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Tactical papalotry

Perhaps Paul Baumann is too hard on many of those commenting on Benedicts Freising remarks. Like me, most probably didnt read the full text but were simply touched by the image of the cathedral spires and what Benedict, who really has a gift for this kind of preaching, did with it. The point of the image could have been made with any cathedral spires, anywhere, and for many readers Freising and Bavaria probably didnt have much to do with it. Nonetheless, Pauls observation about Benedicts weakness for an uncritical nostalgia about the church and culture of his Bavarian boyhood is salutary. It also points to something else that has long puzzled me: the near obsession with celebrating the popewhatever popeon the part of some Catholic intellectuals.

I can understand the place of this kind of hero-worship on the part of people who have neither the leisure nor the formation for the kind of critical reflection that is the responsibility (and curse) of intellectuals. In the simplest dwellings around the world, including those of many of my forebears, there have been honored pictures of Pius IX, Pius XII, FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Obama. Fine. They are symbols of loyalty, gratitude, and hope, pure and simple. No more than the pictures of triumphant athletes that often hang alongside them does one expects them to call to mind the tragic failures, personal weaknesses, mixed political legacies, or aborted potential of such heroes.When I find the equivalent of such pictures hanging in the minds of first-rate intellectuals, however, I cannot help but wonder. I confess that a great deal of reading in the very spotted history of the Left in the twentieth century has forced me to ponder the resemblance of papal adulation by some Catholic intellectuals to that of various Great Leaders from Lenin to Fidel to Mao by some left-wing intellectuals. When I once suggested this parallel out loud, my friend Jean Bethke Elshtain was appalled. Was I suggesting that John Paul II resembled Stalin? Of course not. Those who sang Stalins praises had to willfully blind themselves to many of his deeds, while those who sang John Pauls praises had the very contrary at hand. Nonetheless, there seemed something disturbingly similar in this impulse, and not just in the case of John Paul the Great, to highlight and extol virtually every papal deed and statement while finding a way to deflect or ignore almost all criticism.Since no popes in modern times compete with Stalin or Castro or Mao in perfidy, the effect of this papal adulation on the world at large is probably negligible. Its effect on the church may be otherwise. That has changed, of course, in the decades since Vatican II. The cult of papal adulation has been joined now with a kind of mirror cult of papal denigration, especially in the case of Benedict. Both cults spring from the same soil.And both are nourished by another reality, what might be called the tactical use of papalotry. No one with any close knowledge of how official statements and sometimes even personal theology are written can be unaware of the practice of plastering the underlying argument with a defensive layer of papal proof texts. No one with any close knowledge of the Catholic hierarchy is unaware that leading bishops can disagree strongly with papal actions. Yet they almost never say so, not even in the most charitable terms. What kind of freedom in Christ is that?But the practical effect of all this does not bother me, though perhaps it should, as much as the questions it raises about the Catholic intellect. Catholic thinkers are well aware that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not worked straightforwardly in the history of the popes and, furthermore, that there has not even been a clear relationship between personal sanctity or theological acumen and institutional leadership. I pay attention when Benedict issues an encyclical. I welcome it as an occasion to reexamine my own thinking and choices. But knowing how many papal encyclicals are justly forgotten today, I do not feel the need to treat it as inspired or devise complicated excuses for why he should not be held responsible for the parts of it that seem to be wanting.Why should grown-up, well-educated Catholics indulge in this tendency to treat the pope like the Dalai Lama? (Or, on the other hand, like Torquemada?) It seems childish. It gives a bad witness to the maturity and the integrity of our faith.The above post first appeared as a comment on Paul Baumann's post, "Confusing Images."

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.



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Papalotry is surely a Catholic vice, perhaps the Catholic vice. it was not always so. Some day a truly great pope will repudiate and condemn papalotry for what it is, just one more form of idolatry. That pope will be a true reformer. Until then, one must retain one's sense of humor.

But are there first-rate minds who are papolators? Were there first-rate minds who were Mao-olators? One always thinks of Sartre and Stalin, and of Heidegger and Hitler -- but perhaps these were temporary aberrations. Similarly one might think of Beethoven or Hegel and Napoleon -- but they soon outgrew the charms of the dictator. In fact, papolatry has foundations that lie deeper than the appeal of political charismatics. It gives people a deep theological satisfaction to think that there is a human father-figure who is always right and who never does anything bad.

Hello All,I find Peter S.'s observations quite interesting (as I usually do). But I'd like to add that in my opinion, the writings of the recent popes have made very little impact among the Catholic intellectuals who work in North American universities. For example, I am the only professional philosopher in North America I know of who has ever cited a papal encyclical. (Recently I needed to cite Veritatis Splendor in an essay I wrote on natural law.) The theologians who participate here can correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression that depite his large output, the writings of John Paul II have not had much influence in theology. I tried once to study some of the Lectures on the Theology of the Body and admittedly did not learn anything from what I read. I didn't want to do a systematic search on the matter but I got the impression that there is very little literature by theologians on Theology of the Body - and there is none by philosophers. Papal writings in general, and John Paul II's writings in particular, assume that the readers accept the tenets of the Roman Catholic faith, and philosophers generally don't rely upon works that assume allegiance to any particular faith tradition.

