Michael Barber writes to ask:

“Am I too cranky? Or is this meme really seriously problematic?

I’d love to get your thoughts.”

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye routinely quotes (or invents) non-biblical proverbs and attributes them to the “the Good Book”. It’s bad scholarship, but very good piety as a general rule.

I look at memes like that as dubious theology, but very good piety. What this meme gets right–these are three holy men who express the theological virtues and who speak forth the Catholic faith in continuity and goodness and unity–is far more important that what it gets wrong (that each pope is only characterized by one of the virtues). My habit is to honor the well-meaning piety and only fret about the scholarship if it’s really getting in the way of something that matters. Here, it’s not. So I don’t mind and like the sentiment. That’s my take.

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  • http://eastofeden.me Alisha

    Mark, at first glance I thought of it similarly. But then… I thought about that verse from I Corinthians 13 that ends with “…and the greatest of these is charity” and realized the meme could be implying that the current Pope is greater than his predecessors…. Which is quite problematic,

    Just a thought.

    • http://disputations.blogspot.com Tom K.

      “the meme could be implying that the current Pope is greater than his predecessors…. ”

      Well, first, the meme is not implying that.

      Second, if some people do think the current Pope is greater than his predecessors, why is that quite problematic? They would have their reasons for thinking that, and the reasons may be sound or unsound, but Catholics aren’t bound in faith to have the same opinion about the relative greatness of popes.

      • http://far-above-rubies-and-pearls.blogspot.com/ Alisha

        Okay, maybe not quite problematic… Just plain problematic. Lol. Look, take what I say with a grain of salt , Tom K., because I’m not qualified to really talk about how Catholics should view their popes since I’m not Catholic. The thing that worries me, though is (and let’s just say its implying it even though you don’t think so) implying that Pope Francis I is the greatest after being pope for a week is *really* unfair to the previous popes…

        Augh, look, I’m bowing out here cause it was just a thought I had at five am long before my first cup of coffee, lol. This is why I seldom leave comments on blogs. They come out discombobulated.

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

          I think you’re pointing out at least part of what Mark calls “bad scholarship.” You’re right that it’s theologically nit-pickable, and that we’re in no place to judge the absolute merits of our recent popes.

          And for some people, the bad will outweigh the good expressed in the meme, which other commenters point out below. So, since it’s just an internet meme, I feel free to ignore or even recommend against it for those who might find it unuseful. And those who take encouragement to faith, hope, and charity from it, well: God be with you!

          • Theodore Seeber

            I have said often that in my lifetime, every United States President has been worse than the one before. Despite Blessed John Paul The Great’s reputation, I am beginning to think that with Benedict’s decision to *retreat into prayer* instead of giving us another spectacle of an old man losing his dignity and control of his curia as his abilities waned, and now the amazing example of charity of Pope Francis, that the trend is completely the reverse when it comes to Popes in my lifetime- each has indeed been better than the one before.

            I also have a tendency to agree with the main thrust of the meme, just based on the theology each man emphasizes. Be Not Afraid, Dominus Iesus, and I would not be surprised to find that the first encyclical of Francis will have the word Caritas somewhere in it.

            • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com Jay Anderson

              When it came to writing his encyclicals, the theologian Benedict chose to write ones with names like Deus Caritas Est (On Christian Love – God is Love), Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), and Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth).

    • Dan

      I think the meme is just a simplifiication from what is mainly recalled of the previous Popes’ pontificates. John Paul II’s message and approach to dealing with the modern world were inspiring, and I think the verve with which he pursued hearts is why he’s associated with hope over the great faith he helped revive. Benedict XVI has been a strong and wise academic, and his pontificate had an intellectual approach to dealing with the difficulties of the modern world (the theme of the relationship between faith and reason seemed quite prevalent). Francis’ first few days as Pope have seen him with a welcoming approach much like his namesake, combined with his personal humility it seems that that is why he is associated with charity.

      It’s a message that emphasizes the virtues that each of the Pope’s employed or inspired in their approach, rather than an exclusive statement.

  • James H, London

    I loved that (though it’s not inspired or even very good) – I’m willing to overlook the obvious lack of teaching in favour of the elegance of the message.

