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."

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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