The Catholic Thing
Shrinking the Papal Monarchy Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Since he assumed the Great Mantle in March, much has been written about the simplicity and humility of Pope Francis. Francis has abandoned many of the external trappings that accompanied the papacy in recent times – red shoes, Mercedes Benz, gold pectoral cross, ermine mozzetta, residence in the apostolic palace – in favor of more ordinary options. And now he’s announced a coming encyclical on voluntary poverty in the Church.

Some have judged the pope’s actions to represent a new type of thinking and operating inside the world’s oldest monarchy, a shift from the regality of princes to the simplicity of the people. Others have expressed their discomfort with the new pontiff’s seemingly quick departure from practices centuries old. Not surprisingly, both reactions reflect broader visions of Catholicism and the Church.

But contrary to news reports, Francis is not the first of recent popes to start down this path. What exactly is new in what he is doing – and what message is he trying to convey – in deliberately choosing the simple over the ornate? Answers to these questions lie not in contemporary ecclesial politics, but in the Gospel and in recent papal history, which is mostly in continuity with the present.

The papacy is indeed a monarchy that directs Catholics to their spiritual end: union with God forever. From the late Roman Empire through the nineteenth century, it was also very much a temporal monarchy ruling over a large territory, the Papal States, in central Italy. The temporal authority was seen as necessary to guarantee the papacy’s independence and – more important – his spiritual authority. Hence popes adopted the trappings of European monarchs, though some of these externals also took on religious import because of the dual nature of the papal office.

In 1870 the Papal States were lost to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. In hindsight, this has been a great gain for the Church: no longer was the pope a temporal ruler in a particular locale, but a spiritual and moral force who spoke to all peoples of the earth. Yet external trappings of the papacy, including the kissing of the pope’s slipper and the wearing of the triple tiara, remained well into the twentieth century.

Two factors combined to cause reconsideration – and ultimately, the pruning – of the associated regal forms. First, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed the “universal call to holiness” and a refocus on the Gospel, which was to be preached in a manner that fit the times. Second, in almost every nation during the 1960s, attitudes were shifting quickly and dramatically toward democratic egalitarianism and cultural informality. The ceremonial practices that honored the papacy not only ceased to be understood, but were viewed as inappropriate for such a Christian office.

            Habit of simplicity: then Cardinal Bergoglio rides the Buenos Aires subway

Acknowledging both of these factors, Paul VI gradually began to orient the papacy in a different direction. He donated papal jewels, shrunk the papal court, abolished both the slipper kiss and the papal Noble Guard. Most notably, he abandoned the triple tiara, which was a symbol of the pope’s prestige as a ruler. Further, Paul fervently advocated the preaching of the Gospel with missionary zeal.

John Paul II continued this trend with small signs, including eschewing the red papal shoes and the royal “we.” Benedict XVI did don the red shoes and use the royal “we” on occasion, and he also wore stately raiment when giving speeches (the use of finery for liturgy pertains to the worship of God and not the papal office itself, which excludes it from consideration here). But he also abolished the custom of kissing the pope’s hand (although Peter Seewald acknowledged that this rule was ignored), and he removed the tiara from the papal coat of arms, replacing it with a bishop’s miter to underscore the spiritual, rather than temporal, mission of the pope.

This leads us to Francis, who has clearly brought his own personal style of simplicity to the exercise of the papal office. Cultural trends have also influenced Francis’ actions, but with a twist: rather than be influenced by the culture, Francis is asserting the primacy of the Gospel over culture, including the culture within the Vatican, which often raises worldliness and careerism over life in the spirit.

In his ministry, Francis seems willing to push aside any papal formality that he perceives as a potential impediment to evangelization. Recently, he telephoned an Italian teenager and asked that the young man address him with the informal “tu” because that is how the apostles spoke to Jesus. Francis is fully aware of the dignity of his office, but he is also reminding us that he is our spiritual brother and fellow pilgrim on the way to God.

Papal ceremonials in themselves are objectively neutral. They have come and gone with the centuries, some benefiting the pope’s office, others hindering, and still others doing well or poorly in different ages. The value of all papal regalia, just like the papacy itself, must be appraised in light of their service to Christ and his Gospel.

Francis’ first months have been full of surprises, including his pruning of papal accoutrements. Some like it, others don’t. We are free to judge these decisions, but we must do so not based on our personal preferences, but on how well they help communicate the saving message of the Gospel.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, September 11, 2013
Mr Bonaguro,
I felt like I was in your class!
Thanks a million!
written by Grump, September 11, 2013
There's something to be said for tradition. Bishop Sheen said nothing is more tragic to society than the loss of its tradition. I suppose Francis could wear sneakers and it wouldn't matter much but the red shoes look a lot more traditional.
written by Richard A, September 11, 2013
I think the Japanese monarchy is several centuries older than the papacy.
written by Titus, September 11, 2013
"I think the Japanese monarchy is several centuries older than the papacy."

