Michael Brendan Dougherty on Popes and “Party Loyalty”

Having grown up in a college town in the Deep South, I am accustomed to viewing Catholicism through the lens of “how is this particular aspect of my faith weird to other people?” Anticipating questions and preparing responses to have on hand, that kind of thing. Not (usually) from a defensive stance; I actually think most questions/objections/criticisms are reasonable when working from a given premise and you have to show how the underlying premise is incomplete or flawed in order to properly respond.

I think that’s what I think, at least.

More and more, I struggle with this inchoate sense of “I’m just not sure what I think about how this is going” with regards to Churchy conversations, Pope-related articles, soft-focus photos with pope quotes superimposed atop them, and my first time using the word “inchoate” in a sentence.

Here is an opinion I hold but worry you’ll dislike: I think we should not canonize popes until a big chunk of time has passed since their death – say, 200 years.

And, in an article that surely wins some sort of Webby for “least accurate ad hominem remarks from commenters,” Michael Brendan Dougherty has clarified for me why I think this.

Between Pentecost and the launch of Vatican.va, most Catholics did not have access to the day-to-day musings of their pope. The Roman pontiff’s theological speculations have been of almost no interest to Catholics throughout history, and never became so unless he was a great theologian already, or there was a great controversy which the authority of the Roman Church might settle. To the average Catholic living hundreds of miles from Rome the Faith was the Faith, whether the pope was zealously orthodox like St. Benedict II or a sex criminal like Pope John XII.

As much as I like the Internet, social media is making it harder and harder for Catholicism to NOT be reduced to being in the Pope Fan Club.

“I’m a fan of this new pope,” says the person who read the Rolling Stone cover in the supermarket aisle. And I feel it incumbent upon me to be well-versed in not only the latest word from the Vatican but also the greater context and the likelihood of accuracy and the last ten related statements.

I already felt that way with Benedict XVI; that I had a duty, as a Catholic on the Internet, to be ready to be interviewed by Reddit about the latest sound bite and interpret it within the light of our rich heritage of faith. But now it’s far more burdensome, either because I’m getting older and tireder, or because sometimes the statements are way, way open to widely varying interpretations, or – well, whatever.

And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “at some point in the future, we are bound to have another really lousy pope, and then what?”  Then how we will we handle the every-five-seconds news cycle?

Back to canonization of popes: saint-making can be hugely confusing and weird to people who don’t know much about Catholicism. It’s very hard to make it NOT sound like “God gives us the bat-signal that the person is in Heaven, and then we update our calendars.”

It has occurred to me that canonization is the Church’s response to people’s natural inclination to celebrate and devote themselves to people they admire. Sometimes we celebrate and devote ourselves to some really terrible role models, like (insert former Disney star here, while saying a prayer for his/her conversion and acquisition of pants). And sometimes we celebrate and devote ourselves to those who have displayed heroic virtue. People will do this regardless of the Church proclaiming, “this person is in  Heaven.” Canonization could be understood as a way of sifting through the various cults of personality that are out there and validating the lives of those who truly can be models for us of life in Christ.

So I understand why we canonize some people very quickly – if there is abundant evidence of the person’s virtuous life, etc., and a profound call for this person to be recognized as a saint, the Church responds to that call and does not make people wait for no good reason.

But with popes – gosh, I just feel like this has the potential to go very much awry, becoming a near-instant referendum on What Pope Such-and-Such Represented and Whether That Was Good.

This is the kind of thing I don’t usually write about because I think “my friends who aren’t Catholic are going to read this and wonder why I am Catholic if I feel this way about Official Things the Church is Doing.” (Or, worse, “gosh, my friends who are Catholic are going to think this sounds awfully hostile.”)

But – all of this “what’s your opinion of this thing the pope did 17 hours ago” stuff is so peripheral to what being Catholic means. Being Catholic means receiving Christ in the sacraments; encountering Him in Scripture; being part of the body of Christ across time and space and all that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Thinking about pope things really should occupy very little of my mental space, which I think gets back to what Dougherty is saying.

Ha – here as I sat fretting about how my four readers would receive this crazy idea I came up with about waiting to canonize popes, look what Google found:

A measured take from John Allen (What the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II tell us):

As a footnote, some experts question the whole business of assigning halos to popes. Generally it’s not because they doubt the personal holiness of these men, but because they worry it damages the process.

