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So it has come to this.  We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.

As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin--Iniquitas radix malorum--that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.”  This followed only days after the dustup over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.

Younger Catholics may find this hard to believe, but there once was a time when the vast majority of Catholics did not hang on every word spoken or written by a pope.  Admittedly, this was a relatively short period covering only the first 1,800 years or so of the Church’s existence, so it is understandable how some may have missed it.

During the first millennia and a half of Christian history, popes did not commit themselves to paper (at least not paper that was mean to be widely disseminated) very often.  It sometimes surprises people to learn, for example, that the bishops of Rome played only a marginal role in the great 4th century councils that gave us the Nicene Creed.  In the Middle Ages, doctrinal disputes were more likely to be settled by the faculty of the University of Paris than by Rome.

This is not to say that the papal office was unimportant.  Far from it.  Popes such as Leo I, Gregory VII, and Innocent III had an enormous impact on both the Church’s inner life and the society and politics of their age.  But the popes shared the stage, as it were, with equally towering figures such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine,  Benedict of Nursia, and, of course, Francis of Assisi.

The history of how this changed is hard to summarize quickly.  The Reformation, which forced Catholics to aggressively defend papal primacy, played a role, as did conflicts between the Church and various forms of liberalism and nationalism.  The pope began to be seen as a symbol of resistance to the forces of modernism and secularism, which were thought to be hostile to the faith.  Devotion to the pope began to emerge as an aspect of Catholic piety.  I own a piece of this history in the form of a china plate with the image of Pope Leo XIII that belonged to my great-grandmother.  It was reportedly hung on the same wall of the house that held images of Jesus and Mary.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that papal encyclicals emerged as public documents that were intended to have a readership beyond the ranks of bishops, clerics, and theologians. With the emergence of mass media, the publication of encyclicals became news events. The more that popes wrote (Pius XII wrote 41 encyclicals during his pontificate, more than all popes in the previous 50 years), the more their views became the focus of attention.

It wasn’t just encyclicals, either.  Increasingly, other papal writings and speeches were seen as doctrinally or spiritually significant.  Perhaps the most famous example of this was Pius XII’s 1951 Allocution to Midwives, which paved the way toward wider use of natural family planning by married Catholics.   The collection of Pope John Paul II’s audience addresses under the title The Theology of the Body proved to be enormously influential and set a precedent that was continued during Benedict’s pontificate with the publication of his audience reflections on the apostles and the early Church fathers.  After the election of Pope Francis, it didn’t take long for Catholic publishers to track down just about anything Jorge Bergoglio ever committed to paper, which they prompting bound together with a colorful cover bearing the photo of a smiling pope.

The question that must be asked--particularly in light of Sunday’s canonizations--is whether this increasingly obsessive focus on the opinions, theology, spirituality and personal witness of the pope is a healthy thing for the Church.   The purpose of authority in the Church is to form a community that can bring forth “a great cloud of witnesses,” not to place the burden of that witness on a single individual.  The primary role of those authorities is to be coaches, referees and groundskeepers.  All of us, however, have the responsibility of playing the “beautiful game” that is following Jesus Christ.  



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In the next ten or so years when Pope Francis passes from earthly life, I pledge to not yell "santo subito" from my blog. I will write it into the family history that none of my descendants shall even attempt involvement in a canonization for at least a century.

I suspect Pope Francis would agree. Bishops, step up! Theologians too.

With the emergence of mass media, the publication of encyclicals became news events.

I would have thought it would be a sign of increased transparency and a way to empower the laity...

J. Peter ==

Thanks for the overview.  Hmm.  Yes, we keep talking about Francis' latest words.  But how often do we talk here about the views of particular theologians?  Indeed, how often does Commonweal itself present the views of theologians on current topics?  True, a magazine can get into trouble presenting dissenting views (see American and Fr.Reese), but it seems to me that the laity needs to know all sides on important theological and moral issues -- as do the clergy who aren't in school anymore, and that includes bishops.


First, a minor quibble, since we are talking about obessively hanging onto every word spoken or written by a pope (or whoever) : "the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion"

By the woman's own account, she is NOT divorced and remarried; rather, she married a man whose previous civil marriage ended in divorce.

With that said, yes, it does get tiresome to see the pope's every word and deed get picked apart by the so-called church "experts" and non-experts who simply can't seem to help themselves here and elsewhere in the Catholic blogsphere and in the media generally. Still, as others have noted above, now and then, those discussions do prove supremeley informative and enlightening, if not hiliariously entertaining.

So yes, sometimes, it's too much; other times, though, it's not enough, it's never enough.  

Peter, everything you say is true. And one could also point to the disappearance of theological notes (Denzinger ) . At the same time , it is ironic to see people who treated JPII!'a theology of he body as a third testament get their knickers in a twist over Francis!

And let's not forget that JPII cultivated celebrity pope hood--while still living , he encouraged the creation of John Paul II Centers to study his theology of the body. And Benedict used his platform as pope to turn his theological tomes into best sellers.