  • Rosemarie


    There are certainly worse captions that could have been put on those pictures. Whoever made this obviously thinks that the popes exemplify virtues. That’s not a bad thing.

  • Dale (not Ahlquist)

    Faith, Hope and Charity, of course, are the three theological virtues. I agree with Mark Shea that the captioned image is misleading in that neither of the popes emphasized one of those virtues to the detriment of the others.

    I suppose there is some value in reminding Catholics of the three theological virtues. I am not sure that image, however, is a good way to do so.

  • JoFro

    I liked it because I saw the meme as the way they have usually been shown to the world:

    Pope John Paul II was Hope – Hope, living under a Communist dictatorship, fighting Communism as Pope, he inspired Hope
    Pope Benedict VI was Faith – He was the Theologian, his books from Introduction to Christianity, written as a Cardinal to his Jesus series as a Pope, his time as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, bringing back Church traditions – all connected to the Faith
    …and finally, Pope Francis – do I even need to explain this – from living in a small apartment and washing the feet of single mothers and kissing the feet of AIDS victims to taking the bus, Charity has been his image.

    For the average person, this I believe is what they see.

  • Sean

    Sure the meme is oversimplifying things, as Mark points out. But part of that oversimplification is probably due to the fact that, for most Catholics of meme-sharing age, Francis is the third pope they’ve ever known. (For instance, while I was technically born during Paul VI’s time, (1) I wasn’t Catholic then, and (2) those first few months of life are a little fuzzy in my memory, for some reason).

    And since we’re Catholic, we tend to think in threes, so with 3 popes, it’s easy to slap 3 labels on them because these theological virtues also come in a handy 3-pack.

  • Mephibosheth

    I appreciate Mark distinguishing between piety and theology. When I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the new pope last week, an image came into my head: John Paul was heart, Benedict was head, Francis is hands. It never occurred to me that that made one better than the others, or that all three did not share those realities. I actually like my paradigm better than this one…I’m just not quick enough on the draw to turn it into an internet meme!

    • CathyLouise

      I like yours even more than the on Mark is writing about! Well done.

  • Dustin

    Sean said what I was about to say. I’ll go a bit further. One of the very few points where I agree with trads: contemporary Catholicism seems to have an impoverished view of its history. John Paul II still seems to have a larger-than-life hold over the Catholic self-image. His pontificate seems to have erased, for younger Catholics, any other image they might otherwise have had of what a pope should be (I, too, am only on my third pope.) I don’t know that other under-30s know much about, say, the Council (which, to boomer Catholics, is THE Council, of course). Or if anyone who complains about the CDF knows anything about Alfredo Ottaviani (i.e., if you think Ratzinger was a Rottweiler . . .)

    As for me, when I watch Francis, I feel something of what older Catholics, and even the non-Catholic world, must have felt when John XXIII reigned so gloriously and briefly. Something amazing is happening right now. Francis has wrought (or at least inspired) a unity among believers that I’m certainly not old enough to have experienced. I’ve been reading the Register and the Reporter and Catholic blogs of all stripes, and I see such joy and hope everywhere from everyone (excepting the trads, forever wed to bitterness). Gaudium et spes!

    • Mark Shea

      You’re really surprised that a generation that only has a living memory of three popes… tends to remember only those popes? Really?

      • Dustin

        No, of course not. I was trying to explain my immediate reaction to the meme, which was to think “There are more than three popes, guys.” I’m certainly not surprised that the last three would certainly take precedence for those of us who can only remember them. Maybe I pushed the comment too far. I don’t mean to sound like I’m calling anyone dumb. Sorry.

        I have no idea how old you are. Does Pope Paul play any role in your memory? What a chaotic time that seems to have been.

        • Mark Shea

          I’m 54. I remember Paul VI a bit, but since I didn’t become Catholic till 1987 it’s the last three popes I really remember. I also remember the brief reign of JPI.

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

        To tell the truth, Mark, I’m surprised too, that so few Catholics know anything about Popes prior to JPII – though of course, I shouldn’t be.

        I’m a historian and have studied Church history – not to mention just having a great love for papal history. So whenever I meet a Catholic who doesn’t know who John XXIII was or that he called the Council (and it’s not always younger people), I’m astonished; I keep having to remind myself that not everyone knows what I know, or has the same interest in history. I think Catholics need to know more of their history, but that’s the way things are.

