A Note on Our Modern Celebrity Papacy

I’m getting a little tired of people asking me whether I “like” Pope Francis. I don’t want to be too sensitive here. But why are my personal feelings about the Holy Father so very important? Jane Fonda, Elton John and Patti Smith all apparently love Pope Francis. Does that really tell us anything significant? Maybe we should stop worrying so much about whether or not people get warm fuzzies up and down their spines when they think about Pope Francis.

Really, aren’t we all a little tired of fighting about the pope? This has been an issue almost from the day Pope Francis was elevated. Orthodox Catholics spar endlessly over the question: exactly how much they are obliged to admire and like him. He gives an interview to the secular press, and we bicker less about the content and more about the permissibility of critiquing it. Friends find themselves in subtle social media wars, as one posts everything he can find reinforcing Pope Francis’ orthodoxy, while another airs every suspicious-sounding remark or vindictive-seeming appointment. Explosive comment threads follow.

I don’t intend to offer a run-down of all of the Holy Father’s controversial remarks. I don’t believe he will send the Church into schism, but I also think that there are some legitimate reasons why orthodox Catholics have found this pontificate challenging. The almost gleeful way in which he pokes at orthodoxy and tradition gives the committed faithful a sense of instability. The previous two pontiffs generally gave us the sense that they were guiding the Barque of Peter through the perilous passages of modernity, with a reasonably clear sense of which rocky shoals to avoid. Pope Francis doesn’t communicate that nearly so strongly.

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Perhaps the most unsettling thing about his leadership is his eagerness to appear relevant to the mainstream culture. This might be useful for purposes of proselytism (though he seems not to like the word), but Pope Francis seems insufficiently attentive to the dangers of accommodationism. When churches lose their sense of purpose or direction, the pews start to empty. This lesson is illustrated vividly by the experiments of the 1960s and 70s, in which the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses grew dramatically as Catholics and mainline Protestants saw their numbers dwindle. People want religion to provide them with a sense of direction and purpose, and efforts to gain cultural relevance frequently militate against that clarity of message. But the Holy Father’s concern about this seems minimal. When asked in a recent interview why Catholics were continuing to leave the Church, he speculated that it was probably a negative reaction to his advocacy for the poor (as though prosperity preaching were a hallmark of previous Catholic eras). This is just one instance in which he has seemed lamentably deaf to the possible pitfalls of his mainstream-culture-friendly approach.

In short, there is reason for concern. Precisely because he is in the public eye, the pontiff has significant potential for causing scandal. Still, it’s also true that complainers can be unseemly in their bitterness, even as the grins of the Francis-adoring optimists grow a bit strained. Maybe everyone just needs to relax a little, and try to get some perspective.

This might be easier if we realize that our angst on this subject is undoubtedly exacerbated by the celebrity culture that has invaded the modern world on a massive scale. Nowadays we expect the Church to revolve around personalities, and we’re far more attentive to those persons than to any of the dusty old books in our Catholic libraries. This also puts us at the mercy of whatever those personalities might or might not say. Implicitly accepting the standards of the secular world, we assume that anything important for us to know must have been said recently, and ideally by someone famous who can insert it into the secular press.

Needless to say, this has not been the norm through most periods of history. Prior to the pontificate of Pius IX (1846-1878), the phenomenon of global mass media really didn’t exist. Even just a century ago, popes were not expected to be headline-grabbing celebrities who traveled the world and hosted gala events. They mostly lived in the Vatican and concentrated their energies on theology and internal church affairs. Ordinary Catholics around the world probably didn’t think much about the pope. The most elevated person they were likely to see was the bishop, but most of the time the faith revolved around their parish and local clergy.

Times change, and in an age of communication it probably isn’t possible to recover that degree of localism. Nowadays, faithful Catholics network and read websites, follow Church affairs, and obsess over the Holy Father. It’s a brave new world. But when we find ourselves griping at one another over transitory, emotional reactions to the Holy Father, it’s time to pull back. It was never necessary for faithful Catholics to hail the pope as their favorite world celebrity.

Popes can be wise and holy men. They can be corrupt and vicious men. In between is a whole lot of middle ground, and of course we trust that, whatever the pontiff’s character, the Holy Spirit will intervene where necessary to protect the Church from destruction. Church leaders can still do great damage to souls by obscuring doctrine, which serves to spread confusion and doubt. Also, corrupt or imprudent Church leaders may cause scandal, which diminishes (at least temporarily) the confidence with which the Church may exercise her rightful moral authority. Certainly, there is a reason why we regularly pray for wise and prudent Church leaders.

At the same time, we will be far more susceptible to that kind of injury if we ourselves become lax in our task of learning and spreading the faith. When the ordinary faithful are ignorant and weak, that is when imprudent leaders will be most devastating to the Church as a whole. If we are concerned about the direction of a particular pontiff, the best thing we can do is to arm ourselves against error by immersing ourselves in Catholic doctrine, literature and philosophy.

St. John Paul II was noteworthy for his ability to connect with, literally, the entire world. He may have done more than anyone to help modern people (either Catholic or non-Catholic) view the Church in a positive light, as a source of moral authority and a shelter from the storm. As a corollary, though, he also did more than any other person to elevate the papacy to celebrity status. This development was less salutary for his successor, who was brilliant and very holy but not a “natural celebrity.” Pope Francis, for his part, seems reasonably comfortable living in the public eye, and many people do find him inspiring. Compared with St. John Paul II, however, he has been less successful at making the faithful feel bolstered in their efforts to preserve the faith in a hostile culture. Also disheartening to me personally is the number of Protestant friends who have told me that they no longer feel that Rome can be trusted as a source of moral support and authority.

These, however, qualify as “ordinary” trials in the context of an overwhelmingly hostile culture. All else being equal we would all naturally prefer to have a leader who uplifts and inspires us. But if we’ve reached the point of demanding that from every pontiff, we’ve probably lost sight of what the papacy is, and of what the Church is. In its inerrant form, papal authority is exercised only very occasionally; we don’t have to hang on the pontiff’s every word. Meanwhile, as Catholics we have a wealth of theology and spiritual wisdom at our fingertips, and most of us have barely scratched the surface. If current Church politics depress you, I recommend living in the past for awhile.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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