This Guy Has His Head Screwed on Straight

It used to be said that more sycophantic monsignori in the Vatican in the 1950s would fall to their knees when they picked up the phone and heard it was Pope Pius XII speaking. Have we returned to such an age? Are we living through a new time where every papal word is given fawning treatment, where auguries on Facebook and Twitter pick through the entrails of every interview, sermon, letter, phone call, or press conference?

Though a scholar of the papacy, I have tried to avoid saying much about the two recent interviews of Pope Francis — to say nothing of the ululating they have engendered on the part of “conservative” or “traditionalist” Catholics. Equally I have ignored the vulgar and self-congratulatory crowing those interviews have generated on the part of so-called liberals, whether Catholic or not.

My deliberate silence was a small and, it now seems, vain attempt to demonstrate by action what I believe by conviction: that we all need to stop talking about the pope; he is not worth fretting over.

We are drowning under far too much commentary on the papacy, almost all of it adolescent and fatuous. With so many hyperventilating over every word, and people alternately predicting catastrophe or a new springtime for the Catholic Church, it’s time that everyone (especially Catholics) observes the blunt counsel of Thomas Merton. Merton, a monk who died suddenly in 1968, once summed up the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism thus: “Shut up and go to your cell!” People running on at the mouth are not able to pray to God in the silence of the heart, which is the only truly important job for everyone. (More here).

The point of our faith is not the Pope.  It is Jesus Christ.  That is what the Pope himself keeps saying, to the confusion of uncomprehending progressives and reactionaries, who think the faith is about something else–in this case, the pope.

My point in defending the pope is not, as his accusers keep insisting, that he is above all question and that his every stray action and remark is infallible.  It is that he is innocent until proven guilty and awful lot of people are ready to accuse him of heresy on the flimsiest provocation.  Heck.  In the comboxes over at the Register the other day, some guy was trying to accuse him of heresy for *not* being a polytheist. (Francis’ crime: he remarked that there is no Catholic God but simply God.  The Inquisitor is now behaving like a weird mix of Radical Traditionalist and sola Scriptura Protestant, appealing to the Bible to “prove” that there are actually lots and lots of gods.  And he apparently does not mean “creatures we honor above the one true God” but “other supreme beings, of which the Catholic God happens to be top dog”.  It’s this kind of stupidity that we wind up with when every random layperson starts poring over everything the pope says and does under the conviction that God anointed them Grand Inquisitor and set them the task of microanalyzing him for telltale signs of heresy.

He’s the pope.  He hasn’t said or done anything heretical.  He won’t say or do anything heretical.  Relax.

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  • orual’s kindred

    Throughout the history of the Church, there have been popes who have lived explicitly immoral lives. And in the history of the Church, people have rejected clear, undistorted papal teachings. Who can say how many souls have been lost in both these cases? A pope who ‘manage(s) to make a morally confusing time more confusing’ (as per the first comment in linked article), it seems to me, would be one of many other difficult factors that Our Lord has included in His plan.

    And yes, I disagree with that comment.

  • Doug Sirman

    If I may add a point inspired by the above, “The point of the pope is not ‘The Pope,’ but Jesus Christ.” His speaking is only morally confusing for those who are actively seeking justification for their pre-existing lack of moral clarity.

    Start from a position of charity, and go from there. Even a hateful bastard like me knows that.

    • IRVCath

      The problem is that we often find it hard to start from a position of charity. I’ve had to catch myself more than once from gossiping about, say, “Oh, John and Mary have been married ten years and only have one child – maybe they’re using artificial birth control as family planning?” (forgetting that there are a host of reasons why they could only concieve one child that lived to birth). Or “I saw a pillbox for a month in Grace’s medicine cabinet – hse must obviously be contracepting” (forgetting that she might be using it as medication for certain illnesses to which infertility is an unhappy side effect). The problem is that we have a tendency to assume the worst of people if it makes for good gossip fodder or blog fodder. The Church, of course, in her inimitable wisdom, tells us that those are sins – if false, calumny; if true, or believed to be true, detraction.

  • D.T. McCameron

    It’s at times like these that I really miss the Troll.

  • Doug Lawrence

    After more than fifty years of Catholics respectfully ignoring the shockingly poor results, the widespread scandals and the shameless spiritual violence in the Church, it’s time we begin to hold our clerics (and ourselves) to a higher standard. If it takes someone like Pope Francis to make this happen, then all I have to say is “AMEN.”

  • Dante Aligheri

    I’m really of two minds about this. However, if people hear the voice of the Shepherd in the words of Pope Francis and other Christ-like people, then why must they be opposed against another? People will come wherever they see God most clearly, no matter how faint. For right now, it seems that will be the Pope. The problem is a 24/7 media which has no real interest in learning anything from the mind of the Church, both on the Right and Left. They make him out to be sentimental and quaint, an irrelevant nicety who can be shuffled out to support whatever provincial war the West happens to be waging. But a saintly man or woman is anything but: gentle as doves, cunning as serpents.