I wonder if calling this "papalolatry" isn't giving it too much of a gloss of true (if misdirected) devotion. There is also quite likely, either consciously or not, a good deal of "positioning" on the part of many in the church who, in the current chill wind blowing from Rome, either want to protect their positions at Catholic institutions or in the church, or, in a less flattering possibility, advance themselves. The last few decades have shown that popes promote courtiers, and perhaps it has always been thus. But it makes sense as well that a pontiff would promote those who agree with his views, no? For many, there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained in praising and defending whether he merits it or not. Reflexive anti-papalism could arguably be considered a resort to self-interest as well, though the rewards of that point of view appear to be distinctly less attractive, I'd think.

Papal idolatry is usually accompanied by hypocrisy. The pope is cited to buttress one's opinions but in reality the pope is ignored when he disagrees. A good example were the Catholic theocons who quoted the pope as infallible all over the place but ignored him on the Iraq war. W called John Paul II a saint while ignoring him on Irag. Strangely enough those in the Vatican have the utmost contempt for the pope while on their lips occur outrageous praise. The Curia knows, for example, that its power stems from the pope whom it often thwarts. "Popes come and go" says the Curia, "but the Curia remains forever."Just as much a problem is the worship of the clergy tho the pedophilia crisis greatly modified this practice. Andrew Greeley calls the "sacralization of the clergy" a very big problem. It is still around but before Vatican II it was rather unanimous that criticizing the clergy and bishops was at least a venial sin if not more. Despite some quality parish councils in some areas, the Pastor remains kind and dictator in most parishes.One of the ways we can stop this is to cease calling the pope "Holy Father" and priests "Father." As we have seen some terrible things have resulted from this idolatry.We see idolatry in sports all the time. Riots occur when favorite teams lose and fights occur when a favorite idol is criticized. This is most detrimental in the church when idolatry, becomes, well, a religion.

Perhaps it is helpful to distinguish between the excesses of "papolatry", and the legitimate "religious submission of mind and will" called for in Lumen Gentium 25. My experience is that it is a difficult balancing act to maintain the requisite submission without tumbling off, into papolatry on one side, or insufficient dure regard on the other.

That should mean "king and dictator."

Sorry, meant to say, "due regard" in my previous comment.

In conversations with non-Catholics, I am constantly amazed how often people say "But don't you get your marching orders from the pope?" When I say no, they look at me incredulously. I think they figure I get a fax every week from the Vatican outlining what I am to do.At our monthly parish baptismal preparation, I generally start with a few minutes explaining what a deacon is, since most don't really know. As part of that I usually ask who knows the three orders of clergy. They get deacon right away, because I just told them that. Then someone usually says "priest." After that there's generally a lull. Almost invariably, someone will say "pope." There is really almost no awareness of the bishop. Even if I give a hint by hand gestures indicating a miter, they say "pope." This is the fruit of the papal cult. Catholics and non-Catholics alike assume that the pope directs every aspect of Church life down to the individual. And of course that's just the way the Curia and the Ultramontanists want it.

Eric: I'm with you. A couple of years ago, our parish bulletin ran an article on the clergy, dug up who-knows-where, explaining such "orders" as pope, cardinal and monsignor. I rarely complain to our pastor - he gets it from all different angles, all day long, as it is - but I let him know on that occasion that someone needs to screen some of the stuff that goes into the bulletin.And, fyi, I just passed along your fax number to the Vatican. They apologize that you'd fallen off the list, and asked me to assure you that weekly marching orders will resume next Monday morning.

The adulation, near-adoration, of the Pope is a fairly recent development--19th and 20th century, it seems. Perhaps it began with the sympathy for Popes Pius VI and Pius VII when each was made a prisoner of Napoleon. In any case, under Pius IX, as several studies have shown, the figure of the pope was exalted to near-divine status. Some talked about Christ's presence in "the three whites": the Virgin, the Eucharist, and the Pope. Some changed the words of the ancient hymn, "Rerum Deus tenax vigor" to "Rerum Pius tenax vigor." When a Cardinal at Vatican I gave a speech on papal authority that Pius IX did not like, he was called in and dressed down. When he protestaed that his position was traditional, the Pope expostulated: "La tradizione, son'io!" "Tradition? I'm tradition!"Yves Congar spoke of the "incredible inflation" of the papal teaching office that has occurred in the last two centuries. He also spoke of the methodological significance for a healthy, balanced ecclesiology of the millennium-long canonical and theological reflection on the possibility of a pope's becoming a heretic. He often quoted the remark of an Anglican churchman who commented on the fact that the last series of popes were, individually, good even holy men. "What we need," he said, "is a really good bad pope!" In Congar's French: "un tres bon mauvais pape!"

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here's a depiction of Pius IX actually made during his pontificate.

Jim: Thank you for that courtesy. Unfortunately, I have dumped the fax machine. If the Vatican wants to send me weekly orders, they'll have to come up with an iPhone app for that.

One thing that could be done on this blog to fight "papalotry": ignore what comes out of the Vatican other than encyclicals and executive orders.

Eric: iPhones? This is the Vatican. I think we've already established that the Holy Father doesn't know how to Google. I would watch for the snail mail and carrier pigeons. Or, if you happen to live within sight of the Vatican rooftops, smoke signals.

