‘God’s representative on Earth to Catholics’

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?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Martha

    tmatt, it’s the “Washington Post”. At this state, I’m just grateful they haven’t dug out the “Is the Pope a Reptiloid?” story I’m sure they’re keeping in store for a slow day from the conclave.

  • Fr. Savio

    Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but I read it more as a snide comment, as in “Catholics are rather silly enough to believe that the pope represents God.” But then again, considering the recent run of press in the Post, maybe I’m not being overly sensitive, and that’s exactly what they wanted to imply. I would have preferred, of course, “the pope is the Vicar of Christ in the Catholic Church.” Maybe that’s too strong of a statement for “obejective” “reporters” (I can use scare quotes too), but, after all, it uses our language and accurately reports our views. And wouldn’t “Vicar of Christ” be both less controversial and less snide than “representative of God on earth”?

  • Ben

    I took it to mean how Fr. Savio did — God’s representative on Earth [according] to Catholics. I disagree, however, that it is snide to be specific about who believes this, as billions of non-Catholics would disagree with the statement. It could have been better worded, of course, to remove the ambiguity.

    • Will

      Agree. It is just a terser way of saying “viewed by Catholics as God’s representative.”

    • John

      Yes — the wording is a little clunky but I took no offense. “Whom Catholics believe to be God’s representative on Earth” is pretty clearly the intent.

    • Meg

      I agree. It would be more accurate to say, “viewed by Catholic’s as God’s representative on Earth”, but it’s close enough that I think people will get the picture, and I don’t think it’s intended to be snide.

  • sari

    Not a Catholic, tmatt, but the phrase under discussion, “G-d’s representative on earth to Catholics” can’t be that uncommon in Catholic circles. I first heard it come out of the mouth of a former Catholic priest thirty-five years ago, when he taught a History of Christianity course at university. He’d been raised in the faith, educated in the faith, and become a priest in the faith, which suggests that the phrase was in common usage at the time among Catholics who were fairly knowledgeable about their religion.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      “God’s representative on earth” is not all that uncommon in my experience. As TMatt pointed out, it’s just untechnical English for “Vicar of Christ.”

      The placement of the “to Catholics” is, at best, ambiguous. Clearer would be either “becomes pope – to Catholics, God’s representative on earth -” (which specifies who believes this about the pope) or “pope – God’s representative on earth for Catholics -” (which makes the objectionable theological statement TMatt is deriving).

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I am with Fr. Savio. When I first read it, I took it rather pejoratively. What it seems to imply is a direct connection to the Almighty in a way an ambassador has a direct connection to the head of state he represents. The papacy of course does not mean the power of prophecy. The statement makes it sound magical or childish or superstitious or something.

    But to answer your question, Mollie, the reporter doesn’t have to say ANYTHING. He could have just used a comma instead of that whole statement dramatically set off by m-dashes. Or, “…when someone becomes pope, he becomes the spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics and the administrative head of the organizational church. He dons white… etc.”

    Or, better yet, because the paragraphs seems to want to juxtapose the exaltation of the pope with down-to-earth American candidates: “…becomes pope, he ascends to the most exalted rank in the Catholic Church, being called the Vicar of Christ, and he dons…” and then add, “Yet one of his titles is the ‘Servant of the Servants of God,’” before the bit about Colbert and tuna sandwiches.

    An interesting attempt at being literary, it kind of falls flat because it is not really paid off.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Sorry tmatt. Called you Mollie. My bad.

  • mdevlin

    I’m Protestant, but my problem with phrases like “… to Catholics” is that it makes it clear that the intended audience of the piece is not Catholics; Catholics (& other Christians) are not people the MSM writes for but people the MSM writes about for the benefit of non-Christians. It reeks of “zoo story.” It bothers me when Christians are relegated to the status of mere content fodder. That’s how these papal horse race stories (btw has anyone used the word “steeplechase” yet?) come across: even though news related to the pope directly affects Catholics, non-Christian concerns are brought to the fore, even when they’re trivial. That’s not to say that non-Christian concerns should be fiercely excluded, but neither should Christian concerns. But that relates to the issue of balance mentioned in some earlier GetReligion posts.

    • Anne

      But Catholics aren’t the intended audience. Not exclusively, anyway. It’s meant for all readers – Catholic, Protestant, atheist…whatever. “…to Catholics” just acknowledges that not all of its readers are Catholic, and that the descriptor is only considered legitimate to those who are. That’s even more significant here – one would hope that all Catholics know who the pope is, so that specific explanation is really only for non-Catholics.

