The media is so predictable. With Lent well underway, and Easter now just a month off, watch for an increasing spate of cover stories about whether Jesus was really resurrected, whether he ascended to heaven, or whether he fled to Morocco and married one of his apostles in a long-secret gay marriage only now come to light because of a scrap of undated papyrus containing a half dozen Greek letters. I last bothered reading one of these tedious stories around 1995. They never change.
But there is another cycle to media mischief, and it is tied to the forthcoming synod in Rome in October. After the shambolic affair this past October, we can expect reporters to descend on Rome again to report breathlessly on how Pope Francis is going to wave his magic papal wand and declare “gay marriage”, abortion, and Big Macs to be good things. In fact, the media campaign for him to make changes has already begun. Exhibit A is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig article, “Fear of a Radical Pope”, just published in The New Republic.
If Bruenig, who describes herself on her website as a doctoral student who brings “a Christian leftist perspective to public discourse”, were one of my graduate students and she turned in such a sprawling and incoherent essay she would have received it back drowning in a veritable Red Sea of inky corrections. Leaving aside the fact that there is so very little serious content, and still less rational sequence, to this article, and overlooking its abundant and very adolescent sneering and sloganeering (“irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” to re-purpose Trilling’s famous phrase), the most risible passage is surely this bit of armchair psychoanalysis:
Conservatives inside the Church and out will, in all likelihood, continue to rankle at Francis’s presence, his persona, his wildly successful evangelism. With every word, he offers an obviously superior approach to theirs.
When I was a graduate student, a professor once said to me: “watch your adverbs.” I offer the same counsel here to Bruenig because her careless usage offers very fat targets ripe for ready rejoinder: wildly successful evangelism? Obviously superior approach? Relative to whom—the Westboro Baptists? Such lazy, tendentious and noticeably fact-free generalizations have no place in the writing of any would-be serious scholar—and the fact she’s writing for a once-popular magazine does not excuse this evidentiary burden.
It never occurs to Ms. Bruenig for even a moment that people may disagree not with Francis’s presence or persona, but his practices and perhaps even his ideas, and that doing so is a welcome, necessary, and healthy practice of the Church going all the way back to the apostles themselves. For her, not surprisingly, it is entirely personal, and for people of this sort any such disagreement can come only from animus. But even Freud famously realized that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Disagreement, in other words, does not necessary betoken neurosis or “phobia” any of the other bogus “disorders” Bruenig can conjure up.
In the end, however, Bruenig is convinced that “conservatives” (a descriptive she uses three dozen times) will lose because they are up against a force of nature and nature’s God, viz., the pope who is going to change everything and has the power to do so. Having written a book on the papacy, I was especially interested in her view of it. Here is her central claim:
The world’s most renowned Christian theological guide is, of course, the Pope. He is, in a sense, a steward of the Church’s religious past… . The Pope has a special relationship to the past, being the recipient of so much carefully preserved thought and practice. Each Pope, therefore, must make use of the richness of Church tradition, while also ministering effectively to a world of ever-evolving challenges and realities.
In an essay that staggers around and purports to address history in a number of places, Bruenig never once considers that her view of the papacy is barely a century old, dating to Leo XIII (d. 1903). As all recent and respectable historians of the papacy—Owen Chadwick, Klaus Schatz, John O’Malley, Eamon Duffy, and John Pollard, these latter two being at Bruenig’s alma mater of Cambridge—have clearly documented, the notion of the pope as the “most renowned” anything was not only theologically inconceivable but practically impossible prior to the advent of modern technology: the telegraph, radio, and television, and now the internet and social media.
That obscurity of the pope for nineteen-hundred years was, I believe, very good and healthy for the Church. We need, in fact, to return to it, as I have been arguing long before Francis was on the scene. No pope, popular or not, “conservative” or “liberal”, should be the focus of such sustained attention as we have seen now for more than thirty years, if not longer. It is a deeply damaging development to the Church as a whole. It distorts the true nature of the papacy, it distorts the nature of the Church herself, and it runs the very real risk of distorting the faith “once delivered to the saints.”
This papal maximalism of which Bruenig is such ardent, if unconvincing, booster (but which, as Jean-Marie Roger Tillard and Hermann Pottmeyer have both convincingly demonstrated, cannot look to the First Vatican Council for support) and this cult of personality surrounding the papal office are un-traditional, un-historical, un-theological, un-ecumenical, and unhealthy. The focus is Jesus Christ; the faith comes from and returns to Christ; the life we lead is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) and cannot be tossed about on the wave of every papal utterance.
Bruenig, of course, has not grasped this point. Instead, she is the latest breathless fan at the 2015 running of the Ultramontane Sweeps. This is the 145th anniversary of the races, which began officially in Rome in 1870. Every year since then we have had people trying to handicap the Church by betting on a hulking white steed of their fantasies who exceeds all superlatives (“most renowned” indeed!) and crushes every other thoroughbred in his path, including those ancient nags, Tradition, Episcopacy, Liturgy, and Morality, all of which have odds against them of 100-0. In the worldview of Bruenig, the pope can do anything.
This, of course, is nonsense, but it is rampantly popular nonsense, and we can expect to see plenty more of it between now and October. It is, I suspect, a rather peculiar plot to prove Evelyn Waugh right. In Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited the character Rex Mottram, a vulgar parvenu, fatuously opined that the pope could even command the weather:
“Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain.’ Would that be bound to happen?” [asks Fr. Mowbray, the Jesuit attempting to catechize the densely stupid Mottram].
“Oh, yes, Father.”
“But supposing it didn’t?”
He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.”
Waugh held up Mottram as a fictive figure fit only for mockery. The problem is that most journalists today act as though he were a real and reliable guide to understanding the papacy. The joke’s on them.