It's a human failing to be always in search of a messiah.

I've already mentioned elsewhere that those who worked in our beaurocracy and played by the book wer e"those who know better"We also said that tribe were SRM (second rate moinds).Probably appropriate here.

Can we add Augustine to the idolatry list? He certainly was a great writer. But he got so many things wrong, especially allowing violence toward other Christians who disagreed. Isn't about time to be more critical, not only of him, but of other "Fathers of the Church" also. That, perhaps, would be fruitful maturity.

Hello Bill (and All),I'd be more tempted to put Aquinas on the idolatry list, and I teach and greatly admire Aquinas. Aquinas was without doubt the greatest of the classical natural law theorists. But some of his specific conclusions have in fact been specifically repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church (without direct reference to Aquinas). Perhaps the best example of this is the Church's explicit adoption of a principle of religious freedom in the documents of Vatican II. Aquinas expressly approves of capital punishment for heretics.Adulation of Aquinas has become quite silly in some quarters. A biology professor I knew in graduate school who had a named chair claimed in print that on the authority of Aquinas he believed that the human fetus does not have human form during the first trimester. (In fact, Aquinas appears to maintain that a male human fetus lacks human form until forty days gestation and a female human fetus lacks human form till eighty days gestation. He also seems to have simply adopted these claims from Aristotle's occasionally faulty biology.)

Hello All,I wonder to what extent the topic of this thread is intertwined with differing ideas people have regarding papal infallibility. I for one think that disputes over which papal pronouncements are "really" infallible are important only as a matter of intellectual curiosity. The documents of Vatican II explicitly state that Roman Catholics are obligated to obey the pope when he states a teaching on faith or morals, whether or not he declares the teaching to be infallible. (Sorry, I cannot locate the exact paragraph in Lumen Gentium just now! Anyone else know where it is?)But many appear to think that it's extremely important to regard every pronouncement every pope makes regarding faith and morals to be infallible, as if the pope were a Roman Catholic oracle. (Though I would have to agree with Bill that defenders of this "wide" interpretation of papal infallibility seem to think that the pope is infallible on just those matters they happen to agree with.)I also think it's seldom if ever the case that a pope introduces a doctrine or a moral teaching for the first time. Humanae Vitae might be a near exception. Paul VI's condemnation of all contraception wasn't new but he did propose a quite original defense of this teaching, even if many have concluded that the Humanae Vitae argument is flawed.Maybe I'm just agreeing with some here who suggest that on the one hand we should treat the pope and what he teaches with respect, but on the other hand not overrate the importance of the office.

I don't know anyone who has an idolatrous attitude toward Augustine or Aquinas.

One might rationalize that Augustine and Aquinas are so right and that is why they are quoted. Which can be debated. In general each is quoted with such authority that the implication is that to disagree is practically heresy or at least quite crass. That is idolatry. We may protest to the contrary but the tone and substance in which they are treated leaves no doubt that it is considered poor taste to question. At the very least it is matter of opinion as to what constitutes idolatry with respect to this preeminent duo.

Peter --Maybe that biology teacher had in mind Aquinas' view that in the fetus there is a succession of forms. During the early months there is a succesion of souls: first a vegetative one, then an animal one, followed by a rational one (the human soul, i.e, that which makes the organism a person, or human to the fullest extent). His argument is essentially a metaphysical one which depends on the biological description of what the early fetus can and cannot do. In fact, neuroscience is now corroborating the general pitch of AQuinas' argument -- that the human body/brain is not capable of carrying out specifically rational operations until the later development of the fetus.Aquinas was not the only one to maintain this theory, but it was not, obviously, an argument offered by John Paul II or Benedict. I say,pity. (And I don't even consider myself a Thomist.)

Peter:You're probably right in your observation that the recent popes' writings have had little effect on the work of contemporary philosophers and theologians. That does, of course, depend upon your definition of the word "theologian." There are those who would call Christopher West a theologian, for instance, and he has built his whole career on teaching JPII-ism.But no matter. Professional philosophers and theologians are one thing. Quite another are the less "professional" people who nevertheless exert a good deal of influence over the general Catholic population. And this is where the real challenge can lie. Only today, I was made aware of an all-girls Catholic high school called St. Catherine of Siena Academy, which leans heavily on the thinking of JPII. Here is how the institution describes its vision:ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA ACADEMYSt. Catherine of Siena Academy was created to meet an unfulfilled need in the western portion of the Archdiocese of Detroit for a Catholic high school for young women. The Academy plans to open its first campus in Wixom, Michigan (Oakland County) in the Fall of 2010. The Academy students educational experience will foster a hunger for truth, an acceptance of Gods love for all, and an ardent desire to understand Gods will for them as women. The educational model of the Academy will incorporate the work of great Catholic thinkers, including Pope John Paul II, who gave the Church a clear understanding of the significance of the unique dignity and vocation of women. MISSION OF ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA ACADEMYThe Mission of St. Catherines Academy is to form young women centered on the redemptive act of Christ by offering an educational experience that will inspire their hearts and minds to always seek the Truth that is Jesus. The Academys rigorous college-preparatory curriculum and Christian student-life experience are rooted in the theology of Pope John Paul II and his understanding of the feminine genius. This curriculum will cultivate within students an ardent desire to know God and to seek His will in choosing their vocation as women. Women of St. Catherines Academy will follow the model of St. Catherine of Siena, becoming stewards of the Catholic faith and sharing with the world their knowledge of Gods love for all.You can see more at

I don't know anyone who has an idolatrous attitude towards the Pope.

