He is afforded all the pomp and circumstance of a monarch, but his title is the Italian diminutive of “Daddy.” Some of his predecessors called for war, even leading troops into battle; others died pursuing peace. Some have been pedophiles and skirt-chasers; others ascetic saints. Through twenty centuries of ups and downs, the pope has remained as a fixture in Catholicism. His role is so basic to the Church, that everyone knows the rhetorical question: “Is the pope Catholic?” (The answer is: “Yes, because no other religion would take him!”)
The pope is coming to America this week, reviving memories of past glories and shame, inspiring both hope and distrust among Catholics and just about everyone else. Unlike all other Christians, only Catholics have to embrace the ambiguities of the papacy over two millennia. Wouldn’t it be easier to declare the papacy outmoded and just move on to a more democratic form of leadership? How can Catholics say they side with the poor when the pope lives surrounded with so much gold and splendor? And how can a pope claim infallibility when the Vatican has to spend so much time “clarifying” offensive remarks?
There have always been Catholics disturbed enough to ask these questions, but the majority of us accept the pope as the unavoidable presence of continuity with Christ’s message. The theology of the papacy is so ingrained in us that few can think of a Catholicism without a pope. Ironically, I think those who are not Catholic worry more about the contradictions of the papacy than Catholics.
We see the popes as a varied collection of individuals who responded to the times in which they lived. Sometimes the need was for a capable administrator (like St. Leo and Gregory, both called “Great”); at other times for a brainy ascetic like Pius XII or Paul VI; and we all like the earthy commonness of St. Pius X and Blessed John XXIII. Even the notorious Renaissance popes, like Alexander VI and Julius II, were chosen not because they were holy but because their worldly savvy could best defend territories under church rule against the poaching of aggressive fifteenth century monarchs.
This ability of the papacy to have changed its functions according to the times is often overlooked by critics. Plainly said, the papacy is a moving target: put enough pressure on Church leadership and they will respond to contemporary needs.
Perhaps more important is the role of the papacy, not as having the first word as leader, but as having the last word as referee. While sometimes popes have blazed a new trail intellectually for Catholicism, the historical role has always been to help settle disputes that threaten unity. Think of the free safety in football who is the last man to tackle any runner who has escaped the rest of the defense.
The common response from the laity to any papal instruction is “Interesting….” rather than “March to the same tune!” In this week’s visit of Pope Benedict XVI we should observe which tone is reported.