Lately, I’ve had many questions surrounding the papacy and the role it plays within the Catholic Church. Now, I will preface this to say that I am not denying the authority of the Vicar of Christ nor detracting from the necessity of the role, but I am questioning the perception of the pope among those inside of the Mystical Body of Christ.
I am no canon lawyer, nor do I possess a vast knowledge of ecclesiology. I am just a lay Catholic who is quite honestly exhausted by the constant arguments for and against the papacy. I quite honestly believe that there is a necessity for the role of a lone authority over the governance of the Church. That role being traditionally bestowed upon the Roman Pontiff, during the first millennium of the Church and after. Eastern Orthodox detractors of the papacy will often cite that the role of the Bishop of Rome was never more than just a ‘first among equals’ and that the papacy fundamentally changed around the tenth and eleventh centuries. I don’t deny this statement, but I also believe that the clarification of the role of the pope was a necessary innovation (oh, how our Orthodox brethren hate that term!) in order for proper governance of the Church separate from the temporal powers of nations and states.
The role which the pope served as supreme visible head of the Catholic Church was, and has always been, that of guardian of the deposit of the faith. Never was the position of Roman Pontiff intended to be that of ‘Dictator-in-Christ.’ Rather, the pope served as the authority that the bishops and faithful could turn to in order to settle doctrinal and moral matters. I think back to the role which Moses held after his descent from Mount Sinai, when his countenance was veiled for the comfort of the Israelites, and how he served as judge to those matters of faith and morals. So too does the Roman Pontiff serve the same role. In a way, he is the “tie-breaker” for difficult matters of doctrine, with his role being directed more towards that of combating heresy than micro-managing the lives of faithful Christians.
As the centuries have progressed, so too have we seen a progression and distortion of the role of the pope within the Church. Now, something which needs to be addressed is the super-human image that has been placed over the See of Peter as some sort of living model of human perfection. Never has this been the case. There have been heretical popes, saintly popes, sinful popes, occult popes, all sorts of popes which reflect the deficiencies and strengths of the human condition in varied measure. Yet, in the modern era we have seen the role of the Bishop of Rome exaggerated far beyond its true scope.
Thanks to the advent of the age of media and information, it is now possible for all Catholics to have an immediate line to the words of the pope. The pope is brought directly into the daily lives of all of the faithful, which has never been the case at any point in Church history. For the majority of the life of the Catholic Church, much of the laity were ignorant of the identity of the pope. Yes, they were aware that the Church had a pope who served as Christ’s Vicar on earth, but they knew very little about him beyond that. We actually can see this ignorance in the children at Fatima, who did not even know that Russia was a country or that Pius XI was a future pope. In this modern era of technological wonders, we can possess a recording of every idle word or act of the Roman Pontiff within minutes. We have an almost 24/7 access to the Vatican and every single error and vile action committed by our corrupt hierarchy.
What this level of attachment to the papacy has done is create a sort of cult surrounding the See of Peter itself. In a way, it is a pious form of idolatry where the pope is viewed as some sort of savior on earth. This view has stemmed from the secular sphere we see so much in modern politics, where voters hang upon every word of the President with expectations of grand triumph or utter catastrophe. There is an almost apocalyptic fervor surrounding these personality cults that has transformed the perceptions of representative leadership in our culture. And this has very quickly bled into the Catholic Church, among other things.
So today there is a widespread view of the laity that every word of the pope must be taken as law or infallible, clouding the true definition of papal infallibility far beyond what it truly is: a clarification of established Catholic doctrine. This view has infected not just the Catholic ‘modernists’ but also the so-called ‘traditionalist’ Catholics to such a degree that those who dissent from an erroneous statement or act of the See of Peter are quickly labeled ‘schismatics’ and those who are blindly obedient to every statement of the Holy Father are viewed as foolish. This sort of dialectic between extreme views of the papacy has bred things such as Sedevacantism, which is honestly just papolatry. Sedevacantists put so much faith into the Chair of Peter that they are willing to declare that there is no valid standing pope because of some subjective reading of canon law.
And on the flip side, we have those who borderline worship the pope as Christ on earth and abhor any who may have disagreements with him. Both camps are completely lost in their subjectivity and relativism to such a degree that the Catholic faith has been partisanized into opposing camps. This sort of focused view of the Church leadership has caused many to err and to sin, and honestly detracts from where the clerical focus should be: on the local diocesan level.
Our role as Catholic faithful is not to pore over every single error which flows from the Vatican. It is to tend to our own spiritual lives and to live in the image of Jesus Christ. Real change in the Church begins with the efforts of those involved in their own diocese or parish, not in the realm of knee-jerk journalism or social media. There needs to be this return to building devout Catholic communities rather than screaming at our computer screens every time the pope says something idiotic. We have to readjust our perspective of the papacy to that which it once was: the safe-guard of Tradition and the Deposit of the Faith, not Dictator-in-Christ and Magisterium-incarnate.