I wonder if the adulation of the pope/papacy in some quarters (and perhaps the "mirror cult of papal denigration" that Peter S cites) is also related to the Catholic culture argument we've had in previous threads. With the loss of that culture, or its distillation into enclaves, the pope became a stand-in for other things (like the Bavarian culture Benedict extolled). Or he became the common touchstone for a newly-globalized church.

Mary Karr wrote: "It isn't the ritual of the high Mass that impresses me, but the peopletheir collective surrender. If I can't do reverence to that, how dead are my innards?"And that is where the church is. Not in all these pretenders who strut about like peacocks. Or as Jesus noted: "Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

Brilliant piece! Thank you for publishing it and providing the big laugh of the day. A spot-on satire of that most particular brand of condescending intellectualism. Humorous pieces such as this do lighten the day. The authors wringing of hands was almost audible; the furrows of the slightly worried brow peeped out twixt every line. I could almost hear the silvery jingling of the saddlery as the benevolent and enlightened gentry rode past the kneeling peasants, gently scoffing at their silly superstitions while the Angelus bells tolled softly in the distance. Well done! Were it not uncharitable of me to think it, I might almost have believed the author was serious.

Hello Mark (and All),Thank you for your response."That does, of course, depend upon your definition of the word "theologian"."I agree wholeheartedly. I don't know if I have a really good definition of "theologian" but I'm confident Christopher West isn't one. I was introduced to some of his stuff about two years ago by someone who is now a former Christopher West enthusiast. I'm no expert on the writings of John Paul II but I know enough to have been able to tell quite quickly that Mr. West is not generally representing John Paul II's ideas accurately.This could be professional snobbery on my part (since I'm a philosophy professor), but these days I try to just avoid the less "professional" people to whom you refer that I know of. I used to occasionally watch EWTN and read articles in periodicals like First Things thinking this might make me better appreciate Roman Catholic Church teaching - in fact this had exactly the opposite effect on me. But I know people who found resources from the less "professional" like EWTN and First Things to be helpful to them in their faith lives. In my own case, I've found I do a lot better studying the original documents of Vatican II.

On 21 August 1870, several weeks after the promulgation of papal infallibily (18 July) by Vatican Council I, Newman wrote a long letter to his confrere and close friend Ambrose St. John, who was away on holiday. Newman said in part:"But to me the serious thing is this, that, whereas it has not been usual to pass defintion except in case of urgent and definite necessity, this definition, while it gives the Pope power, creates for him, in the very act of doing so, a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so. I am telling people who write to me to have confidence -- but I don't know what I shall say to them, if the Pope did act so. And I am afraid moreover, that the tyrant majority is still aiming at enlarging the province [italics] of Infallibility. I can only say if all this takes place, we shall in matter of fact be under a new dispensation. But we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the Pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes." The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, XXV, p. 192.In fact, the Council did not resume owing to the fall of the Papal States several weeks after Newman wrote. For over four years Newman resisted many calls to express publicly his views on the definition. He finally decided to do so after Gladstone in late 1874 called into question the civil loyalty of British Catholics given their "dual" allegiance. Newman in The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (January 1875) refuted Gladstone's challenge regarding the Catholic civil loyalty. In doing so, Newman gave what is generally accepted as a moderate, rather than ultramontane, interpretation of the definition.In the letter cited above and in a number of other letters from this period, Newman firmly resisted a growing tendency in his day to make Pius IX "the idol of the Vatican."

"did so act""regarding Catholic civil loyalty"

John Page:Thank you for offering Newman's wisdom on this area. I especially love the story about him being pressed to give a toast to the pope. He gave a bit of an impromptu "backgrounder" and then raised his glass saying "Very well then, to the pope--but to conscience first!"Of course if one were to give such a toast today, he or she would be widely castigated as a "dissident" and a fax would be sent off to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Idolatry is a rather strong term. I wouldn't say I've seen papal idolatry in my experience. Surely, there are particular popes that certain people hold in especially high esteem. The two that come to mind are JPII and John XXIII. I wouldn't call myself an idolater, but I recall being tremendously happy when Cardinal Ratzinger became B16 because I had read his work in a number of classes and admired his intellect.

Hello John and Eric (and All),Thanks very much for the information regarding Newman in the 1870s.Eric, I agree with your observation that one who gave a toast like today the one you quoted Newman giving would be branded a dissident and, if a public figure, would most likely be reported to the CDF. What I'd be most interested in knowing are: (1) was Newman branded a dissident in the 1870s, and (2) did anyone send off a telegram to the Holy Office (later renamed the CDF) reporting what Newman had said? I suspect that if Pius IX knew what Newman had said in his toast and in the letter John pointed us to, he would have been most displeased to put it mildly. But, assuming Pius IX knew, perhaps he didn't want to excommunicate Newman and was in no position to do much else, having recently lost the Papal States and become "self-incarcerated" prisoner of the Vatican.

