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What we talk about when we talk about the pope

How should people talk about the Holy Father? To start with, I think non-Catholics should say whatever they want about the pope, and I think Catholics should say what they believe to be true. But I don’t care what non-Catholics say about him. They have no reason to treat him as somebody special. If they tell the truth it has the added benefit of letting Catholics know what others think about their religion. I think there are a fair number of Catholics who think the world has a respect for Catholicism that does not exist, and we’re all better off knowing the truth.

I think Catholics should be free to say what they really think. We can tell each other what we think is true, but I don’t think Catholics should talk about the pope the way people mad at Trump talk about him. I don’t like Catholics talking about the Holy Father in a contemptuous way—the way that liberal Catholics usually talked about the pope more or less continuously from 1968 until the election of Pope Francis.

Lots of Catholics talk about the Holy Father like that, as if he’s some stranger to them, as if part of his job is to meet their expectations. Let’s assume that the Holy Father said something puzzling, how should you react? Should you say something that suggests that you are separate from him and his words? Make sure that everybody knows that, although you’re Catholic, you’d never say something like that? Or should you wince, and pray and hope that the Holy Father can fix it? If he were to say something really bizarre and inexplicable would it be like some politician you don’t like saying it? Or would it be like your father?

Now it is possible for people to disagree with the Holy Father without being like that. I think it is hard to criticize a pope while being both respectful and right. It’s easier with historical perspective. I can say it was a mistake for Pope Alexander VI to help his son, Cesare Borgia, conquer Italy, especially with all the atrocities. And I think it would have been perfectly proper for a good Catholic in 1500 to oppose this, and to speak against it. (Machiavelli, though, thought it was a good idea.)

Well, that shows I can do it, but that one was just too easy. I’ll try again with a little less historical perspective. Let’s see whether I can criticize, in a correct and respectful manner, any of the popes of the last seventy-five years.

Pius XII was an intelligent, learned, and energetic man. He spoke ten languages. When he was pope he made many decisions himself. He carefully controlled many things in the Church, more than any pope has ever done, maybe more than any other pope would have been capable of doing. 

During his papacy the modernists were working in secret to win adherents among priests and theologians. Every year they were a little stronger than the year before. Pius very closely controlled the work of the Holy Office, and I think because of that other means of fighting heresy fell into disuse. A bishop or theologian isn’t going to criticize another theologian if he knows the pope is supervising an investigation of that theologian. A prominent teacher who was teaching something questionable wouldn’t be criticized because it was assumed that if he was doing it in public Rome knew about it and Rome allowed it. So the normal ways of dealing with error fell into disuse. These means were needed in the 1960s when there were heretical theologians in every newspaper, magazine, and college, and they were not used. The heretics were not publicly opposed.

So can I criticize Pius for over-centralizing so much in the Church, including dealing with heretical teaching? I don’t think I can. Certainly some bad things happened because of the over-centralization, but during this pontificate it was very important that there be no mistakes. The times were so critical. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain, and Saint Josemaría Escrivá were suspected of error. A wrong decision in their cases would have been disastrous. All three were important in holding things together in the 1960s and 1970s. Pius may have known that making so many decisions himself was not the ideal way for the pope to preside over the Church, but he also may have known that the times were so critical that it was the right thing for him to keep everything under such tight personal control. So I have no criticism of Pius.

Saint John XXIII is sometimes criticized with the word “imprudent,” by people who say he didn’t realize how delicate the Church was. The Church couldn’t handle the pope running around saying, “Throw open the windows.” I’ve read that even using the word “aggiornamento” was imprudent. And it’s often argued that ecumenical councils should only be called when there is a pressing need for them, and in the absence of one Pope John shouldn’t have called Vatican II.

Again, I don’t know. I know that Vatican I had never been closed, only adjourned, and having an ecumenical council not open but not quite closed either isn’t the way things are supposed to be. The first Vatican Council was not closed because it hadn’t finished its work. Vatican II issued documents that addressed questions that the fathers of Vatican I intended to address but did not. They had to leave Rome because of its impending conquest by Garibaldi. I think 1962 was a better time for the council than any time after 1962. Every year the modernists were stronger and stronger, in the seminaries, among priests and religious. They worked in secret and that suited them. Their power and influence steadily increased during the years after 1910. It was hard to contain the modernists when they emerged into the light of day after the council. If a council had not met until 1972 or 1982 they would have been that much stronger. I do not think a council was required for their emergence. Maybe the council forced their hand and they stopped being secretive prematurely. 

Eventually there would have been a council to close Vatican I and to deal with the issues left unaddressed, and the later it came, the harder it would have been for the Church. A lot of trouble came after the council, but I don’t think it was caused by the council. It was caused by the modernism that was living and growing in the Church leading up to the council. The Church wasn’t “delicate” for any reason but that. Aggiornamento and the council brought the modernists out of hiding, and fooled them into thinking this was their moment, their chance to take over. It wasn’t. But if they had stayed in hiding longer, things might well have been worse.