This is probably true, but the upheavals of medieval Japanese history make a claim to continuity somewhat tenuous.

And since the Lateran Treaty (and de facto before then, even), the pope has remained "a temporal ruler in a particular locale." He's the supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority in the Vatican State. It's just a very small locale.
written by Seanachie, September 11, 2013
Often times perception is reality in human relationships. Nothing wrong with being perceived as a common man...but, that perception may well result in being accepted and treated like a common man. It may not facilitate those circumstances and times when the common man must make decisions and act like a leader.
written by DS, September 11, 2013
The ultimate Catholic traditionalist would want to follow the example and simplicity of Jesus and the apostles. That is where Francis is pointing us.
written by Adeodatus, September 11, 2013
It never occurred to me that the Pope's regalia flaunted opulence and luxury. It only stressed the heavy responsibility that the pope has and the authority he upholds. I'm drawn to the Catholic church because of its authority, its tradition, its largess in expressing spiritual supremacy. If I was drawn to simplicity I'd become a Taoist, or better yet, an atheist--their ideology is so simple, it's practically nonexistent.

Abandoning the trappings seems like such a superficial gesture. The media may fawn over a pope who plays it cool and sympathizes with the common man. The media also fawns over politician and celebrities who do the same. The pope shouldn't strive to be a celebrity or a politician, but a spiritual leader. He is different from other leaders, and his kingdom is not of this world. He aspires for truth, beauty, and goodness; the desire for popularity opposes these aspirations. People don't believe in people they like; they believe in people they respect. Respect comes through actions, not through fashion. In this regard, I'll admire Francis, but his choice to drive some old lemon doesn't move me one way or another.

This deluded quest of believers to appeal to the masses by becoming one of them has had a horrible effect on the modern Church. It has led to uglier buildings, New Age additions to the liturgy, rampant ignorance among Catholics, and, sure enough, a massive loss of the faithful. The Church is God's kingdom on earth, and Jesus tells us to sell all we have for this kingdom, not sell out the kingdom so we can have it. Abandoning the tiaras, the red shoes, the ornate artwork and architecture, the beautiful liturgy and music, the robes, the railings, the altar pieces, all these many things that believers once associated with the wonderful Catholic faith, leaves us with a barren mosh pit of confused worship. This doesn't mean that humility and simplicity can be beautiful; it can be, if it's authentic and appropriate. If it's not appropriate or authentic, but instead offensive and crude, it should be abandoned for something more fitting and elegant.
written by Fr. James Farfaglia, September 11, 2013
Excellent article. Well said. Thank you.
written by Jacob, September 11, 2013
According to the Interweb, the first 25 emperors of the Japanese monarchy probably didn't even exist.. So it's uncertain to me whether or not the Japanese monarchy is truly older than the papacy.

Either way who cares. St. Peter holds the keys, Mary is Queen and Christ is King!
written by Tim, September 12, 2013
The Japanese monarchy is no longer in power. The Papacy is the world's oldest continually functioning monarchy is what the author meant to say.
written by Regan Wick, September 12, 2013
Pope Francis is leading the Church guided by the Holy Spirit. If the media misinterpret him (in this case as "playing it cool") - well that's nothing new. "Benedict XVI was too formal. Francis is too common." It will never be right for the critics of the Church.

Matthew 11:16
But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.
written by Peter Troy, September 12, 2013
Reading your article I was drawn back to first seeing the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to the campus of Catholic University which I was visiting along with my parents during my senior year of high school. While greatly impressed by its beauty, I was on the precipice of my more contentious college years (at CUA, as it turned out)and I wondered aloud how the money spent to build the Shrine might have been better spent in helping the poor. My father (a man I have come to know more and more as a sage now that he has passed) said that, while this was true, I should imagine the laborers who built the Shrine, or any great cathedral or even a simple chapel for that matter, and try to understand how their work became a prayer for the ages.
There is room for the ornate in our adoration, of course. Nevertheless, I am most hopeful for the "reign" of Pope Francis. I know that a man who could be king and chooses instead to be in greater communion with the poorest, the simplest of his flock, is a man after the heart of Jesus himself.
written by JBK, September 12, 2013
It is my understanding that when a man becomes a Jesuit Priest, he takes a vow of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Just because he is not our Pope should not negate the original vow. One does not need to be regal to lead the people to heaven. The only crown Christ wore was one of thorns.
written by Perelandra, September 13, 2013
Why does the term "smoke and mirrors" come to mind....God help us.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author