I have an idea. Fr. Komonchak, you could write two books: "Newman Quotes for Liberals" and "Newman Quotes for Conservatives." Then, if they were published in time for bloggers and others to give them to each other as beatification gifts, you could donate the proceeds for a new physics lab in Newman's honor at CUA.

Here's the book I'd like to read: Attention Bob Orsi or John McGreevy, in your "spare time" after deaning: A history of how lay Catholics have viewed the the Pope over the past four hundred years. The first photographs of the pope would have been available only one hundred and fifty years ago. Getting access to encyclicals-let alone to daily speeches-would have been impossible--in fact, my guess is that the IDEA that plain old laypeople could and should read official documents probably would have been viewed as laughable--and dangerous. So even the conservative do-it-yourselfer theologians are very modern in that they a) have access to the documents; and b) think they have a right to say something. Socially, getting info to and from the Holy See was incredibly slow. The idea that you'd rope the pope into a local dispute must have been seen very differently than toay.

Good idea, Kathy. In his Biglietto speech Newman said that he had devoted his life to opposing liberalism in religion, but I think the profits should go toward scholarships for doctoral students.

Rhetorically, uncritical affirmation and endorsement of anyone --or anything -- serves, in my view a) to signal one's loyalties to a particular group; b) to build bonds among people who already feel the same way. It doesn't help convince those not already convinced, or those who aren't caught up in the same emotions. So, in a way, c) it also signals that the unconvinced should look elsewhere.I think the same thing can be found in the reverse direction when you see how annoyed some people get at the overwhelming emotions Obama elicited (at least at the beginning). The over-the-top love didn't help convince the unconvinced.

On Newman, I agree it's fascinating how he can be claimed by so many different points of view. (I believe the Cardinal Newman Society may the most extreme example!) I'd like to read more to educate myself better ahead of the beatification, but I wonder if his evolutions over time contribute somewhat to the ability to be all things to all people. Like Niebuhr, perhaps? In any case, good thread, I am appreciative...again.

Newman never actually made a toast in which he named conscience first and the Pope second. It is a hypothetical statement ("if I were called upon") that he makes in The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.The Roman authorities were not totally pleased with Newman's response to Gladstone. Cardinal Alessandro Franchi, the prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (England was still a "mission" country), wrote to both Archbishop (soon to be named cardinal) Manning of Westminister and to Newman's bishop, WIlliam Ullathorne of Birmingham. Both dissuaded the Cardinal from taking any action. They argued that Newman's response to Gladstone had been well received by people in England and that this could be undone by any condemnation or censure. Newman had after all showed his adherence to the definition. The back and forth between Rome and Ullathorne continued through most of 1875, but the bishop held firm, and after October of that year there were no further letters from Cardinal Franchi.

Now it is clear why Newman has not been beatified.

Yes, there is plenty of Newman to go around to suit people of diverse views. It is a well-known sport among Newmanites. He lived to be just short of ninety and left an astounding corpus. As well, there are over 20, 000 extant letters. It is in the letters that we find some of Newman's most surprising, to some shocking, statements. In the letter of 21 August 1870 that I quoted above, Newman said what he said.This, however, is a published statement found in his brief Postscript to The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:"But it is no change surely to decided between two prevalent opinions; but, if it is to be so regarded, then change has been characteristic of the church from the earliest times, as, for instance, in the third centiry, on the point of validity of baptism by heretics. And hence such a change as has taken place, (which I would prefer to call doctrinal development,) is in itself a positive argument in favour of the Church's identity from first to last; for a growth in its creed is a law of its life." Postscript, 212We can all look forward to the beatification in September. It's been a long time coming.

"surely to decide" (not decided)

For anyone who may be interested, the full citation should be "Postscript to The Letter to The Duke of Norfolk," 212. In printed editions of Newman's works, the Postscript is published as an appendix to the Letter.Now to get ready for the next foot of snow. You will be glad to know that I will have something else to do. Thanks.

But are we not all missing the wood for the trees. We must go back again to that fatal week during Vatican II when it became apparent that collegiality would be only window dressing and that ultramontanism would remain in force. The Cult of Personality can reinforce that structure even more. If people decide to make a cult of you, just sit back and enjoy it, like a rock star. You don't need to have much to say (John Paul II didn't, really). The system works of its own accord. Because Vatican II was stalled we still await an adult church, a functioning community.

And because the system is at it is theologians should know better than to indulge in the attitudes of adulation that shore it up. It is theologically irresponsible to encouarage any kind of cult of the Pope.

If you read German, Ulrich Horst has written much good work on the development of infallibility, and he traces the tradition of the pope as heretic question mentioned above. He takes the opportunity to correct much of Hans Kueng's claims in "Infallibility?" It's often too bad what gets translated and what doesnt, eh?

Leaving aside Tyler's psuedo clever post, I think the jump here from adulation to idolatry is somewhat large.But Fr. O"Leary's concise post at 9:57 today is spot on!The importance of culture to this is quite significant. take for example, BXVI's talk, cited here.Then the meeting currently in Rome with Cardinal Kaspar and leaders of other faiths (talking about a possible global catechism?)Then the cited Fr. Kung (interviewed on ABC national) talking about a global ethic that will integrate secular and clerical concerns without religion being able to "dominate." Special problems include no tonly resolving conflicts an economic ethics, but, also, note: women. So the question of perspective and of what the problems are is vital.Critiques of adulation of(not idolatry) Augustine and to a lesser degree Aquinas here is due to their showing up in many threads here as well as BXVI's latest spech to whatever group.The value thereof is a matter of perspective and the fault line lies along the lines of moving back to some better time or prospectively trying to move forward.

