Let’s face it: The modern papacy is an impossible gig

Let’s face it: The modern papacy is an impossible gig

Pope Francis lies down in prayer prior to celebrating Mass for the Passion of Christ, at St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Friday, April 2, 2021. (Credit: Andreas Solaro/Pool via AP.)

We live in a time of instant opinion, in which perspective is generally the first casualty of war. Nevertheless, here’s a bit of perspective anyone who follows Vatican news and the Catholic scene ought to try to keep in mind: The papacy, as it’s come to be understood, is an impossible gig.

News Analysis

ROME – Here’s a brief sampling of news stories that have moved across the Vatican wire in recent days.

  • The Pontifical Council for Culture, under the ever-idiosyncratic Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, raised eyebrows anew with its announcement of a forthcoming May 6-8 conference on health care, cosponsored with the Cura Foundation, which, among other speakers, will feature Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Deepak Chopra, Anthony Fauci, and Chelsea Clinton.
  • Pope Francis once again weighed into battles over climate change, this time offering a brief video message for US President Joe Biden’s April 22-23 Earth Day summit, intended to mark the reemergence of the United States as a global leader in the fight against climate change. The pontiff called the environment “a gift that we have received, and that we have to heal, protect, and carry into the future.”
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and who’s considered a key Pope Francis ally, sponsored a webinar on biodiversity April 20. A highlight came with remarks by British scientist Jane Goodall, known around the world for her studies of chimpanzees and her advocacy of species conservation. Goodall called Pope Francis a “reason for hope” in her efforts.
  • As rallies protesting Covid-19 protections broke out in Italy and other parts of the world, often involving struggling restaurant, transportation and tourism workers, Pope Francis and his Vatican team largely stayed on the sidelines. In the Italian media, the general consensus was that while the pontiff generally supports the little guy, in this case Francis’s broad support for the scientific consensus regarding anti-Covid measures took precedence.
  • On Thursday Pope Francis met Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri of Lebanon, using the occasion to once again urge the international community to do more to bring stability to the Middle Eastern nation. The pontiff also expressed his desire to visit Lebanon as soon as possible.

To recap, these stories touch on health care systems and delivery in the 21st century, climate change, biodiversity, the tension between protecting public health and individual freedom in the Covid era, and the politics of the Middle East.

Is there a common denominator? Yes: In today’s world, the pope is expected to have something to say about all of them.

We live in a time of instant opinion, in which perspective is generally the first casualty of war. Nevertheless, here’s a bit of perspective anyone who follows Vatican news and the Catholic scene ought to try to keep in mind: The papacy, as it’s come to be understood, is an impossible gig.

I’m not talking about how the papacy is defined in, say, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Code of Canon Law. Those formula are time-honored, immutable, and, honestly, elastic enough to accommodate all manner of concrete applications.

I’m talking about the expectations in the popular mind – in the street, around water coolers, on TV and in newspapers, on social media, and so on.

Consider what we expect — demand, really — modern popes to be:

Political Chess Masters: From Ukraine to the Middle East, from sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia, if there’s a conflict brewing or unfolding somewhere on the planet, we expect popes not only to talk about it but to do something – take a trip, send an envoy, hold a summit, but something. If a country is a bad actor with respect to human rights, we want the pope to scold them; if a president or prime minister isn’t consistent with Catholic social teaching in some area, we want the pope to express displeasure. If a given pope doesn’t do something, or tries but stumbles, he’s styled a coward or a failure.

Intellectual Giants: Whether it’s philosophy, the arts, literature, cinema, or whatever, if there’s a trend developing, we expect the pope to engage it. We expect them to publish detailed, virtually book-length documents called “encyclicals” from time to time, and then subject these documents to withering criticism if they’re not completely cogent or persuasive in every detail. If a particular pope turns out not to be a latter-day Thomas Aquinas, we’re disappointed.

Fortune 500 CEOs: The pope is supposed to act as the CEO of a major multi-national religious corporation, policing financial systems and rooting out corruption and mismanagement. Despite the fact there is no such thing as “Catholicism Inc.”, and that dioceses around the world are legally and financially independent of the Vatican, we hold the pope personally responsible for meltdowns anywhere. Public reaction to the clerical abuse scandals may be the best case in point, but it’s hardly the only one. If St. Anne’s Parish in Dubuque is missing money from the collection plate this week, it won’t be long before someone clamors for the pope to do something.

Media Superstars: People expect popes now to give interviews, to star in made-for-TV specials, to issue books and CDs, and to travel the world and wow crowds. When Pope Francis visited Brazil in 2013 for World Youth Day, much was made of the fact that when he appeared on Copacabana Beach, he outdrew the Rolling Stones. If those TV specials, books and big events don’t go well, then people start talking about the papacy as a flop.

Oh, and let’s not forget …

Living Saints: We expect popes to be personal role models of holiness, radiating spirituality and projecting super-human virtue. If a pope ever seems even a touch irritable, or grumpy, or bored, or sad, or haughty, or displays any other emotion inconsistent with a Hallmark movie version of the spiritual life, it somehow seems a chink in his armor.

The truth is that doing any one of those things well is a life’s work, and fairly rare. Rolling them all up into one colossal job description is a prescription for perpetual heartburn.

One could, of course, argue that popes shouldn’t cater to these expectations, that they should just stick to preaching the Gospel and saving souls. The ship on that idea sailed a long time ago, however, and it’s not coming back to port.

This bit of perspective doesn’t mean popes aren’t subject to legitimate criticism.

Maybe St. John Paul II shouldn’t have recognized Slovenia and Croatia so fast after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, for instance, and perhaps, as Francois Mitterrand once claimed, that haste helped trigger the Balkan War. Perhaps Benedict XVI should have been much quicker to respond to the clerical abuse scandals in Ireland and across Europe in 2009-2010. Perhaps Francis should be more outspoken about China’s religious freedom policies, or more cautious in his support of sweeping new government powers justified by the Covid crisis.

All that’s fair game. What perspective does suggest, however, is leavening such criticism with a hermeneutic of generosity, since the occasional failure or blind spot is pretty much inevitable when you elect someone to do the impossible.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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