Peter makes some fair points and they are important. However, it is newsworthy when an institution as old as the Roman Catholic church makes profound shifts in practice reflecting, in fact, a very different theology. JP II praying at Assisi, forgiveness of faults of the past, his liturgies that always included elements of indigenous culture.

Francis, as well, washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday, the reported phone calls, the tweets, and also the intimations around shifting the rules for married and divorced Catholics receiving communion at the upcoming synod is significant. Each of these hghlights and exascerbates tensions that are already at work in the Catholic community. 

I completely agree that those theologians whose work has informed and shape the choices and decisions of the se leaders should be studied. That is what in part inspired me to read and be informed by Husserl, Heidegger, and the whole corpus of the phenomenologists who so inluenced JP II. It seems to me that some of his other decisions seemed to be philosophically inconsistent but I attribute this to the mandarin at the CDF, Ratzinger, who I suspect he leaned on heavily.

At any rate, pope's like everybody else, have blinders but I took  a second look when I heard someone who is not political at all nor particularly plugged in to all the inter-ecclesial controversy shake her head at the canonizations and say that the whole thing is rather self-serving. Better to canonize a group of lay people who remained faithful Catholics after being abused by religious of the Church. That, indeed, would make a more powerful statement and would do more to establish the papacy as a model of service and leadership to the people of God than the theatrics last Sunday.

@ George D

At the risk of going off on a tangent:

If you or anybody else know of someone who you believe deserve to be declared a saint, "take up the cause & promote it. Saints are made by people, touched by a heroic life, standing up & acting!"*

* That quote is from Cardinal Napier's twitter account (I know, right?), which he made to @TabletEditor, who I'm guessing made a similiar complain, er I mean, comment.



who I'm guessing made a similiar complain, er I mean, comment.

Or shared his concern over what media attention to canonization of pope' s might imply for the Church's mission and self understanding. Afterall canonization is a statement about the person's life and activity. But what you are saying goes to the heart of our (mis)understanding of saints. Afterall, in the NT all the called community were saints and we do say in the creed that we believe in the "communion of saints".

John Coltrane, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, replied, as a saint. And indeed his "Love Supreme" is ranked among the classics of American jazz and is actually his prayer and praise to God. Listening to it is a prayer although it takes some getting used to the language of the music.

The only quibble I would have with Cardinal Napier is that saints are made by God and we acknowledge his activity in other's lives.

I am not sure that we are prepared to "go there" yet in terms of canonizing victims of abuse who have remained faithful and lived holy lives in spite of the witness of poor clerics. But I am confident that it will happen at some time in the future when we have found a better way of talking about this. I know it is painful and difficult but it is part of our collective experience right now.

The obsessive parsing of Francis's tweets is symptomatic of a desperate church and a still viral juvenile ultramontanism. And it could peter out in nothing, in a return of the neocons (just as we could see a return of neocons in the US if the GOP regain the presidency in 2016.

Each kind of media has its rules for drafters and expectations from readers.  Even those whom Mr. Nixon quoted, despite acting ingenuous in their outrage, know and practice this.  What is innate to tweets is not their level of truth or authority, but that anyone can write them.  The pope is showing that he knows how they work, and he is inviting his readers to reply, to like or dislike.  It looks like he succeeded.  More people will read and react to a 140 character statement than a hundred page booklet.  The more important event to measure will be our response in our local churches. 



Agreed. This has nothing to do with the compressed nature of Twitter or the complexity of the topic. It is obvious what Pope Francis means and anybody who does not grasp that, is willfully not grasping it.

If you interpret in light of his encyclical, as Grant did, then it is even more clear.


It is a very unnerving situation that all the hopes of Catholics for church renewal along the lines of Vatican II, a new springtime of the Spirit, etc., depend so utterly on the whims and the health of one man. It is essential that bishops step up to reinforce the papal indications and insist on a more collegial church. It they miss this window of opportunity we may find ourselves back in a a catholic Ice Age worse than anything experienced so far.

"Santo subito" was a chant launched by Comunione e liberazione plants on an emotional occasion, a hijacking of popular piety. The Vatican decision that the people had spoken was rather premature.

Even Protestants recognize the importance of the papacy. There is somethng powerful about having a spokesman (not dictator) embodying the Christian message and bringing everyone together. . We just have to modify the empire side and avoid making the Bishop of Rome, a dictator instead of a unifier. We will always need some system of authority in the church. But everyone has to be alert to keep it controlled. Even the best spiritual groups tend to get tangled in petty rivalries and bitter disputes. From the Holy Name Society to Charismatic groups. It is like a retreat master once said: "Put someone in charge of the balloon closet and all of a sudden baloons are hard to get while the person is seeking a title for it. "

Even theologians can get into petty actions. Even the Catholic Theological Association has too often borne an air of eliteness. Despite having such outstanding members as Farley, Johnson and Tilley. American theologians are jealous of European theologians. The Franciscans vie with the Paulists and everybody is jealous of the Jesuits. 

But we need everyone. Just remember it can get messy. Vatican II accomplished some major things. But it was messy. That messiness brought on the restoration. It takes work to make it in a living, communicative church. Dictatorships are easier and more corrupt. 