If I were to criticize Saint Paul VI for anything, it would be his deference to elite opinion. But who knows, maybe he was right. Maybe right then an all-out push against the zeitgeist would have broken the Church, maybe into many pieces. He succeeded, mostly, in keeping in the Church the people who would have supported the all-out push, and he did it without a schism. 

If you don’t remember the 1960s you may not know how strong that zeitgeist was, how convinced people were that everything was going to change, that big changes were necessary and inevitable and fighting against change was evil. For example, in the United States abortion was so thoroughly rejected in 1963 that Planned Parenthood said it was against abortion, and in 1973 the Supreme Court imposed unrestricted abortion on the whole country. I think Paul had a harder task than any other pope I’m familiar with. People, especially intellectuals and those invested with temporal authority, demanded change, big change, and people in general were convinced that this was at the very least inevitable and most likely good. People in authority in the Church were in the forefront of demanding this change.

Paul did not strongly resist this call for change, except when he had to do so. During Vatican II things were not that bad. Everybody knew there was a faction pressing for change. But everybody also knew that there was an opposing faction who thought the essentials had to be preserved. After the council, though, the liberals were able to sell people on the idea that their side had won, and that everything was going to change and we were going to make up new doctrines as we went along. For three years that idea gained increasing strength. In June 1968 Paul issued the Credo of the People of God. After that liberals could still say everything changed, but they, and people who paid attention to Paul, knew that the pope did not agree. They pretended that Paul’s Credo (which Archbishop Lefebvre praised) changed nothing, but they were wrong. Their opponents had something to cite that said even after Vatican II the Catholic faith remained the Catholic faith. Jacques Maritain suggested the Credo to Pope Paul, and he wrote its first draft.

What the world wanted from Paul more than anything else was, of course, contraception. Obviously he could not give in, could not teach error, and did not. In the reaction to Humanae vitae we can see what may have happened if he had refused change on everything. Almost no one stood with Paul: a few scattered bishops, a few isolated, unpublicized intellectuals. The bishops of Canada formally voted against Humanae vitae. Paul got through this crisis without a schism, but what if the crises had kept coming? Paul bent to the prevailing winds a lot. He did not interfere very much with the liberals who had structural power the Church, but how much progress could he make acting alone, with allies who were both few and ambivalent? 

And Paul did not just get the right answer in Humanae vitae. He wrote a prophetic document. I think the teaching of Humanae vitae is infallible. That means that I do not think Paul could have written something coming to the contrary conclusion. He did not have to say anything, though. If he had been silent, it would have been a disaster. Frank Sheed used to ask, assuming the pope were infallible in algebra, and he were given an algebra test with one hundred questions, what is the minimum number he would get right? The answer is zero. If he were infallible in algebra, he could not work a problem and get a wrong answer. He could, though, not answer at all. Infallibility is not inspiration. Popes can’t teach error, but they are not guaranteed inspiration to say the right thing at the right time. 

The times were revolutionary. The Church was Satan’s special target. Paul had few allies among the bishops and prominent priests, and fewer among intellectuals and academics. I think Paul did miraculously well in leading the Church under the worst circumstances.

There is an area in which I think Paul did err. He did not entrust the reform of the liturgy to the right people, and I think the result is a new Mass that is not what it should be. There was, however, an enormous demand for a revised liturgy at the time. It may be that leaders in revolutionary times should just pretend that the demand for revolution does not exist. This may be a good policy, but leaders don’t seem to think so. Revolutionary times change everyone, even if it does not seem as if they should in retrospect. But what if Paul had turned over the job of revising the liturgy to faithful priests? I think we would have gotten something like the 1912 Anglo-Catholic English Missal. I think it would have been a better missal, but it would have made the campaign to suppress the traditional Latin Mass more powerful. Perhaps there never would have been the demand for it that we have now.

As far as I know neither I nor anyone else has any criticism of John Paul I.

Liberals and some other critics of Saint John Paul II complain that he was not a good administrator. There is some element of truth in this, but the bigger truth is that when you’re doing one thing you’re not doing another. He looked beyond Rome and in doing so he overlooked problems in Rome. But I think what he did in the world was much more important than what he didn’t do in Rome. And if you don’t remember how bad things were before him, it’s hard to appreciate how much he accomplished while bitterly opposed by modernists every step of the way.

Under Benedict XVI I remember complaints that he wrote books about Jesus when he should have been doing something else, something that would have totally ended the power of liberals in the Church. I was never impressed with the argument. Pope Benedict’s teaching, in his talks, in his official documents, and in his books, is a gift to the Church that will last for a long time. He did so much to fix the Church’s attitude toward liturgy. That gift is going to last too. And he could have done much more administratively in the Church if he had had more help, with bishops willing to help him the way he helped John Paul. If there were some way for him to have ended modernism, I wish he would have ended it, but I do not think that is going to happen by papal decree.

