Who Cares What the Pope Says?

Over at Real Clear Religion, Adam Deville writes this:

We are drowning under far too much commentary on the papacy, almost all of it adolescent and fatuous.

And this:

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.

And this:

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.

Read the whole thing here.




  1. Oooops…seems like Mr. DeVille has tripped on the very stumbling block he wished to avoid; and in the process has invited others to continue to do so by producing more grist for the pope commentary mill…

  2. Otiose — a good word. I must admit I had to look it up. I do, on the other hand, know what twerking is and am happy that the Pope, for all the shocks he has given us, has avoided it.

  3. I think DeVille is not realistic, and his complaining is off the mark. The two tendencies he names – RC hyper-centralism since the 19th century, and celebrity culture – are facts of life, whether we like it or not.

    He seems to be calling for people to comment (or not) on the pope as if the church were not over-centralized with lots of power at the very top. But it is, so of course what the guy at the top does is important and people are very interested in it.

    Same for celebrity culture – our age is looking for heroes and villains, and when a pope is seen as either, it’s going to lead to lots of commentary on him.

    As for the commentary being adolescent and fatuous – I don’t see it. I’ve been impressed with how much the secular media call upon competent Catholic commentators, and how much they emphasize that the shift is in style (which is also substance), but not a change in core doctrine.

    From the distance of 7 months, the early reporting of the secular media have turned out to be largely accurate in their portrayal of Francis. The angst-filled denial and minimizing of the Catholic media and conservative Catholic commentators? Not so much.


  4. “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.”

    But he hadn’t ignored it, had he? It was seething within. What was whispered in the inner rooms ended up being shouted from the rooftops.

  5. Ultramontanism” and the technology-fueled celebrity culture of the twenty-first century are sufficient to describe the media attention given to B16 but can hardly explain the attention paid to Francis.

    The blame for the sexual abuse scandal, the financial scandals, and the leaks all ended up on B16’s desk because of ultramonanism. However the media also regularly covered (actually rather favorably contrary to all predictions) Benedicts visits to the USA, Britain, etc. because he was a celebrity.

    However neither of these explains the coverage or the interest in Francis.

    So far all the scandal news (it is still there in the background) has not really affected Francis either positively or negatively. Also the trip to Brazil (in contrast to the airplane interview on the way back) were not given that much more coverage than previous trips by Popes.

    Simply put Francis makes News! The media is in the business of covering the New. Francis is constantly doing and saying the unexpected! And that makes News! When the person who does that is one of the most powerful persons and chief celebrities in the world, news people and people in general cannot ignore that.

    Also Francis makes wonderful photo opts, and quotable quotes. JP2 had that ability too, which was one of the reasons that media paid him a great deal of attention. B16 didn’t really have those abilities.

    However what really frames Francis photos and quotes is that he does the unexpected, which is “news.” Actually for most people his “unexpected” is usually “good news.”’ It is interesting that the media which is mostly in the business of covering “bad news” actually gives him so much attention. A lot of good things are predictable and therefore not news. Francis has the ability to come up with unpredictable good news.

    You have to give Francis credit, too.

    Burke, the Fox new analyst who now works for the Vatican, said that when he reviewed the bios of cardinals for the 2005 conclave, he noted Bergolio’s poor media credentials in terms of speeches, interviews, etc. and concluded he would make a disaster as a Pope! While there is continuity with Argentina many people who knew him there say he is different now.

    And perhaps the Holy Spirit! Something seems to have happen on the way to that balcony. When he first stepped out I had the impression of such a shy person that I thought he might be a disaster.

  6. I have mixed feelings about the “cult of the personality” of the pope that really emerged under JPII who Time called a super star and I think he relished that stardom. Other popes have certainly been covered by the media but not until JPII do we have the secularized celebrity cult emerge and fueled by the person and the media and the advent of CNN and 24 hour television news. Now we have the internet that compounds this. One of the things that I truly appreciated about Pope Benedict was that he wasn’t covered like a rock star but as a religious figure. He hid himself in the trappings and splendor of the papacy thus pointing to the office of the Petrine ministry and not himself. I don’t think we can say this about Pope Francis whose gestures thus far point to himself and his person and less so to the office. Pope Francis thus is poised to be more a rock star in media coverage due to the power of his personality similar to JPII. I can’t judge if this is good or bad but it makes me uncomfortable. I think Benedict is truly the humble servant and his resignation proves it. I prefer the emphasis on the office and less so the person.