Just don't  forget Peter Brown as a great church historian. Along with Marcus and O'donnell. 

"Devotion to the pope began to emerge as an aspect of Catholic piety."

Does anyone else remember singing "Long Live the Pope" a hymn (?) composed in 1905 during the papacy of Pius X?

Long live the Pope!
His praises sound
Again and yet again:
His rule is over space and time:
His throne the heart of men:
All hail! The Shepherd Pope of Rome,
The theme of loving song:
Let all the earth his glory sing
And heav’n the strain prolong.

Beleaguered by
By the foes of earth,
Beset by hosts of hell,
He guards the loyal flock of Christ,
A watchful sentinel:
And yet, amid the din and strife,
The clash of mace and sword,
He bears alone the Shepherd Staff,
The champion of the Lord.

Then raise the chant,
With heart and voice,
In Church & school & home:
"Long live the Shepherd of the Flock!
Long live the Pope of Rome!"
Almighty Father bless his work,
Protect him in his ways,
Receive his prayer, fulfill his hopes,
And grant him length of days!

Melodially speaking, that's actually not too bad a hymn! 

Plus, for this pope, I wouldn't have minded singing that song.

In fact, I would have gladly and joyfully sung along to it. 



Helen - and it can be sung to the tune of "Amazing Grace"!

I think "Yankee Doodle" works too.

Ann  O wrote on another thread about this fabulous conference  on Francis featuring Paul Vallely and John Allen, It is a keeper. I haven't even gotten to the questions yet. A parenthetical note is that this is an EPPC affair, which is a story in itself.)

Paul Vallely also wrote Pope Francis: Untying the Knots 

Which is considered by many to be the best book so far on Francis.

What I have not seen anywhere else, Vallely relates how the Jesuits exiled Francis because of his rigid management style and his ultra orthodox views. Amazing change.

Bill M. --

There's lots more in the question period too.  What surprises me is what a tough cookie Francis is in some ways.  I mean *tough*.  He seems to mean it when he says "I am a sinner", and not  just in a perfunctory way.  Yes, an amazing change -- a growth, apparently.  So I'm still hopeful that he'll do the right thing about the bad bishops.  Maybe he just has to wait until he has consolidated his power by totallay removing some, like Burke, and bringing in new people and forming new structures in the Curia.

Or maybe Francis believes that others too could realize their mistakes and shortcomings, change and grow, like he has, like many other sinners have.

I don't think "removing bad bishops"  or anyone who disagrees with him (like Burke) is Francis's style. I don't think that's how Jesus would have handled things either, firing people left and right because they have done things wrong.

As for Paul Valley, he sure has some interesting things to say. His writing style, however, and the way he goes about saying things as if he actually knew what the pope actually thinks, when all he does is speculate -- like eleventy billion others who write about this pope -- leaves much to be desired, IMO.

Speaking of speculating, the other day, a (disgruntled) vaticanista Sandro Magister characterized Francis as an "enigma", adding that "More than a year after his election, he is still entirely to be deciphered." (

That, I thought, sounded quite right (although other things said in the article didn't :-)


I am reminded of a funny clue several years ago in National Review’s acrostic puzzle. The clue was, “How the pope sometimes speaks.” The answer had ten letters. And so everyone is thinking “i-n-f-a-l-l-i-b-l-y.” In fact the answer turned out to be “o-f-f-t-h-e-c-u-f-f.”

Maybe not but if you have bishops that are not consensus builders or people who will go along with the consensus, what are the options? He was given a clear mandate by the Cardinals. Reform the Curia and address structural issues. So that was the consensus, it seems based on reporting, that emerged from the conclave. 

I have no idea how to actually undertake such a monumental task and I am not even going to pretend to offer workable solutions.

But surely removal of bishops is an option. I am not suggesting some kind of Stalinist purge but if a bishop is really, really obstinate how much time and energy do you spend. Paul VI was a great organizer and reformer but nobody would say he exactly ruled with an iron fist. But look what happened with Lefebvre. He treated him patiently but he became a big problem down the road and now we have a quazi-fascist SSPX movement circulating in the Church.

As recounted in this unique conference at EPPC, the style of Francis is to move one bishop and the restr will get the message or come on board.  What is becoming clear is that the Cardinals knew who they were electing and gave him the mandate for reform, as Geroge D points out.  They just did not realize that he would become a rock star so to speak. 

In line with that, some Cardinals who knew Bergoglio asked him personally what changed him because they did not see this part of him. He responded that after he was elected he had this unusual sense of peace and  closeness to God. Quite a story. 

At any rate, this conference was one of the better ones, if not the best, that I have seen on the pope or the state of Catholicism in general. Ann, I got past the questions. It is long and well worth the read if not a necessary one.


It's a bit late, but I'd argue that it has not empowered the laity. Before the centralization of the Church into the papacy, the laity only had to deal with their confessor and their ordinary. This created diversity of thought and practice. When people began directing their questions to Rome, there could only be one definitive answer rather than a multitude of variations as the Church as a whole slowly discerned which answers were better.

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