      • Martha

        So what is wrong with “spiritual leader of Catholics”? It’s not quite the same thing, but for simple English term for non-Catholics, it does what is needed. If they don’t want to go into a technical paragraph about “Vicar of Christ which means he exercises supreme and universal primacy, both of honour and of jurisdiction, over the Church of Christ”, that should be enough.

        And really, if you don’t know that the pope is head of the Catholics, I think you need a much more detailed description of who Catholics are, what Christianity is, and this thing called “religion”. Is there really an English-speaking, American-citizen, “Washington Post”-reading, atheist who never, ever heard of the pope?

        • Anne

          I think your paragraphs answer each other. “Spiritual leader of Catholics” would be fine if, say, you were writing to a heavily Hindu, foreign population in which readers might genuinely not know the basic meaning of the title Pope. Here, though, while I agree that it’s almost guaranteed that every person in the category you gave would know that the Pope was “spiritual leader of Catholics,” it’s likely that some would be unaware of the fact that he is considered by Catholics to be “God’s representative on Earth.” That carries far more weight (to non-Catholics) than simply calling him “spiritual leader,” but again Catholics should already be aware of the weight of his role.

          And, for the record, I think it’s shameful that many non-Catholics probably aren’t aware of it, but that’s another discussion :)

          • Martha

            Anne, if our hypothetical reader is aware that the Pope is the leader of the Roman Catholic faith, then what on earth does he, she or it think that means? “Spiritual” – oh yeah, that must mean they think he knows which fruit juice they’re commanded to drink on pain of going to Hell?

            I’m sorry, but I do think the “Catholics think he’s God’s Representative on earth” does come off as too much – if you already know about the Pope leading the Catholic Church – and not enough – if you’re assuming the basic knowledge of who the pope is and that he’s not a Buddhist or a Mormon, then ‘helpfully’ explaining that “Those crazy Catholics think he’s, like, a mini-god or divinity or something!” isn’t explaining anything.

            If I say that the Rev. Smith is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church/Church of England/l’Église Anglicane du Canada, but the Rev. Jones is the Rector of St. Barnabas, and that distinction is considered by the newspaper to be too technical or unfamiliar to the readers, does it really make it clearer to ‘translate’ it as “the Rev. Smith, God’s representative on earth to Anglicans”?

          • Meg

            Catholics do view the Pope differently than many other Christian denominations view their leaders. The pastor of a Baptist congregation is their spiritual leader, but as far as I understand about Baptist theology and practice, he is going to be viewed very differently by his congregation than a Catholic views the Pope. I’m not sure that even the Anglicans would be ready to describe the Archbishop of Canterbury as “God’s representative on Earth” (but I’m Catholic, not Anglican or Episcopal, so I’m not 100% sure on that. Someone please correct me if necessary). Where, as tmatt explained in the blog post, the Vicar of Christ aspect of Catholic theology makes that descriptor pretty accurate about Catholic ecclesiology (as much as you are going to get in four words).

    • Meg

      Hopefully Catholics reading the story already know what a pope is, so I think the explanation is intended for the non-Catholic portion of the audience.

  • ceemac


    Isn’t this kind of nitpicking? Look church polity is a tough one even for someone who lives and breathes the stuff. And I’ll admit I’m not sure how much slack we ought to give reporters when it comes to the polity stuff.

    I’m a Presbyterian pastor type. Served in 2 denominations. Even taught a bit of polity. But I don’t know everything about it. I regularly check the books. And I wouldn’t even claim to have much knowledge about the polity of the other Presbyterian denominations. Even the things we all seem to have in common can be tricky.

    Just curious…. back in the days before it was all available online did you keep an well worn yet current PCUSA book of order by you desk? Or the Methodist or Episcopalian equivilant?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I don’t think it was meant as a snide remark although it seemed to come across that way. But I would have preferred “Vicar of Christ in the Catholic Church.” Or ” who Catholics regard as Christ’s Vicar.” Oddly enough I think Protestants probably have more trouble with that title than non-Christians–many of whom erroneously presume that the pope is the official spokesman for all Christians.

  • Julia

    For my taste “representative of god on earth” implies too much, whether “to Catholics” or others. The Pope is believed to run the Church Jesus founded, but nobody claims he represents God at all times – it’s much more nuanced than that. I ‘m with Martha – call him the spiritual leader of Catholics and let it go at that if there isn’t enough space to explain it.
    What I’m waiting for is the secular press’s take on the quashing of the American Cardinals’ daily Q & A sessions with the press in Rome. What will they make of that? What do Catholics make of that?

  • Julia

    Here’s some links to what happened today in Rome re: no more press availabilities at the North American College of a rotating cast of American Cardinals.




