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You Don’t Have to Like a Pope

Let me see whether I can clarify something. You don’t have to like a pope. You don’t have to like the way he talks to reporters, the way he addresses people in public, or the kinds of shoes he wears. You don’t even have to like the approach he takes to various topics. But you do have to respect the teaching authority of his office when he exercises that authority officially.

In making this claim, I’m merely echoing Pope Saint John Paul II who in Ad Tuendam Fidem, a document composed with the explicit intention “of protecting the faith (ad tuendam fidem) of the Catholic Church against errors arising from certain members of the Christian faithful,” considered it “absolutely necessary to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law. . .new norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church.”

Thus in the Church’s Profession of Faith, one finds this affirmation: “Moreover I adhere with submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” Indeed, according to Lumen Gentium, this religious submission of intellect and will “must be shown in such a way that [the Holy Father’s] supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, and the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. . .[which] may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

A Catholic who is disappointed with the pope is a disappointed Catholic. This is a common enough state of affairs in Church history. But a Catholic who imagines that he or she participates more fully in the charism of magisterial authority granted by the Holy Spirit to the pope than does the pope himself – and who decides that he or she has the authority to set the spiritual standard by which the official teaching of a papacy can be judged (and judged a failure) – is making the mistake Martin Luther made. It is the same mistake many modern liberal theologians make. They have made themselves the authority, the touchstone, the standard; and the pope, whoever he is, should, they insist, bring himself into accord with what they think or be spit out like a piece of rotten fruit. This is the way of folly and division.

You glean from official Church teachings every bit of wisdom you can find. You “lean in,” so to speak. You let it sink in, challenge you. Especially when it repeats something taught by popes whose sanctity and wisdom is unquestioned.

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And quite frankly, if you have any disagreement with that teaching, you should be ready to provide serious counter-arguments rather than merely giving vent to some childish expressions of dislike and disappointment. One hardly need add that selectively quoting “proof texts” out of context from popes who were dealing with problems centuries ago to convince contemporary Catholics that they are part of a corrupt church is no more convincing than evangelical Protestants selectively quoting biblical “proof texts” out of context to convince Catholics as a whole that they belong to a corrupt church.

Indeed, the similarities between Protestantism and many contemporary forms of anti-papal “traditionalism” are stronger than one would expect. It’s important to remember that Luther had no intention of founding a “Protestant” church; rather he thought of himself as a conservative reforming the true Church that had lost its way by making corrupt additions to the authentic tradition.

In a similar vein, many so-called “traditionalists” see themselves as preserving the authentic Catholic tradition that was somehow lost somewhere along the line – even though many of these “traditionalists” look back only to one period of Church history (usually relatively recent) or one special document as the sole standard that defines “the tradition,” just as Luther looked back to a “pure” Christian church that he imagined existed in the early years after Christ’s death (but never did) and to the epistles of Paul (as he, Luther, understood them).

If you are a “conservative” who places being an American-style “conservative” above being a Catholic, that’s your choice. But then you do not have room to blame the liberal who places being an American-style “liberal” above being a Catholic. If you’re a Catholic, be a Catholic. And Catholics have an apostolic, magisterial tradition. The Church isn’t a members-only club, a sect, or a political party.

For these reasons and others, you cannot allow your annoyance with the personal style of any particular pope, even if he does things you and I might consider foolish, to distract you from the official teaching of this or any papacy. You don’t always get the pope you want. Sometimes you get a silly fisherman who denied three times that he even knew Christ when Jesus needed him most. We don’t believe in the man, no matter how wise or holy. Our faith is in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of time and to send His Spirit to guide her.

If you feel that there are problems in the Church (and there always are; we are a “pilgrim people”), then you fast and pray. You re-double your efforts to live out your call to holiness. But if you think you’ll help the Church by endless speculation about Vatican politics or ceaseless whining about various persons in the curia, you are letting the spirit of division invade where the spirit of union and charity should be.

Let the Holy Spirit guide the Ark of the Church through the current storms. We have our work cut out for us for tilling the vineyards in our own backyard.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.