The Pontiff Emeritus, Benedict XVI, gave a speech just before stepping down in 2013 in which he described how he thought the Second Vatican Council had been hijacked by what he called a “Council of the Media,” and which was the only council that anyone seemed to know about. I was thinking about this the other day when reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University, reviewing (ostensibly) three books about Pope Francis. Professor Duffy wrote the famous work Stripping of the Altars, on which I have written previously on this blog. His review essay is entitled, “Who is The Pope?” and in it, he appears to call for Francis to go easy on the Curia for, as he puts it, “no pope, however charismatic, can change the church alone.”
What got to me to thinking about Benedict’s speech is that Professor Duffy wants Pope Francis to reopen the question of women’s ordination; he also said, in as many words, that John Paul II’s apostolic letter on reiterating the Church’s teaching on the nature of the priesthood, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, was not sufficient to stop debate on such a question, since it didn’t take into account the sense of the faithful over time. Duffy does not care for John Paul II very much, and routinely has accused both he and Pope Benedict in the past of “authoritarianism.” This largely had to do with the disciplining of dissident theologians, but apparently it also has to do with the fact that Professor Duffy wants women to be priests. He is very much wrong on this matter, and it saddens me that such a gifted historian has fallen into such an error. But what intrigued me was his barely stated assumption that the primary purpose of the papacy was to, in his words, “change the church”–though only in a collegial, non-authoritarian way that Duffy approves of.
Many have noted how the introduction of television reshaped political life in the modern world, when it first became a constant presence in presidential elections in the US. One of my old mentors wrote a book about how the regularity of news schedules began reshaping people’s mentalities about things like government and religion as early as the 17th century, and so it is not surprising that newer forms of technology have speeded up this process. And what they have done, largely, is shaped people’s minds in the direction of change: it is the duty of our leaders to make “news,” that is, to change things, to “get the country moving again,” as John F. Kennedy put it in the 1960 presidential election, the first TV campaign of modern times. It’s a perfect phrase: it means precisely nothing, but is all the more powerful for that reason; a president’s job is to “get the country moving again” in some positive yet vaguely defined sense, all the better to captivate people’s imaginations.
I can’t speak to the experience of Catholics in other countries, but I fear this same expectation has now become entrenched among Catholics in America. I myself, I know, have fallen victim to it at times, the feeling that a “good” pope will somehow be able to “get the Church moving again” and correct all of its ills somehow. And this is an ecumenical error, I believe, shared by all sorts of Catholics. “Liberals” suppose he will ordain women and fulfill other desires of that sort; “conservative” or “neoconservative” Catholics hope he will somehow manage to baptize all those aspects of American society they that they think are “exceptional”; traditionalists hope he will restore the pre-Vatican II Church in all its splendor. Whatever their particular design, each thinks that major changes in the Church should precede from the institutional papacy, as if that were normal and good. This expectation is no doubt caused by the expansion of the papal bureaucracy that has taken place since the late 19th century, and the increasing tendency of popes to sound off on every “issue” under the sun is one outgrowth of this. But it is more than this; it is as if there is a general expectation that the pope has to be involved in every aspect of the Church’s life, even at the most local level, and I sometimes get the impression, especially under Pope Francis, that both he and most of the faithful have come to see the successor of Peter as some sort of Universal Catholic Life Coach (TM), whose primary task is to improve their self-esteem, to approve their personal projects as Catholics, whatever they happen to be. The twenty-four hour news cycle, combined with a fairly extensive Catholic news presences on the web, no doubt is part of the reason for this. I receive updates on my Facebook page all the time from Catholic new sources I have “liked,” much to my regret, relaying virtually every single homily and off hand remark that Pope Francis makes, as if every syllable were somehow crucial to the life of the Church at all levels, public and private, individual and communal. All of this contributes to the impression that every single thing he says is somehow equally important, and leads to the illusion that the Pope’s authority is akin to that of the President of the Church of the Latter Day Saints–that he can basically decree anything he wants, no matter if it contradicts previously solemnly defined doctrines of what is supposed to be a divinely revealed faith.
This is a rather dangerous trend, I think, largely because it obscures what I take to be the primary charism and duty of the pope: to say “no.” The real purpose of the papacy as I understand it is to be a guard against developments that are incompatible with the faith. This is not, I should add, a problem peculiar to Pope Francis but to pretty much every pontiff after Vatican II. I am afraid that, having made the decision to try to appeal to the modern world more directly, most popes have not wanted to sound too “negative,” and wanted to emphasize the more pleasant aspects of the faith in order to make it seem more attractive to modern people. Even Benedict XVI, who was beloved of some “traditionalist” Catholics, made the comment (I’m paraphrasing) that God’s message to us is ultimately a “Yes” and not a “No,” that Catholicism is not merely a bunch of negative rules, etc. The problem with this idea is that it obscures the essentially negative character of papal authority, especially its infallibility (which is only granted that it might not teach error, not that it will teach any particular positive doctrine, at least as I have understood it). Fr. Hunwicke at his splendid blog has posted some rather helpful quotations to illustrate this, which I reproduce here; one is from Vatican I, one is from John Henry Newman, and the last is from Benedict XVI:
“The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”
First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, Ch. IV, Sec. 21
“It is individuals, and not the Holy See, that have taken the initiative, and given the lead to the Catholic mind, in theological inquiry. Indeed, it is one of the reproaches urged against the Roman Church, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I really embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift.”
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Apologia Pro Sua Vita (1865), p.265
“After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything … especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. … In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith … it is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy
From now on, especially during this season of Lent, I will try to remember these quotes, when I am tempted to blame the continuation of some problem in the Church on insufficient action by the papacy, and remember that if there is something that needs to be done for the sake of the Church–corporal or spiritual works of mercy, re-enchanting the liturgy, defending its teachings on controversial issues, etc.–that I can always start such rectifications by essaying them myself. And remind others that the answer to certain questions, like the ordination of women, will always be “no.”