A Few Remarks on Papalotry

Yesterday’s post critiquing a recent article by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig (ESB) triggered a fair amount of irrational hyperbole, though thankfully less than I originally feared. Taking to Twitter, ESB mocked me for using WordPress (she uses it too) and then claimed she was under attack from “white males” (no comment). No substantive point raised in my post was addressed. Others, however, noted that The New Republic should no longer be taken as a reliable source of thoughtful commentary on much of anything and that when it comes to things Catholic, mainstream secular coverage will almost always be lacking in depth and sophistication. While all of that may be very well true, it doesn’t change the fact that a writer, even a young writer, who previously traded on her academic credentials to position herself as a legitimate authority on Catholic thought should tread lightly when dealing with complex intra-ecclesial affairs. As noted yesterday, the Pope’s critics are not all of the same mind, and their respective relationships to mainline American conservatism oftentimes differ. This is neither new news nor an obscure factoid that might understandably be overlooked. So why was it? One has to wonder.

If there is any “camp” guilty of conflating ecclesial ideology and politics—specifically liberal American politics—it is the Pope’s most vocal supporters rather than his critics. Believing that Francis will finally force the Church to meet secular (post)modernity with open arms, including its emptyheaded values, these liberal Catholics routinely lash out against those who have the temerity to defend doctrinal orthodoxy. These faithful Catholics are quickly compared to the worst examples of political conservatism in action with over-the-top accusations being commonplace. Do you support the Church’s official stand on the sanctity of life? Then you’re a woman-hating misogynist like those Republicans who want to restrict access to abortions. Do you believe sodomy is a sin, one which cries out to Heaven for vengeance? Then you are a rabid homophobe who wants to see gays and lesbians deprived of their rights, etc.

For the liberals, the “Pope is the Faith and the Faith is the Pope,” at least until the next guy puts on the red slippers. Then it will be a game of wait-and-see. Will the next pope change course? Will he crackdown on dissent? Will he honor the customs and traditions of the Roman liturgy or play fast n’ loose with the rubrics? And so on, and so forth. If the next pope fails to conform to some prefabricated, liberal ideal, he will be shunned by the liberals, and then all of their papalotry shall crumble into dust.

Sadly, that likely won’t mark the end of papalotry altogether. A new, possibly more rigorous and austere, pontiff will quickly draw his own legion of idolaters, most of whom would probably put any 19th C. ultramontanist to shame. Overtaken by their exuberance for clear and steady leadership, the next papaloters will keep alive the present myths surrounding the Pope’s authority, competence, and duties—myths which can be very destructive when placed in the service of radical renovators who want the Church to be little more than a spiritual NGO. When the time comes to choose the next pope, conservative and traditional Catholics alike must be on guard against falling into the errors of their estranged liberal brethren. Yes, the pope’s role as supreme teacher and defender of the Faith must be upheld, but only in the light of truth.

This is easier said than done. As conservative and traditional Catholics are forced to endure a period in the Church where the liberals routinely leverage papalotry against them, they will be under considerable temptation to use similar tactics when the road to restoration is opened again. But they needn’t do that. For the pope, in continuity with tradition, can combat the errors which have entered the Church with the power and authority already vested in him. There is no need to make the papacy out to be more than it is, particularly when there is a noble soul standing in the shoes of the fisherman who is willing to reach for the sword of his predecessor in order to defend Christ’s flock from the wolves.