So a few days ago, Pope Francis was filmed avoiding having his papal ring kissed. Following the method of the Right Wing Panic Machine over the past few years in always keeping conservatives ginned up about stupid stuff so that they are easy to manipulate, the conservative Catholic blogosphere decided that this was the Panic du Jour to scream about that week and declared it ‘disturbing, bizarre’ and all the rest of it, with lots of chin-pulling from the Usual Suspects analyzing what this sinister portent means for the Church and, as ever, warning the Righteous that Pope Francis is the enemy they are appointed by God to save the Church from.
Meanwhile, America gives the background on the story and it turns out that–surprise–Francis did not originate discouraging this holdover from monarchy, that there is a prudent reason for his actions, and that the insulting claim that he is acting out of selfish vanity because he thinks it’s ”all about him” is just the latest in the long series of gratuitous and petty aspersions cast at a good man trying to do the right thing.
Why do Catholics kiss the pope’s ring? And why doesn’t he want them to?
Protocols evolve and changes can be confusing, especially when most people only meet a reigning monarch (or pope) once in their lives. As we have seen in the past few days, old habits die hard, even when the pope is trying to keep the receiving line moving. So while Pope Francis might not be a fan of hand and ring kissing, he is actually following the lead of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Before the Second Vatican Council, it was customary in most countries for both priests and laity to kiss a bishop’s ring upon greeting him as a sign of respect and obedience. But times change, and the gesture can also be seen as furthering clericalism and ties to temporal power. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI before him have tried to discourage the practice when the pope is receiving visitors, and Francis was resistant to the practice when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires as well. According to the journalist Peter Seewald (in his book-length interview The Light of the World), Pope Benedict XVI actually abolished the tradition of kissing the pope’s hand, “though no one followed the new protocol.”America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, notes that when the cardinals came forward at the conclave that elected Pope Francis to express their obedience to him, he tried to stop them from kissing his hand or ring. He kissed the hands of cardinals from Vietnam and China, as a sign of respect for their witness in the face of religious persecution.
Yeah, you read that right. JPII discouraged and B16 abolished the practice. Francis is following a prudent precedent that has sound reasoning behind it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people who always, always, always assume the worst about the Holy Father could, just once, try to think charitably about him instead of always, always, always rush to accuse? I have to believe that they act out of crushing fear and lack of trust in God since the only other choice is to believe that they act in wilful and malignant hatred of a decent man.