Pope St. Pius X never had Twitter. Few knew how he made a point of calling forth children during his general audiences, how he would wander the streets at night, giving candy to homeless children and teaching them about the faith. Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum was probably the most important encyclical in the modern era of the papacy, yet there wasn’t a Catholic blogosphere to endlessly debate its merits.
This phenomenon is new for the Church. It is alien to the right respect and obedience the pope deserves, an exaggeration born of 24-hour news coverage. While the pope has always steered the barque of Peter, for most of its history he steered it distantly, far from the eyes of Catholics. He seldom intervened in the affairs of local bishops. When he did, it was only because there was an imminent danger to the faith. People respected the Pope, honored the Pope, but they didn’t base the majority of their life as Catholics around the Pope.
Point this historical reality out nowadays, and you are accused of saying the Pope should be ignored. On matters in which he is truly acting as Peter’s successor, he not only needs to be respected, but obeyed. Neither do I deny the great tool the papacy can be for Catholics. Especially in recent pontificates, the Pope has taken on a role of being a catechist-in-chief, and there is a lot one can learn from them, and a lot we should learn.
What I mean is this: Catholics do not need a Papal Bull before breakfast. When we think of the faith, do not think in terms of the Pope, as if his appreciation were our goal. Instead, ask whether what we are doing is contrary to the faith. If we know our faith, we do not need to lean so heavily on the barque’s captain. We each have a job on this ship to help it run smoothly. In the course of that work, we might see Christians who fell off the ship drowning, and a world water-logged with self-absorption. Do we really need to ask the pope what we should do for them?
Over-reliance on the Pope
There have been 266 successors to St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome. Our Church declares one third of popes’ saints or blesseds. Our Church does not declare anything about the eternal states of the rest, especially the one in ten popes historians recognize as poor or wicked. During several periods in Church history, entire centuries were lost to these wicked and ineffectual stewards of the faith. Some were puppets of powerful noble families who paid almost no attention to religion. Others, such as Benedict IX, led lives of such depravity they represent a permanent black mark on the papacy.
Our lucky century-and-a-half of decent to saintly popes bucks the historical trend of the last millennium. We are at ease not only with the promise that the pope cannot wreck the Church. We are so comfortable that we do not think a pope would try. In these centuries of restoration, we should be grateful for the popes from Bl. Pius IX to Francis, or Benedict, or whatever other arbitrary name you wish to use, the principle is the same. We should not take their holiness for granted. We have had bad popes before, and we are almost certain to have bad popes again. These bad popes will likely be followed by worse popes.
Without a doubt, the Church will survive as she always has. But how did the Church survive? Where? She survived because there were places that the Catholic faith was well-known, well-lived, well-loved. They didn’t need the pope on speed dial, even if they needed him at times.
During the tenth and eleventh centuries, there were the Cluniac reforms. These launched a golden age which not only reshaped the Church, but most of Europe. Later, during the dark days of the Protestant Reformation, the saints of the Counter-Reformation laid the framework for the next great age of the Church. During both eras the office of the papacy was inhabited by mostly average to awful popes.
There was no secret recipe to the success of these reform movements. They didn’t rely on some groundbreaking new approach to things, nor did they unlock something previously hidden. They emphasized a renewed commitment to God through those things immediately in front of them. They restored the liturgy, served the poor, emphasized the sacraments. Even in the worst of times, they clung to the traditions they had received. (2 Thess 2:15) They flourished by bringing Christ to the world around them, even as the world far away was deteriorating. They understood that the work they were undertaking would be last decades, centuries, during the reign of good and bad popes.
The cure for ultramonatism—an excessive reliance on the pope—is having a deep knowledge, love, and a life for the traditions of the church. It is not heresy to say that tradition is our backbone. The pope is our chiropractor. When something in tradition gets distorted he will (along with the Bishops in communion with him) fix it. If he is our chiropractor, he also is not our live-in nurse.
image: Bgabel / Wikimedia Commons