    One outlet had the quote of the day from the USCCB spokesperson – a nun – who said – typical, keep the whole class after school because one student was talking. Can’t find the link now. That’s just priceless and so on point. What a clash of cultures this is becoming.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Aside from the clumsy, but not inaccurate attempt to parse how the Pope is God’s representative on earth, the really ludicrous part of the article is how the writer apparently thinks simplicity or humility or an unostentatious lifestyle or even a sense of humor have somehow always been seen as disqualifying qualities for a Pope. God forbid the Pope should be a roly-poly man with a penchant for jokes (John XXIII) or speak so simply that the influential canons of the cathedral in his diocese used to describe his sermons as “childish” (John Paul I). Or the future Benedict XVI riding his bicycle to work. Or what about that guy who started it all, the one who always smelled of fish? Thank heavens, the cardinals know better.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the cardinals are saying right now of Dolan that he is reminiscent of Pope John. He’s got the roly-poly part down, for sure. And the humanity and folksiness. Of course, Pope John didn’t know Stephen Colbert . . . who knows whether that’s an asset or not!

    • Guest


  • Julia

    “a church that is now truly global. Cardinals no longer hide out in Italy”

    What? Did they ever hide out in Italy? Most are not Italian, although a lot of them are. It’s much easier for far flung Cardinals to trave to Italy than it’s ever been. I’m not aware of them ever hiding out in Italy. Where are her facts for that? I’ll believe it if she can corroborate it.

  • Julia

    “the tensions over how to address the news media — with American-style forthrightness or the ancient and more indirect ways of Italy — reflected a deeper culture clash between the Vatican as a global church, whose faithful often expect direct answers, and an Italian institution where secrecy is the rule but leaks often the norm.”

    The NYT is on the job and spotting the delimma. Pretty good observations.

  • FW Ken

    There is really no need to attribute malice to the strange and inept wording about being God’s representative on earth. Each baptized person is, in Christian thought, in a position to be God’s representative on earth. Granted, many reject the role and all of us fail at it to lessor or greater degrees.

    Historically, the job of the bishop of Rome had been to arbitrate among the local Churches. As a greater sense of the universality of the Church emerged, the universal jurisdiction of Peter gained more prominence. The pope was “vicar of Peter” before he was “vicar of Christ”. His job, like all bishops, is to equip and lead the rest of us into service to God and our neighbors

    In any case, as the world’s worst writer, I am disinclined to dog this writer too much.

    • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel M. Campbell

      This is a key point that seems to be missing in this discussion. The title, “Vicar of Christ”, doesn’t show up in chancery or canonical-legal documents as a title of the Pope until the twelfth century. Up until that point–and even in the writings of the “inventor” of the papal monarchy, Pope Gregory VII–he was the “Vicar of St. Peter”.
      Furthermore, those who bore the title “Vicar of Christ” in the 8th-11th centuries were kings and, above all, the Holy Roman Emperor, who represented Christ’s kingship in Christendom, the City of God.

  • http://attheturnofthetide.blogspot.com Caspar

    It seemed apropos to mention here that this sort of question came up in Crossing the Threshold of Hope and was addressed directly by Pope John Paul II: http://www.2heartsnetwork.org/Crossing.the.Threshold.ofHope-PopeJPII.pdf#page=6&zoom=100,0,792

  • Kristen inDallas

    what would you have considered accurate sidewalk-level language in this case –
    How about a simple word order switch “To Catholics, God’s representative on Earth”
    Reporter still gets to specify that he doesn’t necesarily agree with the Catholics on this point, but avoids the confusing assumption that he does believe that the pope IS God’s representative, but only represents those of the Catholic pesuasion, which I highly doubt was what he intended to say there.

  • Julia

    Drop the whole “Vicar of Christ” thing. It’s too complicated.

  • Helen in Missouri

    From the time of its establishment, the Church has always taught that “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation.” There’s precedent for that; Jesus Himself said so. That is one of the inconvenient truths that modernists within the Church reject, but relativism simply doesn’t compute. Since the various religions have contradictory teachings, they can’t all be correct,so many decide that they’re basically all wrong. Religion becomes a subjectivist experience for those who can’t quite make it to atheism.
    The “Vicar of Christ” thing can’t simply be dropped; even the Pope doesn’t have the authority to do that. Nor does he have the authority to deny or change any of the many other theological and moral doctrines which so disturb people today. One either is or is not Catholic.

  • chasjay

    God does not need any representatives…only believers, even disciples.
    I believe God, in all Persons, is able to engage and guide the people of earth.
    I much prefer a simpler: “Successor of Saint Peter”