A Royal Papacy

Some decades ago, my immediate boss at National Review, the late Priscilla Buckley, was fond of telling an anecdote about her sister-in-law Patricia (Mrs. William F. Jr.) Buckley. During a conversation on the style befitting royalty, Pat interjected vehemently, “Oh if only I were royal, how royal I should be!” Anyone who ever met her can imagine the grandeur with which she flung out these words. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, could never come close to achieving this effect were she to spend the rest of her life studying the role she assumed upon her marriage to Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor.

Nevertheless, Pat Buckley as a royal personage would have been expected to be ceremonious—not glamorous, as Meghan née Markle imagines she is supposed to be. Both women came to mind after I watched the video of Pope Francis slapping the hand of a more than presumptuous woman who, in grabbing him, pulled him severely off balance. The Pope has been roundly criticized for his behavior, but the criticism is highly unfair. He was caught unaware by a complete stranger, might well have fallen (which is dangerous for a man of 83), and was obviously and genuinely angry. Francis did not deserve such outrageous treatment, and his admirer showed the grossest bad taste in subjecting him to it. (Granted, her subsequently revealed motive—to get his attention so as to protest his recent decision permitting the Chinese government to appoint Catholic bishops—partially excuses her behavior.) Yet both were victims of the same misapprehension of the venue, imagining it to entail a celebratory public encounter when it was more of a ceremonious one.

The distinction between the two types of encounter is basic, and should be eminently clear to all participants in public ecclesiastical events. But it is not clear, not even to the Pope himself. The reason has to do with what the Vatican has allowed the papacy to become since Vatican II when the attempt began to bring His Holiness and his office into the modern world—the world of international celebrity and the immanent and popular spectacle appropriate to media celebrity—in preference to allowing it to remain fixed, dignified, and secure within the bounds of Old World ceremony, deference, and distance. In this respect, the difference between the pre- and post-conciliar papacies reflects the difference between the Tridentine Mass and that of the Novus Ordo. Perhaps it is even greater.

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But while a rational (though in my opinion unconvincing) case for the demotic renovation of Holy Mass may be argued, no justifiable defense is possible for turning Christ’s representative on Earth into the ringmaster of an international circus by compelling him to circumnavigate the globe at regular intervals and displaying him to hundreds of thousands of the faithful crammed like sweating soccer fans into packed stadiums to hear him broadcast over booming public address systems, as if he were some South American strongman rabblerousing his raucous followers. This is not polite religious ceremony; it is vulgar, almost brutal spectacle, recalling the crass public events common to ancient Rome, degrading of everyone participating in them and exhausting for the central figure.

Popes are, by the nature of their office, nearly always elderly men who should not be subjected to the grinding ordeals that forced Francis’s immediate predecessor, the greatest pope since the 1940s, into premature retirement—the first to do so in nearly 700 years. For reasons of religious propriety and dignity, among many others, these extravanganzas should be stopped, and the sooner this is done the better.

Distance—the mystery on which Walter Bagehot claimed that the power and effectiveness of the British monarchy depended and that made it the centuries-long success that it was in his time and remains today—is equally required by the papacy. A wise, hardworking, and efficient king is not endlessly on display. His subjects hear from him only rarely, when he has something of major significance to convey, though Bagehot recognized that regal ceremony is an expected form of popular entertainment. An equally wise, energetic, and effective pope will do the same, no matter what advice he receives from his Roman entourage, the media (who are always demanding bread, circuses, and the occasional scandal to feed their broadcasts), or his 1.2 billion fellow Catholics who revere, love, and pray for him, while taking into their hearts and minds his considered, solemn, and formal communications whenever he feels moved to express them by the spoken or the printed word. Unlike the little children to whom Our Lord commends us, the wisest and sincerest of popes should be more heard of than seen, keenly aware that a High Priest is a wholly different personage from a king of the realm.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at chiltonwilliamson.com.

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