From time to time, readers send notes to your GetReligionistas in which they ask us to pass journalistic judgments on whether this or that mainstream newsroom has successfully split a fine theological hair.
In this case, several Catholics were either offended or bemused by an interesting choice of words in a recent lede at The Washington Post.
Yes, this is another papal horse race news feature. Here’s the top:
When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?
Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.
The phrase that jumped out at readers, of course, was “God’s representative on Earth to Catholics.”
As I see it, there are two questions here. The first concerns “God’s representative on Earth” and the second is connected to that interesting addition at the end, which is “to Catholics.”
First, one of the formal titles attached to the papacy is that the pope is said to serve as Vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ. That’s pretty explicit, especially if one looks up the meaning of the term “vicar,” as it is used by Catholics.
Roman Catholic Church
* an ecclesiastic representing the pope or a bishop. …
* a person who is authorized to perform the functions of another; deputy: God’s vicar on earth.
So, seeing as how Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, it is pretty easy to accept the paraphrase that the “vicar of Christ” could also be called “God’s representative on Earth.” Of course, a wide variety of people in various flocks would want to debate the meaning of the term “representative” and whether this term is singular.
But let’s move on.
What, precisely, are we to make of the “to Catholics” reference?
This is where I can understand some of the angst felt by readers. Are we to assume that God has multiple representatives on Earth, in the same theological sense that the pope claims to fill that role? In other words, does God also have a “representative” in this sense for Muslims, for Mormons, for Buddhists, etc., etc.? In fact, does God have a representative of this kind for the Eastern Orthodox, for United Methodists, for Baptists (different ones for different Baptist flocks, of course), for Lutherans (see the note about Baptists) and so forth and so on?
In other words, is God the Father active in all of the religions of the world in the same way that he is active — in Catholic theology — in the Catholic Church? This is quite a theological statement, whether the members of the Post team knew it or not. So, do all of the religious roads lead to the top of the same Holy Mountain and God has simply appointed different “representatives” to lead different flocks of climbers?
Thus, here is my journalistic question for our Catholic readers: What do you think of this interesting theological comment made by the editors of The Washington Post?
Now, please remember that we must acknowledge that mainstream journalists have write in common language, as opposed to theological language, in news copy. There is no way around that. So, what would you have considered accurate sidewalk-level language in this case, in this lede?
Meanwhile, out in horse-race land, here is why the those sought out by the Post team think an American pope could work. Or not.
U.S. qualities long seen as disqualifiers suddenly look like selling points to some. Brash get-it-done cowboys? Perhaps that’s what’s needed to clean up Vatican corruption. Secularism and the collapse of the traditional family? Those are very familiar topics in the United States, as is clergy sex abuse.
“The American cardinals are very much in touch with the challenges facing the church,” said Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, who was born in India, was raised in Britain and now runs continuing theological education at the Pontifical North American College of Rome, where U.S. seminarians are trained. “We have a very significant number of former Catholics; we have the challenge of bringing people back to the faith; we are facing the great moral questions head-on, from gay marriage to end-of-life issues. These are economic and social issues that concern every country.”
Yet others familiar with the mind-set of cardinals say it will be hard to overcome the perception that the United States already has enough power and that our perspectives on topics such as income inequality and religious freedom are sheltered ones because these aren’t life-and-death matters for us.
(Cue: Audible sigh)
Don’t you love his media obsession with the language of politics?