It used to be said that more sycophantic monsignori in the Vatican in the 1950s would fall to their knees when they picked up the phone and heard it was Pope Pius XII speaking. Have we returned to such an age? Are we living through a new time where every papal word is given fawning treatment, where auguries on Facebook and Twitter pick through the entrails of every interview, sermon, letter, phone call, or press conference?
Though a scholar of the papacy, I have tried to avoid saying much about the two recent interviews of Pope Francis -- to say nothing of the ululating they have engendered on the part of "conservative" or "traditionalist" Catholics. Equally I have ignored the vulgar and self-congratulatory crowing those interviews have generated on the part of so-called liberals, whether Catholic or not.
My deliberate silence was a small and, it now seems, vain attempt to demonstrate by action what I believe by conviction: that we all need to stop talking about the pope; he is not worth fretting over.
We are drowning under far too much commentary on the papacy, almost all of it adolescent and fatuous. With so many hyperventilating over every word, and people alternately predicting catastrophe or a new springtime for the Catholic Church, it's time that everyone (especially Catholics) observes the blunt counsel of Thomas Merton. Merton, a monk who died suddenly in 1968, once summed up the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism thus: "Shut up and go to your cell!" People running on at the mouth are not able to pray to God in the silence of the heart, which is the only truly important job for everyone.
This excessive focus on the pope is the poisoned fruit of a marriage surely ripe for wholly justifiable divorce: nineteenth-century "Ultramontanism" and the technology-fueled celebrity culture of the twenty-first century that broadcasts every tweet and twerk around the world. Ultramontanism, whose most absurd spokesman in English was that of W.G. Ward, is best summed up in Ward's famous demand: "I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast."
Unlike Ward I do not get up in the morning wondering what the pope is thinking or hoping he'll tell me what to think. I know my responsibilities in life and, however poorly, I get up each day to try and fulfill them without caring a whit for what the pope thinks of them, of me, or of much else besides. But it seems I am in a minority. It is amazing that more than 130 years after his death, Ward walks among us still in myriad blogs, papers, and even pulpits that hang on every papal word and haunt us with their treacly and juvenile reactions.
How things have changed in little over a century. Until the reign of Leo XIII (1878-1903) most Catholics in Italy itself had little idea even of the name of the pope, let alone any significant contact with him. That was exactly right, and exactly what we should return to today. The cult of personality that has developed around the pope over the last century is deeply unhealthy and unhelpful, and for the first time in history it comes very close to being an actual expression of a previously bogus piece of Protestant propaganda: papolatry.
The pope is not a demiurge. He is a human being. That is all. He has select and limited responsibility for keeping the unity of the Church, and the orthodoxy of her faith, intact, and that is it. His views on anything else are otiose and they need not be sought in the first place. The faith is not about him: it is about Christ. Has every Catholic in the world so perfected her relationship with Christ that she now has the luxury of fixating on the pope's latest outburst? Has every Catholic in the world fed all the world's poor, taught all the world's children, bound up the wounds of the world's ill, and cared for every widow and homeless person -- and so now, for relaxation, can sportingly comment on whatever the pope popped off with today?
Christ, in whom we are to have faith and whom we are to follow, is, as the Scripture says, the same yesterday, today, and forever. He does not change, and the faith does not change. Simply live the faith -- everything else is ornament. It is Christ, and not the pope, who gives clear directions for how to live the faith: love God and love your neighbor. Until you manage to do that perfectly every day of your life, you need one further piece of advice, this time from Clement Atlee -- a taciturn man if ever there was one, especially compared to his great and voluble foil, Winston Churchill. Atlee once wrote a famous one-line letter to the endlessly agitated Harold Laski: "A period of silence from you would be most welcome."