Aquinas says that arguments from authority are weak. Maybe so, let me think about it. But, if reading Aquinas firms up my faith, gives it stronger foundations, and if he consistently thinks better than I do, why wouldn't I give him the benefit of the doubt the next time he says something? Could it be that there are teachers?

I know Im a bit late to the party, and perhaps this has already been discussed, but are we all working with the same understanding of what constitutes an unhealthy idolatry? The catalyst for this post appears to be reactions to one of Pope Benedict's reflections on a separate thread. Rereading those reactions, the most laudatory phrases I could find were "beautiful testimony"..."very astute""beautiful reflection""lifted my spirits and turned my thoughts to God""very uplifting"there were then some favourable comments on German brewmaking. Do these rise to the level of papal idolatry in people's minds? Does having a picture of the Pope in your house constitute harmful adulation? Is it a sign of weakness for first-rate intellectuals to have people they hold in high esteem? Have we left room for a simple respect for authority?

Peter:Forgive me -- I realize that this post originated as a comment, and so it may not be fair to hold it to the standard of an actual post -- but the entire burden of your comments falls on the phrase "some Catholic intellectuals."How can a post complaining of "some Catholic intellectuals" itself stand up to scrutiny if you do not actually provide concrete evidence concerning specific intellectuals? Otherwise, your words seem to merely be an occasion for tut-tutting.

Kathy,That is not, strictly speaking, an example of an argument from authority, although the different ways we use the word "authority" (e.g., as a synomym for "expert") might suggests that it is. In fact, your inductive argument is an example of epistomological pragmatism. Having found X to be right on all (or most) previous occasions, it is reasonable to suppose X is right this time, too. But this judgment presupposes that there are ways, independent of X's authority, to verify his claims. It is not just a question of what constitutes authority, but of whether authority alone is sufficient to establish unqualified -- and not provisional -- assent.

John Page:Thanks for your knowledgable notes on Newman and for correcting my toast reference. After I posted it I googled it and discovered it was not an anecdote but the end of the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which gave me the happy opportunity to re-read that letter last night!Newman's discussion of conscience in the letter I think points to something of what may be referred to as papolatry. The conscience, as he points out, is the voice of God, written in our hearts. Of course this brings to mind the famous passage from Gaudium et Spes. To ignore one's conscience in favor of blind obedience to the pope (Gladstone's proposition which Newman was refuting) is to close one's heart to the voice of God in favor of another voice. That of course is a classic violation of the First Commandment.

Infallibility is unheard of until the 12th century.Greg, I dare say "many" would be a better word than some. It is an unwritten rule that theologians should include the popes in their works if they want to gain favor. Perhaps because she was the subject of unconscionable harrassment by Rome in her early career, I always wondered whether Elizabeth Johnson's frequent quoting of the popes, was a shrewd way for her to fend off witch hunts by the Vatican. Not that she would abandon true scholarship but when she can she will give play to papal writings to fend off or keep at bay the inquisitors.Finally, if you are not aware of those intellectuals then you may not be paying attention.

There have been many interesting comments posted here, and I'm grateful. I too second Kathy's idea of Newman quotes for liberals and Newman quotes for conservatives. Is there such a thing as Newmanolatry? Which reminds me that the phenomenon I pointed to, although more characteristic of conservatives in regard to Benedict or "John Paul the Great," has been manifested by liberals in the case of "good Pope John" and was once manifested across the board in the case of Pius XII. But let me return to my original point. First, I regret using the clumsy term"papalotry" and I regret that when my remarks were moved from a comment on Paul Baumann's post to an independent one, that word, along with "tactical," went into the title. (By "tactical" I meant to designate only one form of this phenomenon, which was not the one puzzling me the most.) So let's settle on adulation. Second, my main concern was with this phenomenon in the case of "intellectuals." I have been writing and teaching about this category for a long time, from a doctoral dissertation on French left-wing intellectuals to a book on neoconservative to courses on American intellectuals at Notre Dame and Georgetown. I was not thinking only of theologians or of major philosophical figures like Sartre or Heidegger. Exactly who is an intellectual is the subject of endless debates, but I think one can identify men and women of substantial ideas, including novelists, poets, playwrights, lawyers, politicians , and the better class of pundits, as well as scholars, whose work addresses broad social and cultural issues and touches a public well beyond that of academic specialties. My courses touched on individuals like W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Lippmann, H. L. Mencken Dorothy Day, Rachel Carson, Richard Niebuhr, Margare Mead, and many others. Now there is a sizable literature about this category of public influentials and their weakness for ideological enthusiasms and the adulation of Great Leaders, both of the left and the right. I am not altogether happy with this literature, which blossomed during the Cold War and often had its own ideological agenda minimizing critical and idependent minds. Still, there are enough examples of supposedly critical minds falling prey to utopianism and adulation that the literature has also sought for explanations, most of them psychological and to me less than convincing. Of course, one way of resolving this puzzle is simply to reject that these people are truly intelligent or intellectuals. That is particularly tempting when we don't agree with their views. So some left-of-center Catholics will dismiss a George Weigel or a Richard Neuhaus or a Cardinal George as intellectuals even while individuals of similar caliber but left-wing views are taken quite seriously. I can't buy that reaction. I find that many people I disagree with have impressive minds and skills at analyzing and articulating problems. So I am puzzled when they indulge a kind of papal adulation that seems out of whack with everything we know about papal history and our human nature. This is no less true when these are people of equal intellectual capacities with whom I agree. Or when they seem to turn adulation upside down and cannot calmly abide the idea that a pope might have something of value to say. I raised the question in terms of a search for the psychological mechanism at work. But maybe I'm really less concerned with the question why than I am with making a simple plea: relax, be receptive, but don't let hero-worship (or demonization) dull one's critical capacities. Rather elementary, I guess, but at least it provoked some more wide-ranging discussion.