        I was alive during the papacies of Pius XII (just barely, I was two when he died), John XXIII, and Paul VI, who was elected when I was seven. I knew the most about Paul VI in my childhood, but chances to actually see him on TV news were few, because this was the era before cable TV, or 24-hour news channels. I read a lot about him though when in my teens and early twenties I really became interested in studying my faith.

        Pope John Paul I was the first Pope whose election I experienced firsthand, I guess that’s the reason he’s so special to me; plus I’ve studied his life, and most people who haven’t aren’t going to remember his papacy because it was so short, and because most weren’t born yet. Believe it or not, I’m now on my seventh Pope in my lifetime, and have studied Popes much further back than that.

        So, I see things very differently. When Francis first stepped out on the balcony, I thought he looked a little like Pius XI. Now I’m beginning to think more of John XXIII, not only in appearance, but in other ways. Then when I saw him ride through St. Peter’s square yesterday, standing in the open Popemobile, with his vitality and joy, I almost believed JPII had come back to life. And in a way he has.

        But to me the most astonishing thing is that he seems to keep quoting directly Pope John Paul I. For instancing in joking to the cardinals after his election; “May God forgive you for this,” same exact words as Pope John Paul I, but no commentator I know of has mentioned it, probably because they don’t remember it. Or when he spoke of the “danger” of his coming election and how a cardinal next to him comforted him. . . Or how soft his voice is, because he has lung problems; same with JPI.

        In their teachings too, I tend to see continuities and similarities between Popes. It looks like he thinks in a similar line to Benedict XVI in his social teaching in Charity in Truth. Check this out:


        So I can smile and appreciate memes like the above, but don’t think that in the long run, they’re all that helpful, because the reality is so much more complex. I liked better one that was in one of your comboxes a couple of days after the election; sorry, I forgot who wrote it, but it expresses things a bit more subtly.

        John Paul II: “This is what we believe,”
        Benedict: “This is why we believe it,”
        Francis, “Now go do it.”

        I’m sure, though, that even an historian won’t be able to predict much of what happened next. We live in such interesting times, to say the least! The Holy Spirit is certainly alive in the Church.

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

          Oops. I was still writing my post when yours was published, Mark. I should have remembered you’re about my age. You seem to have similar memories and know what I’m talking about to an extent.

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

            At the bottom of my next-to-last post I meant “what happens next” of course.

    • Theodore Seeber

      You’d have to be a 1000 years old to have been around the last time the Patriarch of Constantinople attended the Installation of the Bishop of Rome.

      • Dustin

        Do we even know whether the Patriarch of Constantinople attended such a ceremony before the schism? With what kind of ceremony were the bishops of Rome installed before the development of the coronation ceremony? Wasn’t the habit, in the age of the first seven councils, for the patriarchs simply to send word to the others upon their taking office, signifying their communion with each other? Anybody?

  • Stu

    I always saw JPII as the Pope who got the orthodoxy back on track. Benedict XVI put liturgy back on the rails. And I look and hope for Pope Francis to sort out the obedience issue.

    Not nearly as catchy but it does point out that they are standing on each other’s shoulders.

  • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com Jay Anderson
  • Beccolina

    This one doesn’t bother me because it seems to have been done with affection for the popes. It suffers from the same problems all memes suffer from: it is over-simplified. Memes just aren’t designed for depth. I often find myself wanting to write an essay refuting the stupidity of some memes. I saw one that said, “Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told. Obedience is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.” That one really bugged me because the two are not mutually exclusive, nor are issues of morality and obedience always simple, black-and-white choices. I’ve met many, many teens who thought the “right” thing to do was not sell out a friend by telling an adult that he/she was doing something dangerous or disobedient. End of mini-rant.
    This is too simplistic, but it doesn’t bug me.

  • http://chicagoboyz.net TMLutas

    Any one word description of a human being is necessarily oversimplifying but it is not problematic to do so as an exercise in simply labeling a person with their dominant trait. It is problematic to reduce people to a cardboard cutout of exclusively one word. I think that this happens not when the picture is created but when it is perceived in the brain of the reader.

    This makes the meme a problem but only a self-generated one. In short, Michael Barber is too cranky.