A Papal Biopsy

Rather like a flame that burns brightest before it is extinguished, there has been a flurry of papal pronouncements, paving the way for what may be a course entrenched, if not irreversible, for his successor to face. 


December 27, 2023

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An announcement that Pope Francis wants to be buried in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was an inevitable reminder that the flax is burning low in this pontificate. Rather like a flame that burns brightest before it is extinguished, there has been a flurry of papal pronouncements, paving the way for what may be a course entrenched, if not irreversible, for his successor to face. 

This brings to the mind of those so inclined the dramatic monologue written by Robert Browning in 1845: “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” The bishop obsesses about his deceased rival, Gandolf, whose meager tomb must be surpassed. It is not insignificant that Pope Francis is so intent on marking a contrast to his predecessors that he has altered papal protocol by quoting himself much more than previous popes in his magisterial documents. This translates into action—for instance, by redressing the moral philosophy of John Paul II in the Kristallnacht of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family and the cauterizing of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum with the ironically titled Traditionis Custodes.

Such things are more than unsettling for those of a pious hue who are heirs to the assumption that though infallibility and omniscience are different, they have been pretty cozy partners in the public image of an unusually long line of estimable popes. Not to belabor the hackneyed metaphor of Waugh’s man of guile Rex Mottram, who assumed that popes cannot be wrong about anything including the weather (Mottram would have been a useful peritus at a climate change conference), the fact is that when the Church began to pick up the pieces after the Age of Reason, which was more cynical than rational, there developed a romantic progression from defensiveness to triumphalism in the exercise of papal authority. The pope would not be a puppet of imperial powers but would be imperial in himself.

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And even with the loss of the Papal States, this spiritual imperium inclined toward a bureaucratic centralization that became more intense as Christian boundaries spread and modern communication began. Dioceses often came to be thought of at least in secular perceptions as franchises of the home office. The Croatian patriot Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer memorably said after the First Vatican Council: “I went in as a bishop and came out as a sacristan.” 

The Propagation of the Faith honed micromanagement, not without some effective results, and religious orders centered their commands in Rome, like the Benedictine Confederation instituted by Leo XIII in 1893. The proliferation of nunciatures has occasioned tension in some episcopal conferences, often with good results but always sobered by the reminder that of the Twelve Apostles only one was a diplomat, and he hanged himself. More contemporary examples of this kind of economy have been the unexplained removal of bishops and the restructuring of the Order of Malta and Opus Dei.

Ultramontanism, or hyperpapalism, as bold reactions to the politicized excesses of Gallicanism and Febronianism, had a relatively harmless popular expression in romanticized traditionalism with its cult of personality around the papacy. The old Roman insouciance of “Morto un papa se ne fa un altro” became “Santo subito!” More recently, there were enthusiasts predicting that a “Francis Effect” would “sing a new Church into being” with a high tide of vocations and spiritual conversions. They were thrilled that the new pope had made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine without a sense of its irony. Now they are in anxious denial as “popesplainers,” trying to explain that magisterial heterodoxy in its various forms is just a doxy too subtle for us to appreciate. Explaining why a magisterial declaration is the opposite of one just a couple of years earlier, they sound like the tourist having been shown two skulls of Alexander the Great and volunteering that one must be him as a boy.  

If you are not careful when Googling “hyperpapalism,” you might come up with “hyperplasia,” which is an enlargement of a healthy organ or tissue caused by an increase in cell reproduction. It may be harmless as physiologic hyperplasia, but it could also be a pathologic hyperplasia, which is the first stage of precancerous change. So, by transposition, hyperpapalism has an innocent form as physiologic hyperpapalism: indulging affinities for plumed Noble Guards, triple tiaras, the sedia gestatoria, and reveries of the House of Habsburg. 

But when a gruff voice says “the carnival is over” and a pontiff vests in flamboyant humility, there is an intimation of something not benign. It is rather the way old paganisms at least had their fun frolics in sacred groves, but a new kind of paganism is deadly serious as it insults ritual decorum with coarse vernacularisms. Given the choice, it might even have been more bearable to be swiftly axed by a Druid than having to listen to meandering lectures at the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Cardinal Fernandez has attributed to the metastasized papacy an authority that might even have surprised Boniface VIII: “The Pope not only has a duty to guard and preserve the static deposit of faith, but also a second, unique charism, only given to Peter and his successor which is a living and active gift.” Even if this were so, and if the Petrine commission gave popes an absolute authority in temporal matters and included the gift of an inspiration more vital than tradition caricatured as static, there would be no ground for arguing from “development of doctrine” because what is static cannot develop. Tradition, by its essence, cannot be static.

Perhaps in the full flush of hyperpapalism it is hard to confess, as Benedict XVI did, that parts of the Second Vatican Council were downright Pelagian and that the dashed expectation of a “Second Pentecost” was the inevitable result of thinking that Pentecost needs a sequel. Such disappointed optimism, the stepchild of hope, has led to a lack of confidence in the Church herself, reducing the Body of Christ to a trivial agency in the world, an NGO in the parliament of nations. After all, Paul VI said during his journey to New York, in an odd corrigendum to John 14:27, “The peoples of the earth turn to the United Nations as the last hope of peace.” It is hard to confess, as Benedict XVI did, that parts of the Second Vatican Council were downright Pelagian and that the dashed expectation of a “Second Pentecost” was the inevitable result of thinking that Pentecost needs a sequel.Tweet This

St. John Henry Newman was certainly not a hyperpapalist, and he eloquently warned against romanticizing papal prerogatives. Contrary to claims of a “second, unique charism of popes,” he cited note 2 of the First Vatican Council’s Pastor Aeternus: “the Pope has that same infallibility that the Church has.” Pius IX was not vainglorious at all when he said, “Io, io sono la tradizione! Io, io sono la chiesa!” He was not claiming a special charism unique to himself, for he was declaring his subordination to the tradition and the Church he embodied. 

In his essay “Limits of Papal Infallibility,” Newman again refers to Pastor Aeternus

…the proposition defined will be without any claim to be considered binding on the belief of Catholics, unless it is referable to the Apostolic “deposit” through the channel either of Scripture or Tradition, and though the Pope is the judge whether it is so referable or not, yet the necessity of his professing to abide by this reference is in itself a certain limitation of his dogmatic action.

Serious Catholics who may feel bewildered and even betrayed by present circumstances, were not misled by Sacred Tradition but by seductive nostalgia. And nostalgia is only history after a few martinis. The Deposit of Faith, precisely by not being static, transmits constant truth from age to age through perplexities peculiar to each. This is what Newman meant by “preservation of type” in the development of doctrine, and it makes all the difference between benignity and malignancy. 

Truth is not a fashion of the mind or the mob, a hatchling of the ego or a slogan of the crowd. It is not subjective, as in the conceit of many inadequate thinkers—like Dr. Gay of Harvard, whose lame apology after her testimony before a Congressional committee spoke of “my truth.” If only she had plagiarized John 17:17: “Thy word is truth.” Truth is not mine or yours. Truth is Christ uniting the Way to live with Life itself. Bewilderment and betrayal are often the pathos of delusion, symptoms of misplaced trust in “princes or any child of man,” and that may even include servants of the servants of God.


  • Horace Gates

    Horace Gates is the pen name of a priest and academic.

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