twisted himself in to all kinds of knots. Rex Mottram’s frustrated father-catechist said:
“Yesterday I asked [Mottram] whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”
Some bloggers have wondered why it was that the conservative National Catholic Register failed to see what was so outrageous about Fr. Groeschel’s comments, and published them, and why it was that the paper’s reporter didn’t challenge Groeschel on them in the interview. I’m betting they were so deeply invested in the Groeschel-As-Good-Guy narrative that they simply couldn’t see what was right in front of their faces until others pointed it out.
Mottramism is not just a Catholic thing. There are Orthodox and Protestant Mottramists. In politics, there are conservative and liberal Mottramists, people who really do believe that whatever the Party says is true, is true. It’s more important to be loyal to the Truth than it is to be loyal to the Party.