Sunday, April 7, 2013

Two Superstitions About Popes

Pope Francis in March 2013
Both of these have been on display recently. 

1.  The first is the superstition of "the next Pope".  Whenever a new Pope is elected, we hear calls that the Church must change certain immutable teachings -- for instance, that only men can be ordained as priests, that contraception is an immoral violation of the nature of marriage, that all sex outside of marriage is immoral, etc.  Maybe "the next Pope" will change those teachings. 

No.  No secular analogy quite holds, but it might be sufficient to suggest that this would be like speculation that a new Chief of Staff of the United States Army will re-introduce segregation.  This will not happen because, although the Chief of Staff very powerful, he is not of unlimited power; he is subject to the authority of the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, none of which are part of the Army, and none of which will be re-introducing segregation.  Likewise, the authority of the Pope is not unlimited; he is subject to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and although our understanding of Divine Law may change, Divine Law itself does not change.

What would happen to a Chief of Staff who tried to do something outrageously opposed to the policies of the government?  No question about it, he would be removed from office immediately; if Truman could do that to MacArthur, it can happen to any general.  And what would happen to a Pope who exercised his free will to formally teach falsehood?  After all, he could make that attempt.  Somehow he would be prevented from doing so by the Holy Trinity.  

It is tempting to wonder if this might explain some of the sudden and unexpected deaths of Popes, but producing such a story about a real, historical Pope would inevitably be nothing but unjustified libel.  (If written about a fictional Pope, it would be very hard not to have his death appear to be a literal Deus ex machina.  His death would have to come at the beginning of the story, not at the end.  For example, his decision to teach error might be uncovered by a detective as part of the investigation, with complications from those who persuaded the Pope to follow this course of action.)

2.  The second kind of superstition exaggerates the role of the currently reigning Pope.   Don't get me wrong: I fully accept the role of the Pope as taught by the Church.  There are some, though, who treat every little thing done by a Pope the way that some superstitious people treat tea leaves, interpreting his gestures and omissions as though they were ex cathedra declarations on faith and morals, and frequently as though these inferences outweigh everything actually taught over the past 2000 years.  Inevitably, this is either because the "tea-leaf reader" is hoping to have his own position validated or because his attitude towards the Pope is fundamentally one of fear.  Either case is far from the virtue of faith.

So take, for example, the ruckus over Pope Francis's Maundy Thursday Mass, where he washed the feet of young prison inmates, including two young women, one of whom is Muslim.  This is noteworthy because the rubrics clearly state that if the priest chooses to wash feet, they are to be the feet of males.  (For several excellent posts dealing with this matter, see Dr. Ed Peters' blog.)

Let's be clear:  It is no great act of mercy to wash the feet of healthy young people.  This is not the First Century; the streets are much cleaner, quality shoes are widespread, and baths are commonplace.  Outside the context of the Holy Thursday Mass, to offer to wash the feet of someone who can do it for himself would not be, as some bloggers have forcefully insisted, "beautiful", it would be bizarre, even creepy.  If you want to be helpful, you can do the laundry or wash the dishes, but keep your hands to yourself!

Well, what about within the context of the Mass?  Here the matter becomes speculative, and that is a huge part of the problem.  The Holy Spirit prevents the Pope from formally teaching error, but the Holy Spirit gives him no help at charades.  This leaves some people speculating that Francis is "teaching" that those nasty old rules don't really matter and we should not pay them much heed. 

This is not the first time that the actions of a Pope have run an unnecessary risk of being interpreted as teaching something false.
"But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.  For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision.  And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented: so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.  But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?"-- Galatians 2:11--14
It is important to understand that St. Peter (Cephas) was not only the first Pope, he was also one of the original twelve Apostles, and as such received certain "prerogatives" that would prevent him from ever again falling into mortal sin; yet even so, he could set a bad example, as he did in the case cited in Galatians.  If St. Peter could make such a blunder, so clearly could Pope Francis.  

At the same time, let's not read too much into this.  Francis was elected to be Pope, not to be a mime.  The quotation, "Preach the Gospel always.  When necessary, use words," which is often attributed to St. Francis, is actually of doubtful origin, and when Pope Francis teaches as Pope, it will always be necessary to use words.

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