How's this for irony? One of the Google ads accompanying this post is for a site that promises to read your prayers out loud in St. Peter's Basilica to give some extra oomph to your pleas: I think this is a fine example of how people perceive the pope as some sort of super-arbiter between God and humanity, to the point that even having your prayer delivered to his general vicinity gives one some leverage over God.

I'll never be good at this blogging game. While I was making my comment just above, I missed the point from Greg Wolfe to the effect that without specific examples I was just engaged in tut-tutting. Well, I do think my post suffered from lack of examples, from both left and right, but quite frankly I would not give specific examples without doing a lot of time-consuming fact-checking. Anyone who doubts whether specific examples could be adduced is certainly free to dismiss my concern as tut-tutting.

Hm, I guess I just don't see it. If you approached a practicing lay Catholic and showed him or her the comments accompanying Fr. Imbelli's post and those accompanying one of the more, shall we say, heated posts about the pope on this site, I don't believe they'd think the laudatory comments were the ones that revealed some sort of pathology. I don't know. Maybe you're policing the wrong end of the adulation/hatred spectrum.

Sorry, but my post was not intended as a thermometer measuring comments on Fr. Imbelli's post against ones made by others about the pope. As you may recall, I suggested that Paul Baumann may have been too hard on those reacting enthusiastically to Benedict's Freising remarks. I was taking the occasion to discuss a larger problem that has puzzled me not about bloggers in particular but writers in many media, religious and secular. Part of that puzzlement, I think I made clear, is also about the ferocity of some criticism of the pope as well.

Oh ok. I misread. Thank you for that.

Newmanolatry is a real plague -- the Oxford students used to cry "Credo in Newmannum" The cover of the Nicholls/Kerr volume, John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism, 1991, has a student design of an angel carrying a quill, with the title "The Newmania". Newmanolatry keeps most Newmanites stuck in biographical fetishism and cult of personality, building on narcissistic traits in Newman's own personality. All this to the detriment of a sophisticated, intelligent theological reception of his thought.

I don't agree that John XXIII invited papolatry (except perhaps retrospectively in Richard McBrien's treatment of him). The reason is that adulation of John XXIII was consubstantial with enthusiasm for his Council. As a boy the affection in which I and everyone held him was something quite different from the transcendent awe that surrounded his predecessor.

George Weigel, Richard Neuhaus, Cardinal George -- I don't find these convincing examples of "first-class minds". Maybe in the time of Joseph de Maistre you could be a papolator and a first-rate mind, but given all we now know of ultramontanism and given the teaching of Vatican II, it cannot be a sign of intelligence to subscribe to a cult of papal personality or papal power (with the implicit suspension or discouragement of critical judgment this entails).

I am very grateful to Paul Baumann and Peter Steinfels for questioning the adulation of popes that accompanies their concentration of power unto themselves. The unseemly push for canonization for practically every pope in the last hundred plus years confirms the focus on papal domination both in governance and supposed holiness.Yes, Prof. Kaveny, a book on the attitudes of lay Catholics toward the papacy over recent centuries would be most enlightening. What troubles me are blogs like Thomas Peters American Papist, and Rocco Palmos Whispers in the Loggia, which exceed what any chancery press office might issue in praise of hierarchs. They seem so enthralled or encased in a mindset of astounding deference, where ones world revolves around what a bishop or pope thinks or does.No doubt different generations bear different marks of their experience of church, from the pre-Vatican II of my upbringing, on through to the millenials. But a cult of the papacy was pursued to foster the burgeoning centralization of power and silencing of critics.I agree with OLeary (it happens occasionally) that we are not an adult church due to the short circuiting of V-II itself. Those bishops who went home and tried to implement meaningful reforms found themselves thwarted by an apostolic delegate. With the curia left in charge, instead of a collegially elected or even appointed body, answerable to the assembled bishops (including but not subservient to the pope), the results were predictable.

