The Ahab Papacy

The Church has always been symbolized by a ship. Her crew are fishers of men. Some of the first were indeed fishermen, Peter most prominent among them. She is diminished in influence, careening from seeming moral orthodoxy to permissiveness.

“Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! Ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:—and hemp only can kill me! Ha, ha!”

Call me Ishmael. Ahab, our captain, has called forth the fate of our ship. He has tied our fate to his, a choice the passive accept and the passionate lust.  

We have been sailing on a stupefying sea of heterodoxy. Afraid and fearless, we cling to the ship of the Church slashing the murky sea. We now see the terminus of this dread course, the gaping mouth of this man-chosen fate. All Ahab’s words and preparations are in full view. His quest has drawn us away from the harvest toward a pale shoal of death.

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“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Is Francis Ahab? Is the current pontificate increasingly following the course of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick?  

In Moby Dick, a man named Elijah prophesies the death of Captain Ahab and the watery fate of his crew preparing to sail the whaler Pequod. The cause of the ship’s destruction and all its crew save one, Ishmael, is the captain’s sinful hatred of the great white whale Moby Dick and his impious need for revenge at any cost. The men never rebel against the madness; rather, they hope for the captain’s strange rewards, partake in blasphemous oaths, suppress their Christian instincts, ignore the law of the sea, and remain obedient to the end, even taking on the suicidal blood lust.

Have we an Ahab? Many, like the whale, will want to tear at my flesh for the very mention of such a comparison, but consider both the symbol and substance.

The Church has always been symbolized by a ship, especially a ship on a stormy sea. Her crew are fishers of men. Some of the first were indeed fishermen, Peter most prominent among them. She is also in great crisis. She is diminished in influence, careening from seeming moral orthodoxy to permissiveness. She swings north toward decentralization then south to dictate greater control of convents and charisms. 

She drifts along the Chinese coast of oppression, then rigs full sail toward enviro-pop causes. She casts off able seamen who pester the captain about the proper ways to sail and hails onboard those who have never seen her holds let alone swabbed them. This ship that once cut a clear course on matters of morals, often sailing hard against the winds of the day, seems increasingly to cut its jib to follow them as it sinks lower into the water.  

The crew, those who know the sea, grow restless. When Starbuck, the first mate, questions his judgment, Ahab bellows, “There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod.” He strikes at dissenters and lashes the sea as he pursues the beast who seems only to exist in myth and his mind’s eye and crippled body.  

Captain Ahab knocks about the deck with a whalebone peg-leg, the visible scar he carries from his last encounter with Moby Dick. The Pequod meets another whaler, the captain of which has also been maimed by the whale. Yet, this man has not allowed his physical dismemberment—the loss of an arm—affect his mind and soul. When Ahab reveals the depth of his wrath for the whale, the other captain departs.  

Our Ahab, with half a lung, knocks about with confusing statements and contradicts himself. Without retracing all the knotty actions and words of this papacy, the course is clear. The Curia and Catechism are changed and will doubtless change again. Yet another teaching is scuttled as a text contradicting Humanae Vitae is published. The synodal process casts a dusky shadow, intimating a shattering future like a whale’s fluke suspended high over a harpooner silhouetted in the bow of his tiny boat, unable to strike back. 

Without provocation, our Ahab has taken to cutting away a lifeboat of growth and reverence, one that holds a growing and resilient portion of his crew, his flock. Some fellow bishops avoid Ahab’s course, not yet jettisoning these Latin sheep. Others have lustily cut away.  

The waves hammer the ship. No Starbuck will intervene. No Elijah can speak sufficient prophecy to deter.  

Ahab did not kill the whale. Rather, he drowns by a rope wrapped ’round the neck, dragged down to the abode of the whale. Ishmael is the only survivor from Captain Ahab’s madness, floating on a coffin providentially ordered by a cannibal to be made by the ship’s carpenter. The hand of God snatched Ishmael undeservedly and improbably from all the rest.  

Just as the improbable and humble, even the pagan, have been instruments wielded by God, I expect a surprise. There is no indication of any man or worldly power to correct our course or salve the wounds of the Church. Only divine Providence can be hoped to raise us from the devouring sea of this world, lest we have lashed ourselves with the hemp of Ahab to Leviathan.


  • Wendell Hull

    Wendell Hull has spent a couple of lives in the military and business. He is on his third life as a homeschooling dad and occasional catechist.

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