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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