I do not have an analogy for how we should talk about the pope other than our families. We are closer to our parents than we are to the pope, but the analogy applies, I think. People say bad things about their families in public to non-relatives, but I think that is impious. I think the most common justification for talking about the pope with contempt is that he deserves it. He has an important job, and he is not doing it right. Fathers have an important job in the family, too, and they don’t do it perfectly. I have been edified by people speaking respectfully of fathers who have not done all of the things they perhaps should have done—and certainly failed to meet the American upper-middle-class standard for soccer game attendance. If a father’s role could be quantified, say on a scale of one hundred, respectful speech from a son whose father failed three quarters of the time is a great thing to hear.

That does not mean lying. There is no requirement to compliment your father, or the pope, with falsehoods. There are people who speak about the pope as if everything he does is exactly what he should be doing, and every criticism improper. I find it hard to believe that they believe what they say. I suspect that they do not really think the pope is right about everything, but think they have a duty to pretend that he is. One thing about avoiding speaking about the pope with contempt is that you get to quote him when he says something you might like, for example, comparing an abortionist to a hit man.

The opposite is more common, though. The people who say really bad things about the pope justify it by saying they think he is doing a bad job. That is the standard for speaking disrespectfully of a professional athlete or coach. In our sports culture if he’s being paid twenty eight million dollars a year and he does something wrong, there is no limit to the abuse he receives. I do not even think this attitude is right when it comes to sports, but suppose I did: the pope is not some athlete. If your father does something wrong, something seriously, hurtfully wrong, contempt and invective do not automatically become appropriate. The pope is more like your father than your team’s third baseman or the coach who was hired to get you back into championship contention, more like your father than the president no one you know voted for.

I think our problem comes from a sense of entitlement. We tell ourselves that we should have a Church without major problems, that we should have a Church in which it can be safely assumed that every bishop is a faithful orthodox Catholic trying to do his best. It happens, however, that sometimes the Church is for centuries infected with one heresy or another, and we are living in bad times. I think the sense of being entitled to a placid Church is much like the sense of being entitled to a father who shows up for soccer games and is not at work at nine o’clock at night. Surely it is better to have a father who can check all the boxes for a list of what upper-middle-class fathers should be doing, but a failure in that regard does not justify contempt. We saw this sense of entitlement when that atheist Eugenio Scalfari said that—years ago—the pope said he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. Lots of people said things like, “He needs to unequivocally state that he believes Jesus Christ is God.” He did not have to do so. It sounded to me like a fourteen-year-old telling her mother, “You have to let me go to this.” Maybe the mother should, but she does not have to. You can think it was imprudent for the pope to have talked to Scalfari more than once. You can think it was imprudent the first time. But the pope does not have to contradict somebody who insists that he really did say something years ago but that the information has somehow been secret until now. I would not have to contradict somebody under those circumstances. I do not see any good coming from the pope going over what he said to Scalfari years ago, what he meant, and what he really believes. 

If we have a special duty toward the pope, one that resembles the duty of filial piety, it is because we are in some way related to him. Saint John Henry Newman wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, “I assent to that which the Pope propounds in faith and morals, but it must be him speaking officially, personally and immediately, and not any one else.” He was speaking of infallibility, which is not my topic, but I follow that rule. We have special duties to the people with whom we have special relationships, not to people with whom we have no particular relationship. We do not have to speak with special care about our father’s drug dealer or our mother’s boyfriend. I do not feel a special duty to everyone on the payroll in Rome, even if they say they are acting in the pope’s interests and know his unspoken thoughts. 

Father Hugh Somerville-Knapman has written about the pope’s “self-appointed and self-serving” defenders, those who “advocate what it is said the pope thinks but has never quite said: that civilly remarried divorcees should receive Holy Communion.” These people say the pope is hinting that I am supposed to believe that, too. If the pope wants me to take that seriously, though, he is going to have to say it. 

I do not know the pope’s unspoken thoughts. I do not think very highly of the people who say they do, but what if a pope does have unorthodox opinions? He is, then, the most unfortunate of men. A pope can believe heresy, but he can’t teach it. But how pathetic such a pope would be. How could you do anything but feel sorry for him? 

I think we can say whatever we think is true without contempt. In the family we certainly can say what we think to our brothers and sisters about our parents, and in that situation we are likely to use language that would sound disrespectful to an outsider. But if we are going to speak freely, and we are angry, sometimes we are going to be actually disrespectful. To use the family analogy one more time, the son should not insult the father, but it is not outrageous, when he does insult him, to think that he spoke angrily out of pain; even if it was the wrong thing to do, it does not mean that the father is without fault in the dispute.

The Church is not like the world. Even outside the Church, other people are our neighbors, but we are related to the people in the Church. And we’re more related to some than others. Saint Thomas Aquinas asks “Whether piety extends to particular human individuals?” and “Should the duties of piety be omitted for the sake of religion?” Thomas means by piety the due respect we have for our country and our parents. We owe something like that duty to particular human individuals in the Church, among them, I think, our pastor, our bishop, and the pope.

I for one am against omitting the duties of piety for the sake of religion.