Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Each January, members of Congress, the Supreme Court Justices, and the executive cabinet assemble at the Capital to listen to the President’s State of the Union address. In principle, the exercise is an opportunity for the country to hear from the President regarding the vision that will guide the nation over the upcoming year. In reality, the speech is often an occasion for partisan politics. Each proclamation of the President is lauded by that Commander-in-Chief’s political party through a standing ovation and a round-of-applause. At the same time, the opposing political party sits in silence, standing and applauding only when it would be inappropriate to not do so (references to the military, praise for a retiring member of Congress, etc.).
This comical partisanship is presently being played out through the reaction of American Catholics to the papacy of Pope Francis. Indeed, just yesterday, the National Catholic Reporter published a column (written by David Gibson) in which the author assembled quotes out of context from various blogs to show how liturgical traditionalists and conservatives are unsettled by the papacy of Pope Francis. It is a piece written from the perspective of power politics. Conservatives, according to Gibson, now must endure the same heavy-handed approach that those on the left underwent during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Quoting just one part of the text:
But in a few short months, Pope Francis has upended that dynamic, alienating many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives.
In other words (the article implicitly argues), John Paul II and Benedict XVI were conservative Republicans, who courted the favor of those who held the same political ideologies. Now, Pope Francis, the papal equivalent to a Democrat, is once again attending to the Progressive political platform. Indeed, this narrative of political violence and revolution has overflowed into the online comment section of the article linked above. Those who have commented are rejoicing that the right-winged, conservative party of Catholicism must endure the same minority status as they did during the previous two papacies. A non-Catholic reading such comments would inevitably be surprising to read in the Scriptures the Christian obligation to love one’s neighbor as an act of divine worship.
This narrative regarding the papacy is reductionist, ideological, and for this reason un-Catholic. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore that there is a distinctive style to Pope Francis, which is at the very least different than that of Benedict XVI (it should be emphasized that this is because they are different human beings). The political and bureaucratic trappings of the Vatican are falling away under the evangelistic style brought about through Pope Francis’ preaching and his descent into the margins of society (a “revolution” perhaps begun not through Pope Francis himself but through the rather humble action of Benedict XVI resigning the papacy in the first place!).
Nonetheless, the function of the papacy is not to represent a certain political ideology, which is assumed to be correct by adherents to that platform. Rather, the Pope is a visible sign of unity among Catholics. As Lumen Gentium (the Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council) makes clear:
The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. Individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular churches, which are modelled on the universal church; it is in and from these that the one and unique catholic church exists. And for that reason each bishop represents his own church, whereas all of them together with the pope represent the whole church in a bond of peace, love, and unity (LG 23).
The function of the papacy is not ideological, not political, but a visible sign of that love and unity made possible through Christ’s presence in the Church, a gift offered for the salvation of the world. When Pope Francis speaks about simplicity, he is not presenting a political platform palatable to American Democrats. He is instead preaching the heart of the Gospel, one that should perplex the world. When Pope Francis visits a juvenile prison, he is embodying for the world the reality that light shines into the darkness; that even in the darkest places of life, in suffering and sorrow, there remains the gift of hope. He is enacting the new evangelization, one that does not remain solely concerned about ecclesial politics but the art of self-giving love transformative of human society and the cosmos alike.
The problem with the political party approach to the Papacy is that it presumes that each Pontiff must enact a revolution, a new way of doing things, over the last Pope. Is it not possible, instead, that each papacy strives to enact this unity, this gift of self to the world, in a particular way and with particular gifts? In fact, there is a sacramental beauty to Pope Francis’ claim that the encyclical Lumen Fidei was the fruit of four hands: his and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Is it not the case that the life of the Church is the fruit of hundreds of millions of hands throughout time, who have dared to embody self-giving love in the world? St. Francis de Sales and St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
There is no single way to be Catholic, to become a saint. And likewise, there is no univocal way to be a Pope. The particular histories, the theological and spiritual formation of each man who sits in the Chair of St. Peter, will continue to make its mark until the consummation of the ages. Not all that each Pope does will be perfect. Nor can we be sure what is lasting from a papacy and what will fade away. Rather, like the parable of the wheat and the tares, the wheat of a papacy can only be known at the end of time. A political party approach to the papacy, whether professed by those who call themselves liberal or conservative, refuses to acknowledge that God might be acting even in decisions that we find troubling. After all, there might be an abundance of wheat, where we see only weeds.
Thus, it seems necessary for the flourishing of American Catholicism that we cease professing the heresy of the political party approach to the papacy. Those who tend to love the liturgical papacy of Benedict XVI, admire the way that Pope Francis descends into the margins of society as an act of Eucharistic love (thus, in some ways, continuing the liturgical papacy). Those who look to Pope Francis’ actions as a commitment to the poor, read Benedict XVI’s discussion of the Eucharist as obligating us to a life of concrete love to those most in need. Let us refuse to introduce false dichotomies between Pontiffs, a division that rips apart the Church.
Our hope for the papacy can never be that we desire one Pope to be right, while the other is proved wrong. Instead, as Catholics, our hope is that each Pope, through his own gifts, in his own concrete time, might lead people to contemplate how our humanity is elevated in Christ. Not every Pope will succeed in this work in every way. But rather than rip apart the Pope for his ideological impurity (or praise him for his purity), let us rejoice that those who look upon Pope Francis right now may be moved to love Christ ever more deeply.