Pope as Teacher, Pope as Flag

Stephen’s reaction to my piece puts me in mind of one of the odd phenomena I have observed. Namely, there are those who love the Pope as a teacher and those who love him as a sort of flag. My thoughts on how facing the altar and the world side-by-side will inevitably lead to the creation of strong and vibrant communities came from teachings done at my parish on the Pope’s encyclical Mission of the Redeemer and other formal teaching on the Church’s mandate to evangelize. In short, I cribbed my ideas from John Paul II, who among other things, says that the way to make a parish strong is not to practice endless introspection but to throw the parish into the work of evangelizing. In sneering at and mischaracterizing what I had to say, Stephen was, all unaware, attacking the Pope’s teaching.

He is doing so, it appears to me, because he thinks the Pope is a sort of Flag and I, who have disagreed with Rod Dreher, but defended him as a faithful son of the Church, am an opponent of that Flag in Stephen’s extremely simple black and white world. In this worldview, it matters not so much whether you take the Pope’s teaching seriously or not as that you stand next to the Flag. Now, I’m all for the Church’s teaching on the Pope as a sign of the unity of the Church. But I don’t think that unity is preserved by dividing the world into blacks and whites and then attacking everything a “black” says simply because he’s “black”. This is, in fact, what Stephen has done. And in doing so, he has wound up attacking something John Paul has pointed out, that the health of the Church is bound up with her approach to the Eucharist and the work of evangelization.

This “Pope as Flag” mentality is often carried very far. Often it is so dominant that when the Pope says or does something a Flag-waver can’t bear, the “Powerful Forces” excuse is brought out to explain it away. So, for instance, when the Pope says (as he did forty years ago) that “Beat Music” (what we now call rock and roll) should be used as a tool for evangelization, I’ve known representatives of the “True Catholic Kids Should Only Listen to Gregorian Chant” crowd explain that “Powerful Forces” were at work in the Vatican or somewhere Behind the Scenes, tricking the Pope into saying things like that. He doesn’t–he can’t–really mean that, because that would mean he taught something at variance with My Understanding of the Faith. This is classic “Pope as Flag, not Teacher” thinking too.

So: a question: Is the Pope your teacher or just your flag? Something to think about.