I've been turning over in my mind the proposition that Pope Francis may have some providential role to play in the Church's life. I have to come clean and say that I cannot warm to the man. But in the Scriptures, and in the Church's history, many times have uncongenial people performed unpleasant but necessary tasks which in the long run have benefitted the People of God.
This morning I saw on Facebook a page alleging that Pope Francis had decried the idea that a Christian might have a personal relationship with Jesus. To underline the point, the poster had included a short video clip from a public audience where indeed Pope Francis did say just that…but went on immediately to add 'in private, without also being a member of the Church, the people of God'. In other words, he was exactly right, and the person who had created that post had done a wicked thing, twisting the Pope's words to make him appear to say something very different.
For a long time (maybe mid-nineteenth century on) we have had a very top-down style of leadership. The Pope gives instructions to the bishops, who give instructions to the priests, who give instructions to the laity. I think it was Wilfrid Ward who longed to have a papal encyclical on his breakfast table every morning. Popes became charismatic figures who taught authoritatively on every subject (one thinks of those thousands [well it seems that way] of allocutions to midwives that Pope Pius XII was so fond of making).
The sixties changed all that; 'I've gotta be me, I've gotta do my thing!' People ceased to listen to the distressed bleats of Pope Paul VI and worked things out, each man (or woman) for him (or her) self. As St Paul warned, they wandered about with itching ears, finding teachers to suit their fancy.
Pope John Paul II changed this to some degree, largely by his own overwhelming personality. Once more, the Pope led the Church personally and in his case forcefully. It is said that when he lost the use of his legs the question was asked whether he was now capable of leading the Church. 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church', he is supposed to have growled. At the time this comment struck me as worrying, but it has taken until now for things to gel in my mind.
Are Popes supposed to be absolute monarchs who rule by force of will and personality? I think that maybe American presidents do, for the years of their office, and that is why so many Americans warmed to John Paul II.
The other day I had a pub lunch with one of my Anglican opposite numbers. He is married to a Catholic, and has a woman assistant priest. I like him. He gently sounded me out about intercommunion and about women's orders, as I guessed he would. Fortunately, I had prepared my answer. I knew it couldn't be a hard answer, for that would close the issue off in his mind. So I simply said 'what I personally think about the subject doesn't matter, because in the Catholic Church theology isn't something *I* do, but something *we* do." And that *I* excludes every *I*, from the Pope down to the latest neophyte, whereas the *we* encompasses *every* Catholic Christian; not just those alive now, but those in Purgatory and those in Heaven. Chesterton called this the 'democracy of the dead'.
That gives nobody the right to innovate in his *own* name, except, perhaps, the theoretical right possessed by the Pope to teach infallibly in certain very circumscribed circumstances. Even the famous proclamations of our Lady's Immaculate Conception and Assumption were acts of the *whole* Church: the belief of the living Church was assessed, and the discussions of the past were investigated.
I think this is why Pope Benedict tried to change the character of the papacy. He was never a man for outward show, and I rather suspect that the red shoes and mozzettas were more of a penance to him than anything else. But he saw that he could never dominate the Church like his predecessor: a young American friend of mine didn't really think much of that: he once commented approvingly 'Pope John Paul really kicked ass!' That wasn't Benedict's way; he reminded us that a pope is supposed to be a gardener, rather than an engineer. He has a hieratic function at the centre of the family; he has a particular role, outwardly expressed by liturgical rite and particular dress. But he is not an absolute monarch, even an enlightened one.
Pope Francis sees it differently; he has something personally authoritative to say on practically every subject. Is that really his job? Is that really any Pope's job? This is why I get so uncomfortable when I hear people say things like 'you've got to get with the Pope's programme: he's the Pope, after all, and if you don't do what he says, you're disobeying Christ!' Maybe this is why we have Pope Francis: I hesitate to write this, but maybe he is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the notion of a monarchical papacy.†
Not even the Pope can do theology alone. After all, *WE are Church*.
† just as there are those who consider that Donald Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a monarchical presidency.