The Public Pope

Why the intense fascination paid to Pope Francis—or any pope—isn’t good for the Catholic Church.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

What are popes good for? In the quarter-century I’ve been writing about Catholicism, I’ve learned that popes are good for the pope-arazzi and for a bit of exotica on the nightly news. On occasion, of course, they are good for producing reams of copy. Time’s Man of the Year! The cover of Rolling Stone! Ten thousand words of aggrieved vindication—“A Radical Pope’s First Year,” insists the recent tendentious headline—in The New Yorker! Apparently there is something about popes that a mass media otherwise skeptical of religious authority finds almost irresistible—which is why, from time to time, popes have even been good for getting me on television, called upon to comment on this or that papal action or utterance. Modern popes also function as job creators for church historians and for biographers. Wait a week, and we’ll get yet another instant life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio or collection of his table talk. How else would we know that Pope Francis was once a bouncer? Essential training, one presumes, for a guardian of orthodoxy.  

On this first anniversary of Bergoglio’s elevation to the throne of Peter, kudos and lamentations keep piling up. To some extent it’s not difficult to understand the allure—after all, there aren’t many celibates or absolute monarchs left, let alone one who can claim the allegiance of a billion people. Still, there is something mismatched about this dalliance between the vicar of Christ and the celebrity-obsessed mass media, and one can’t help but wonder at the secular fascination with the papacy that it signals. In a world of limitless choices and seemingly unresolvable conflicts, here is a man and a creed that preaches the renunciation of worldly things and a promise of otherworldly justice. Is the pope offering merely an escape from the burdens of modern freedom or a real alternative? For many Catholics the question still matters. Churches are not quite as empty as rumor has it.  

Whatever people think Pope Francis is offering, he is no magician; he can’t alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers. In this light, the inordinate attention paid to the papacy, while perhaps good for business, is not good for the church. Why not? Because it encourages the illusion that what ails the church can be cured by one man, especially by a new man. In truth no pope possesses that kind of power, thank God. The very first pope, let us recall, was a man of legendary weakness, denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed. And the most recent pope, Benedict XVI—a man of towering intellect and inspiring, if fusty, piety—retired from the ring, overmastered by palace intrigue within the Vatican. John Paul II, to be sure, was a media superstar and arguably played a historic role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even he could not effectively confront the most critical challenge facing his church, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals.

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

The fixation on the papacy trivializes the faith of Catholics, the vast majority of whom throughout history have had little knowledge of, and no contact with, any pope. Traditionally, the papacy was the court of last resort in adjudicating disagreements among the faithful. But in the last century or so it has increasingly become the avenue of first resort, determined to meddle in every theological or ecclesiological dispute. If American nuns are flirting with novel styles of ministry, the Vatican intercedes. If translations of liturgical texts incorporate a bit of inclusive language, Rome takes out its red pencil. This meddling Vatican infantilizes the church’s bishops, who seem to change their tune (as well as their dress) in response to every new papal fashion. Bishops in turn demand deference from the clergy and laity. The consequences have been all too clear: As in any heavily top-down organization, local initiatives fail to gain a foothold, or fizzle out for lack of dynamic leadership, and apathy prevails in the pews. Institutional gridlock and paralysis have become the norm. Seminaries are empty, and clerical talent is thin on the ground. 

Theologically the pope is supposed to symbolize the church’s unity, but in recent decades he has symbolized mostly the clashing hopes and apprehensions of Catholics on opposing sides of the church’s cultural and religious divide. John Paul and Benedict tried to discipline unruly troops in the seminaries, rectories, universities, and parishes. Catholic liberals managed to lie low and hang on—and today, weary of the scoldings dished out by self-proclaimed “orthodox” Catholics for decades, they are springing back, emboldened by Francis and by what seems like a shift in attitude (if not policy) in Rome. But Francis, despite his evident charm and passionate pastoral style, won’t have much more luck than his more theologically anxious predecessors in ameliorating the church’s ideological conflicts. As his admirers will discover, even the most winsome papal leadership—and winsomeness is very much in the eye of the beholder—cannot mend Catholicism’s divisions.

These divisions, and the disputes they provoke, are mind-numbingly familiar. What is a “faithful” Catholic to think about artificial birth control; homosexuality and same-sex marriage; divorce; the exclusively male, celibate priesthood; the possibility of electing bishops; the role of the laity, especially women, in church decision-making; the relationship between popes and bishops; religious pluralism; and clergy sexual abuse and the unaccountability of the hierarchy? These and other questions go to the heart of Catholic self-understanding, yet a church notorious for valuing discipline and unanimity remains deeply divided on all of them. Catholics on both sides of every issue claim to be the true heirs of the Second Vatican Council. All agree that Vatican II promulgated the most authoritative understanding of the church’s teachings. Yet they read the council’s documents in diametrically opposed ways.

How is that possible? The answer lies with the documents themselves. On the one hand, the proclamations of Vatican II opened startling new possibilities for how Catholics might engage both one another and those outside the church: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the followers of Christ,” the bishops insisted at Vatican II, in an unprecedented spirit of ecumenism. At the same time, however, the council effectively reaffirmed the Catholic absolutism of the past. The distinguished Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck, an official Protestant observer at Vatican II, described the resulting dilemma as one in which “radical and fundamental ambiguities in the most authoritative” statements promulgated by the council—including those on papal infallibility, relations with other Christians, and the challenge of reconciling Catholic tradition with the Bible—enabled those on different sides of every neuralgic issue to find ample textual support for their interpretations. “When the supreme law of the land directly authorizes rival, perhaps contradictory, positions and provides no way of settling the disputes,” Lindbeck concluded with genuine regret, “conflict becomes inevitable and, unless changes are made in the supreme law, irresolvable.”

Little has changed in the nearly 40 years since Lindbeck offered his assessment. Yet he also cautioned that any hasty attempt to resolve the ambiguities of Vatican II would be a serious mistake, whether that effort was conducted on behalf of the church’s reformers or its traditionalists. In Lindbeck’s judgment, any resolution lay far down the road. The crisis could not be ended by any one pope, and it still cannot. Even now Catholic conservatives are searching for safe harbors, determined to ride out the storm of Francis’ reputedly “progressive” reign. Like their liberal rivals during the last few papacies, the conservatives will be there, eager to reassert their “rightful” place at the head of the Communion line, when the pope they disdain passes from the scene.

The persistent nature of such divisions reminds us that Catholics must find a way to live with and through their ongoing disputes and, most important, to live with one another. Perhaps this is precisely what Pope Francis is trying to tell Catholics in his efforts to shift the focus: away from Rome and back to the poor and afflicted, away from the question of who is living in the papal apartments to who is breaking bread with whom in more modest surroundings, and away—most winningly—from the popemobile to a used Renault.

Lex orandi, lex credendi is one of the church’s most venerable teachings. Roughly translated, it means that the church’s worship determines its theology, or as the catechism puts it: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: The Church believes as she prays.” Whatever their ideological disagreements, Catholics will find unity, and a less anachronistic relationship with the papacy, in practicing their faith together—or they will not find unity at all. That may mean that the same-sex couple in the pew next to you will provide a more faithful example of Christian witness than you might now imagine possible. Or perhaps the ardent piety of a Latin Mass enthusiast will lead you to reconsider parts of the church’s tradition you have long dismissed as irrelevant and sterile. In any event, the church’s unity and renewed vitality will be—must be—a gift that the faithful bring to the pope, and not the other way around.