The Popes & Our Faith

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

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • James Milliken

    Good discussion, Kevin: I especially like the image of the Pope as the Ecclesial Chiropractor. I have to say that the serious Catholics i know don’t get too worked up over the Pope, whether the current one or previous Pontiffs. I see the secular media trying to treat him as a celebrity, and dissenting Catholics using distorted media accounts in an attempt to shore up their own agenda. The rest of us try to live the faith in our daily lives, and appreciate the Pope for doing what God has chosen him to do.

  • A couple things:

    1.) If you mean “ultramontanism” as in the movement which opposed the idea the pope could be subject to the whims of a council, yes, you are correct in that ultramontanism was a good thing.

    Yet there was also a position of ultramontanism at the Council which was far more expansive than what was actually true. Indeed, Cardinal Manning’s interpretation of papal infallability went above and beyond what the text actually authorized. (Read the actual relatio of Pastor Aeturnus to see that.)

    We sorta have that in today’s church. We have a view of papal supremacy that is grossly inflated to where we really do want a papal bull on our breakfast.

    2.) One can complain about Newman all you want, but he was ultimately vindicated by both Leo XIII (who made him Cardinal) and later St. Pius X after his death. So calling a man beatified “The Devil at the Council” smacks of a certain impiety that preconcilliar popes would define as “rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics against it rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics against it”
    3.) As to the rest, there really isn’t much to say. You are throwing things against the wall hoping something sticks. The Pope hasn’t really “muddled the waters” here. Everyone, even progressives who love him like Andrew Sullivan, realize that Church teaching is intact, and they go on happily rejecting it.

    4.) To say that ambiguity is worse than actual horrible moral character is also a pretty confusing idea, and does a good job of making the waters muddled. Ambiguity, regrettable as it is, is subjective, and happens throughout history all the time. Actual homosexual popes and one who tortures their cardinals aren’t, and are all personal sins. So you can maintain it all you want, but I bet you would be hard pressed to find actual evidence for your belief. I can point to all kinds of evidence by Bellarmine, Suarez and Aquinas which state that when it comes to a pope pushing horrid morals, that’s actually one of the few times that not only should a pontiff be resisted, one sins if they don’t.

    Crying because you think the Bishop of Rome should do more is not one of those instances.

  • Timothy Rainier

    It was Manning who was called the Devil of the Council, because of his fierce defense of Pius IX’s aims, nor did Manning go above and beyond because it is from him we get the closest view of the thought and the framework in which we are to view Pius IX’s statements and indeed , Manning’s homily on the Syllabus provides excellent insight as to what Pius IX hoped to achieve with it’s promulgation, Newman was never a Council Father. Newman’s cardinalate was bestowed after lobbying of the newly elected Leo XIII by the Duke of Norfolk, for “a red hat to brighten his old age”. The Pontiff of Rome’s job is to guard the Deposit of Faith, the Deposit of Faith is not harmed by a man’s horrible personal moral choices, however causing confusion amongst the faithful with ambiguous or simply wrong theological statements is tantamount to dereliction of that duty, and why John XXII was admonished by the theologians of Paris. No one wants nor needs a bull before breakfast, however if and when the Roman pontiff speaks, it would be better he speaks in clarity and truth, than in ambiguity and error. The study of history is replete with many interesting things, and if one fails to learn from history, the same things may be repeated yet again.

  • From a technical standpoint, yes, the deposit of faith isn’t harmed. But it actually kinda is. One of the big reasons for the Protestant “reformation” was, let’s be honest, most of the popes of that time were absolute scoundrels. The clerics lived like temporal princes, and they perverted the Gospel because of it.

    From a biblical standpoint, your view is also not really justifiable. In the Old Testament, the constant refrain is to tie things like sexual immorality to doctrinal impurity (in the specific case of Kings and Chronicles, idolatry.)

    We are still coming to terms with the sexual abuse crisis today. It left a huge black mark on the Church. And in true biblical fashion, a lot of those who advocated such things were not “doctrinally orthodox and spoke unambigiously”, but were wolves actively harming the Church, even if they spoke the language of orthodoxy, their actions told a far different story.

    Everyone agrees that when one speaks, one should do so with clarity. Yet sometimes “speak with clarity” is simply code for “I want him to speak how I do.” So while we argue over one is “speaking with clarity” to the satisfaction of armchair laymen, how many things could we have done in the meantime?

  • Timothy Rainier

    Unfortunately I gave up the privilege of being an armchair layman a while ago, so I can’t just sit on the sidelines or bury my head in the sand. Having to deal with the fallout of the Pope’s statements and their impact on the parishioners and catechumens has been quite trying. One must also practice the spiritual as well as the corporal works of mercy. The problem is that historically speaking, while many Popes were vile sinners, they somehow also maintained or were perhaps persuaded by their Cardinals ( when they weren’t torturing them ) that being doctrinally iffy was bad business. However we have the opposite nowadays with Cardinals like Kasper being quite heterodox and being praised by the Holy Father to boot. There is something terribly wrong when cardinals are publicly taking pot shots at one another, and obfuscation is really not helping anyone.

  • Timothy Rainier

    Then why is the Holy Father praising him? “Yesterday, before falling asleep, though not to fall asleep, I read, or re-read, Cardinal Kasper’s remarks. I would like to thank him, because I found a deep theology, and serene thoughts in theology. It is nice to read serene theology. It did me well and I had an idea, and excuse me if I embarrass Your Eminence, but the idea is: this is called doing theology while kneeling. Thank you. Thank you.” Pope Francis. Then afterwards, the story breaks in La Stampa, that Kasper caused a firestorm, drawing condemnation from a significant faction of the Cardinals. Quite a dichotomy between Burke’s “Kaspar is in error” and the Holy Father’s “Serene and Deep Theology” , how confusing to be condemned by the Cardinals and then praised by the Holy Father. However I can see this is going nowhere, one can only pray and hope and let the cards fall where they may. If at the end of it all, any hard decisions have to be made, then each man will have to choose for himself.

  • There’s a simple way to answer your question if you don’t like Kasper (And I don’t): The Pope’s infallability does not extend to judging character or if someone is right. Zozimus was a spectacularly bad judge of Pelagius, and believed he was orthodox, when anyone who knew what was going on knew he wasn’t. The fights got really nasty between top leaders of the Church, until eventually they convinced Zozimus that yes, Pelagius was trying to pull a fast one, and was a danger.
    So really, your whole situation that is “unprecedented” really isn’t. Since it’s not unprecedented, we can easily answer the “what happens” part. We state our peace, and then work on things which we actually have control over.

    This isn’t a matter of “who is right or wrong.” It’s a matter of how much we should be caught up in the daily 24 hour cycle, and lose focus of that which is actually important, as opposed to noise which tends to sort itself out over time.

  • Timothy Rainier

    Unfortunately the Pope Zosimus and Pelagius comparison doesn’t work, as Pelagianism was a new heresy for which there was no precedent, Pope Zosimus didn’t so much as go along with it as test its orthodoxy. There are almost two millenniums of authoritative teaching on marriage, divorce and the sacraments, including the direct words of our Lord and St. Paul. This should have been shut down immediately and allowing this to go on reeks of another historical situation, that of Honorius and Sergius.