Are we making an idol of the pope who warns against them? UPDATED

I can’t think of modern pope who has so explicitly, and so frequently, warned us against the creation of idols; he mentioned idolatry early-and-often in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and has exhorted against succumbing to it so frequently that the joke around here is: he’s in a mind meld with Scalia. And of course, the other joke is this:

Pope likes my book! Heh.

Even when the crowds cheer him at his audiences, Francis reminds them, “cheer for Jesus, not for me”

And yet, as I write this morning in the Washington Post, the world seems determined to make an idol of Francis. That’s what the world does.

We think of pop stars as “idols” but an idol, more correctly, is the thing or person best capable of delivering an affirmation of ourselves to ourselves. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” claimed Barack Obama in 2008 and the fainting, adoring crowds could not get enough of the man who once described himself as a “blank screen on which people…project their own views,” because they could not get enough of themselves.

It has only been six months since Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to the world with a new name, but already MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, channeling his inner tween, has gushed, “is it too early to say Francis is the best pope ever?”

His effusion prompts a different question: Are we, like the ancient Jews at Mount Sinai, and Americans in 2008, molding Francis into an image and polishing him to a high gloss, that we might better see ourselves reflected in him? Are we treating him as we would a god?

If our nature is to create idols, it almost cannot be helped. As with Obama, the crowds adore Pope Francis, whose message is not so much “yes, we can,” but “yes, God does” — love us, forgive us, seek our trust; we are the ones God is waiting for, as the father awaits the prodigal.

Francis repeatedly returns to themes of compassion, mercy, tenderness and his words drop like healing dew upon people feeling increasingly isolated from each other, and distanced from God. Whether from a Jeep trundling around Saint Peter’s Square or from an open-sided vehicle on the Argentine streets, Francis reaches out to the people in complete freedom and fearlessness, and the crowd reaches back. The crowd wants to be like him —able to love and trust God, and the world, and finally themselves.

What saves this from becoming simple idolatry is Francis’s continual exhortation that we fix our attention, and our intentions, upon having an authentic and lifelong encounter with Jesus. He says, in essence, you want to be like me? I want to be like Jesus; look at him!

Indeed. If Francis makes us feel good about ourselves, Jesus will make us free. And yet:

The Bishop of Rome is already like Jesus in one way: As we edit his statements into all that is comforting and self-affirming, we are giving him the pal-Jesus treatment.

What does that mean? Read here to find out.

Simcha Fisher:

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Maggie Goff

    That is one fine article. You hit it out of the park.

    Just stay out of the comments.

  • Manny

    I’m not sure I see it as you do. If anything JPII struck me as more of an idol. Pope Francis seems to be an idol for the media and non-Catholics. Do you think we rank and file Catholics hold up Francis as more of an idol than JPII?

  • Dale

    I am always surprised, when I read articles In the WaPo “On Faith” section, just how many comments are made by persons who are opposed to faith.
    I can understand a strong desire to engage in dialogue regarding faith, but a combox isn’t likely to provide it. Instead, they come across as trolls, which I don’t think is their intent.

    Anyways, good article, Elizabeth. I hope it appears in the print edition of the newspaper.

  • John J. Jakubczyk

    Mercy and forgiveness. repeat – mercy and forgiveness. That is what we need. Or as Christ proclaims throughout the Gospel – Repent and be saved. However, the collective WE, who need to hear this message, do not WANT to hear this message – because WE would be required to make changes in our lifestyle. And WE do not want to be told to “go and sin no more.” We want Christ to approve our lifestyle. so we make for us ‘idols’ that will tell us what we want to hear.
    more’s the pity. we miss out on the real truth, goodness and beauty God intends for our lives.
    thank you for your article.

  • Oo_oc_oO

    The WaPo comment section is generally a pretty terrifying place, crawling with trolls, paranoiacs and other sorts of the unhinged. I sort of thought to reply to some of them, but then realized that there is not much hope of a reasonable conversation with someone who believes the Church is “a bunch of celibate, mostly gay, old men.” I suppose this is why you don’t get much of an opposing viewpoint there.

  • Gordis85

    I watched last week’s General Audience when Papa Francis was greeting pilgrims from different parts of the world. When he greeted the pilgrims from Argentina, they went wild and were singing and screaming. The camera showed us all how Papa Francis greeted them but winced at the same time at the uproar…he then told them very seriously but with tenderness to cheer for Jesus instead. The crowd cheered even more as everyone was smiling.

    I really like Papa Francis. I am glad many others do as well and I am glad he does remind us all to love Jesus, to follow Jesus, to seek Jesus. I am sure Papa Francis would be the first to want to remove himself from being idolized, no doubt about it.

    The fact that many who are non-believers or non-Catholic are attracted to Papa Francis speaks more about the mercy of the Lord rather than about Papa Francis.
    If the Holy Spirit has moved Papa Francis in such a way as to bring many to Christ, then glory to God for such a wonderful grace. My prayer is for the world to be converted to Christ by the fine example many set who are faithful sons and daughters of the Lord.

    Let us not forget our brothers and sisters in Syria, Egypt, and the entire Middle East and elsewhere whose blood has been shed out of love for the Lord and their faith in Him. “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the faith!”

  • Billiamo

    “is it too early to say Francis is the best pope ever?”

    It is, dear Chris. Because eventually the Holy Father’s faithfulness to Catholic teaching will become clear enough to make you cry.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    As a Polish-American Catholic I grew up loving JPII deeply. I still have great respect, but I have grown more troubled by his papacy and its legacy as time has worn on. Perhaps Francis will end up the same, but only time will tell.

  • evelyn52Chris Fox

    Just finished Strangegods – now the most highlighted, earmarked book in my collection since graduate school!! Thank you for providing such as well-written, deeply insightful catalyst toward soul-searching for all of us fellow followers of Christ. (Glad to read that Pope Francis agrees:)

  • MeanLizzie

    Wow, thanks.

  • vox borealis

    I find it interesting how any criticism of the current pope is dealt with on some Patheos blogs. Public Catholic, for example, removes any comment critical of the pope, and is open about this policy. Mark Shea treats any criticism with his usual sharp tongue, wit and scorn, as well as a few pet names for the commenter. Though I greatly respect the papacy as an office personally, I am ambivalent about Francis, and I certainly don’t relate to (and am dubious about the longterm efficacy of) some of his public gestures, like driving an old car and rejecting some of the very few remaining papal regalia. Whatever, to each his own. But I do wonder if too many good and well meaning and pious catholics habitually make an idol of the pope (in general)…and that includes me, with my deep, deep admiration of Benedict XVI.

    As I wrote on Crescat’s blog, when she fretted a while back over not really digging Francis, it’s not a big deal. We as Catholics must obey the pope, we ought to respect the papacy, but what we feel about individual popes is not a matter of dogma.