Lets not confuse the theological and canonical parsing of V-II and papal documents with the actual exercise of power. The former are not beyond reinterpretation/distortion to accommodate a political outcome (Mickens is brilliant on the point). Who has authority, who appoints whom, and sets policy, is key. The politics of control is the bottom line. All roads lead to Rome, except when it comes to accountability. Instead of Rome has spoken, the case is closed, let the debate begin, the last phrase is dropped. We are even told what subjects we may discuss or not. While the cappa magna, special vestments and cassocks regain fashion, ex-Catholics comprise 1 in 10 in the US population.I used to respect the papacy before I learned how it operated; no more. I cringed when the crowds hailed Benedict, and was relieved when he flew out of the country. All the finery and ceremony left me cold. I am obviously in the minority. I bought small paperbacks of his two encyclicals to learn more (or are they letters?). Still, I cannot overcome Benedicts handling of sex abuse cases and his refusal of a just verdict to Maciels survivors. He disowns the Vaticans part in a worldwide abandonment of victims. The most recent examples are Ireland, and now Germany the last few weeks with numerous cases of Jesuit abuse in exclusive schools just coming to light. The same spin every time: so sorry, so horrible, a PR meeting or two, but never an honest admission of guilt or culpability, or restructuring of a secret model of governance, or production of documents to help expose the truth. Long live the priest shortage, the prime opportunity for reform of the clerical system.

Carolyn Disco, so many thanks.

"All roads lead to Rome, except when it comes to accountability. Instead of Rome has spoken, the case is closed, let the debate begin, the last phrase is dropped. Carolyn = Sometimes Rome doesn't even speak. VOTF says that it sent a letter to Cardinal Re asking that the American bishops be investigated both as a group and as individuals, just as the American nuns are being investigated.Cardinal Re has not even acknowledged that the letter was received. Silence.

Yes, Ann, I read about the VOTF letter, and am not surprised. Silence is an effective form of indifference.We learned over the years that oftentimes letters to the Vatican or nuncio are routinely rerouted back to the offending party to deal with "pastorally." So, sending a letter to Rome or the nuncio about say Bishop McCormack meant you got a letter from McCormack denying whatever it is you wrote, and offering pastoral assistance and prayers.But even when we did get letters from various congregations in Rome when we filed our canon case seeking bishop resignations, they were exemplars of the highest form the bureaucratic mind can assume, saying essentially nothing. Still, the letterhead itself was interesting.

Oh yes, Carolyn Disco. I can speak from long experience of letters to Rome that have gone unanswered, not letters from me, but from the bishops for whom I worked. The responses that did sometimes come (often a year later) mostly avoided saying anything of substance, but such elaborate courtesy. The Italian was so exquisite. The letters in English were often even more opaque. It was a peculiar subset of the language that exists nowhere else on ther face of the earth.But when Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez was named prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in the summer of 1996 courtesy went out the window. His letters to the then chairman of ICEL, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, were brutal. I never thought that I would live to see a bishop treated so uncharitably, and at that point I had been in Church work (service, I hope) for over two decades. I am not telling tales out of school. All of this is well documented by John Wilkins in "Lost in Translation," which appeared in December 2005 in COMMONWEAL; by Paddy Kearney in his recent ( July 2009) biography of Archbishop Denis Hurley, "Guardian of The Light"; and by Bishop Taylor himself in his very recent (November 2009) book "It's The Eucharist,"

Mr. Page--Is there definite reason to think that the popes have known just how badly the bishops are treated? It seems that JPII didn't get all the facts about Maciel, so I wonder just how much they get to know about the bishops' complaints.This is the sort of tale that *should* be told out of school. Then maybe the bishops' would be so humiliated they might develop some spine and start talking to the press when Rome essentislly cuts off communication. #%^*}# omerta!I've read that the curia treats bishops like altar boys. Now I see that's no exaggeration.

Long live the priest shortage? The problem is, when someone says something like that, it call everything else they say into question.

Carolyn Disco has dramatically shown how affectivity to the pope is not only childish but irresponsible as well. We can at least begin to rid ourselves of this problem when we cease using words like "Holy Father" and "Father" as well as all the other emeninencies and excellencies. If we want to put away the things of a child.Then we can get down to the business of building up the church.

Regrettable, but so be it.I believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church, not in the sense of every little decision, but over the long term, and the shortage is serving a purpose. It is already a catalyst for reforms that never would occur otherwise, forcing greater participation of the laity, a broader vision of ministry, cracking the wall of secrecy, and lessening the sense of exemption and privilege by clergy. Too many respond as though they were taken up instead of taken from the assembly to positions of leadership.Better to prepare than be blindsided, since the trend is clear, and change is coming anyway --- leading to a more vibrant life of faith. That is the goal. Courtesy of Tennyson, The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Carolyn--But be careful what you ask for. From what I've heard, one of the reactions to the priest shortage in the US is a much more traditional sense among the younger clergy. And the plethora of priests in third-world countries seem more traditional too. Change is coming, but it may not be what you bargained for.

Ah, Mark, ALL the young ones seem to be JPII's, so the fewer the better (grin). (Sorry I do not know how to do italics.) People will go where they are fed, so conservatives may indeed get their smaller church after all. You may be right in the end, but so much the worse for the people of God as a whole.The idea that third world priests will solve the shortage problem is illusory. And as economic opportunities grow in their countries, I expect the traditional conservative tilt will fade as it did in our own history. Same for immigrants of this generation, if their progeny also shift after becoming established.We each have our different hopes; that's fine, since it is despair that is the sin, yes?

"We each have our different hopes; thats fine, since it is despair that is the sin, yes?"Yes ma'am! And well said.

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