Wanted: A More Reserved Papal Style

The post-Vatican II papacy has had a very different public style or persona than was the case prior to the Council. With his various travels and his U N. speech, Pope Paul VI began the transition from a more reserved public presence to one much more present on the world stage.

Pope John Paul II greatly expanded this style by his many more journeys and his very outgoing and dramatic personality. I favored this development at the time, but even then I was not totally at ease about how this would affect not only the papacy itself but also its impact on the bishops individually and collectively. Today, I’m very concerned with the impact of this current papal style not only on Catholic bishops, but also on the ecumenical discussions with partners like the Eastern Orthodox.

Pope Francis’ chatty public persona, his daily homilies, his off-the-cuff remarks and his already numerous interviews all have advanced a papacy that virtually dominates news about the Church. His slightest and lightest remarks are broadcast globally and are sometimes interpreted as if they had the weight of a papal encyclical. He seems to be constantly “on stage” as far as the media are concerned, and the various media today greatly outstrip anything that existed during the papacy of John Paul II.

We now have not only the large media enterprises but also countless blogs, tweets, online magazines etc. It is this combination of expanded media and this particular pope’s rather garrulous personality and penchant to speak about almost any current topic that is causing a problem for the proper balance between pope and the college of bishops, and for the Church’s ecumenical outreach.

Let me explain why, beginning with the ecumenical. The eastern hierarchies have always had a grave concern – indeed, real fear – about papal dominance of the episcopal order. This fear only increased in the age of mass media and with a pope constantly taking to the airwaves and other media to express not only Church teaching, but his personal opinions on just about any subject.

No one else can achieve anything like this global presence, which truly swamps that of any other religious figure. That has to be a problem for the hierarchies of the Eastern churches.

A common reading of all JPII’s journeys and pilgrimages was that, in a very real way, he not only confirmed like-thinking brother bishops, but also was going over the head of those bishops who were, at the very least, silent on critical doctrinal and moral questions. We don’t know if he intended, but that his presence greatly exceeded that of any bishop is undeniable. And in a way, that dominance could and perhaps did undercut the bishops’ own teaching authority in the local churches.


Surely the Eastern hierarchies are aware of this potential problem in their own churches. It’s exactly what they have feared for centuries: that the Roman primacy would unbalance their personal and perhaps ecclesial relationship with their people, if not their authority as patriarchs and bishops. Today they too live in a world of new communications technology. And a pope who does not restrain himself publicly presents a threat, whether he intends it or not.

Secondly, regarding the bishops in the western Church, I believe we can already see the impact of this more visible and assertive papacy on the way bishops exercise their own leadership. It now seems to be the episcopal style to wait and see what the pope says or does before bishops act.

In other words, let the pope carry the weight of difficult teachings, and the bishops will back him up. So dominant has the papal teaching office become that the pope’s opinion today on any subject is often seen as comparable to doctrine, and even national hierarchies seem to be very hesitant in their leadership.

This development has greatly affected the Church after the Council – ironically, since the Council itself wanted to strike a certain balance between the College of Bishops and the defined authority of the pope.

For instance, Pope Paul VI certainly carried all the weight when it came to the teaching on birth control. How many bishops around the world stood up in that interim period between the closing of the Council and the issuing of Humanae Vitae and made clear that the Church’s teaching on contraception could not change? Were they actually in doubt on the whole issue of contraception, which had been universally condemned from the beginning, just because the pope asked a papal commission to study the pill and whether it did or did not fall under the condemnation? Can we imagine the Fathers of the Church remaining silent until the pope or a Council spoke on the Christological heresies, or other doctrinal or moral questions?

It was a sign of the times – the weakening of the office of bishop – that no bishops spoke up like an Athanasius to defend the Church’s constant moral teaching. What a different outcome it would almost certainly have been had the bishops spoken up. Their silence before and afterwards has itself contributed to the very real crisis we now face on a multitude of moral issues

I thought that Pope Benedict pulled back somewhat from this dominating papal persona. Of course, he was a very reserved person by nature, but I’m convinced it was also done because he recognized that, unintentionally, this very visible, constant, and dominant presence of the popes on the world stage was not altogether good for either the local hierarchies and their sense of responsibility for the Church, nor for the ecumenical hopes for the eventual unity of east and west.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, was a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA. He received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He was a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.