First of all, Catholic theology holds that the Church never “makes” a saint. If someone is already in Heaven with God, which is what calling them a saint means, they don’t need a piece of paper from Rome certifying their status. Declaring someone a saint is really for everyone else, intended to lift that person up as a role model and a source of inspiration.

With popes, such a gesture is arguably superfluous, since their election already made them highly visible figures.

Further, the question with popes is, which ones do you canonize? Either you do it for all of them, which may cheapen the result by making it seem almost part of the standard benefits package, or you pick and choose, which risks making the process seem political.

And a very interesting piece from David Gibson of Religion News Service (Does being pope give you an inside track to sainthood?):

What accounts for this sainthood surge?

Experts cite a combination of factors. For one, more recent popes have arguably been holy men rather than monarchs, and they look especially good in comparison to the various rogues and warriors who occupied the papal throne in the Renaissance era.

“In a sense they are witnesses of a Christian life,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and author of a new biography of John XXIII.

Modern popes, Faggioli said, “are less subject to the political and social constraints of established European Catholicism, when to become pope you had to be part of the right family or alliance, and being violent or ruthless or almost a war criminal had no importance.”

Today, he said, popes are expected to be saints more than rulers, pastors of a church “that tries to be closer to the gospel than to the Roman Empire.”

Both of those are great articles; I encourage you to read them in full, and would be interested in your opinion of Dougherty’s piece as well, unless you are the type of person who starts out by blasting him for being a “typical liberal atheist commie.” I’m not sure I would agree with all of it, but his point that we tend to view the pope as “party leader” brought me up short.

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  1. says

    Well put, Dorian. I’m in general agreement: the canonization of popes has always felt a little perfunctory, as if the end is assumed and it’s just a matter of going through the motions to get there. The waiving of the second miracle for St. John XXIII only added to that feeling this time, as did the spectacularly short period since St. John Paul II’s death.

    Of course, as John Allen points out, I have the luxury of feeling that way since we live in an era of holy popes and not in an era where they engaged in all sort of sinful shenanigans. So maybe I shouldn’t worry about it and should just give thanks for their sanctity. (I’ll probably still worry about it.)

    I found Dougherty’s article interesting. I think there is a certain “cult of office” around the pope, ever since John Paul II. I don’t know if the historical reasons he gives are accurate, but they make some sense. I do think we should be careful of hanging on the pope’s every word; not everything he says is directed at the universal Church. I prefer to focus on major exhortations, encyclicals, and items of importance to my particular ministry.

  2. Mark S. says

    Well said, Dorian. I agree with your opinions hee and also feel some tug backward to eneter into some personality cult/fan club with any particular public individual, especially the pope. He is human like the rest of us and not immune from episodes of incredible brilliance as well as being a knucklehead. Just like all of us. Yet the culture we live in, media or not, is looking for a perfect hero or at least one with loveable flaws.

    That said, I find that having more access, perhaps honest access without a lot of spin, is a step forward in the history of the church and society. Secrets are not always good though they are sometimes necessary in the interest of charity. So I too am a bit torn by all of this instant stuff. I find that when asked (and it isn’t too often since I am a private individual rather than in the media like you and others) I tend to say what I think as my perrsonal opinion, both agreeing with or not, and leave it there. Thanks for a great article that touches something that has been in the back of my mind since SJPII was elected.

  3. Rachel says

    I don’t know what inchoate means.

    Hoping that it wasn’t important to me understanding the rest of the blog, because I’m going to give my two cents anyway. 😀

    I’ve only been Catholic two years, but I just figured if someone was recognized here on earth as the Saint that they are in heaven, then God wanted it that way. So, when JP2 was canonized, I thought, “Cool–God must have a lot of work for him to do for folks here on earth who will now carry around little saint cards of him, wear necklaces, etc.” After hearing a discussion on Catholic Answers Live, I put canonization within the duties of the magisterium, and under infallible statements by the Pope, so I can have total faith that it’s God’s will.

    That’s my two cents as a baby Catholic.

    Like you I have thought about having to switch from defending a “good” Pope to teaching non-Catholics about the office of Pope if he’s “not good” in this instant information kind of world. The gates of hell will not prevail, but we’ve had some bad popes–I don’t have the words to explain why that’s okay yet.