    1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #6:
      And yet, Christianity is antithetical to the primacy of offices, at least in its purest state. Christianity is all about the relationship to a person, Jesus Christ, as opposed to an office, like God. I know we have a feast celebrating a piece of furniture (22 Feb) and not its occupant. But really: there’s got to be more meaning behind the throne, so to speak.

      The whole point of Christianity was incarnation–making God more/most real for mortal beings who have their most real relationships amongst persons.

      Pope Benedict published, what– sixty-some books in his lifetime? Before 2005 he was the most famous non-pope in the College of Cardinals. Did he confine his writing to theological journals like other theologians? Clearly not. Maybe he wasn’t the flaming extrovert his predecessor was, but he surely knew what he was doing when he signed book contracts, gave interviews, and made public appearances.

      That being said, I think we can look with skepticism on the cult of celebrity. But I think we have to do so when the heroes are our own, even more than when they are, conveniently, someone else’s.

      At least Pope Francis isn’t insisting people dress in cassocks. It seems to be the height of hubris to ask one’s fanboys to dress up in like fashion.

    2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #5:

      “Francis is constantly doing and saying the unexpected!”

      In a way, it’s rather ironic that his words and deeds are viewed as such (i.e., “unexpected”) when in truth they represent nothing but the core of the Christian mission and the Catholic faith.

      @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #6:

      “[Pope Benedict]hid himself in the trappings and splendor of the papacy thus pointing to the office of the Petrine ministry and not himself.”

      But did it really?

      Sorry to disagree with you again, Father, but if anything, Pope Benedict’s decision to “hide himself in the trappings and splendor of the papacy” only served to obfuscate the church’s mission, and worse yet, gave the naysayers free ammunition to make a mockery of the Church and his ministry.

      And then you also said:

      “I don’t think we can say this about Pope Francis whose gestures thus far point to himself and his person and less so to the office.”

      which again I disagree with. For as long as his person is in perfect alignment with his ministry and therefore his office — and when it comes to Pope Francis, they are, IMO — I have no problem with where the emphasis is placed.

      As for Mr. Deville, as others have said, for someone who says we shouldn’t care much about what the pope says , he sure seems to care a whole lot about a whole lot of things that are about the pope.

      As an aside, I do find the extent to which and the ways in which some people willfully misinterpret and/or twist Pope Francis’s words to either discredit them or advance their own particular agenda, quite amusing, and at times, even a bit frightening.

    3. Fr. Allan McDonald : … under JPII who Time called a super star and I think he relished that stardom.

      If that’s true, one would think that the Congregation for Causes of the Saints would have spotted JPII’s obvious pride and dropped all thought of canonization.
      Methinks, Fr. Allan, that your grasp on reality is slipping a bit these days. Living in Rome can do that, especially living at the North American College on the Janiculum, of which the seminarians have the saying, “It’s not home, but it’s much.”

    4. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #6:
      I do not think Pope Francis’ gestures “thus far point to himself” at all. He is pointing to all that we are presently reading in St. Luke these days: away from religiosity, away from fatalism, away from false-righteousness, away from hypocrisy; toward repentance, toward humility, toward devotion to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

      The media is trying to make him a cult of personality, which may be more sinister, i.e. to undermine the reality of his position. The reality of his position is not to point to the “office of the Petrine ministry,” but to point to Jesus Christ. From all I’ve read, Pope Francis is doing just that. Thank God!

  7. I don’t know if “celebrity” is the right word for it, but whatever it is, it isn’t new– being ‘acclaimed’ with waving palm branches or claiming to be a part of the entourage of Paul or Apollos, it’s all just an ancient expression of what is greatly exaggerated today.
    As long as the Pope acts as the Bishop of Rome and successor of St Peter —“strengthening the brothers’, speaking definitively the faith of the Church– whatever else he does (no matter how good or how bad) is of little significance.
    When he acts in his proper role as Pope, he deserves attentiveness, obedience, submission of will. When he acts as Jorge Bergoglio (or whomever) his opinion (however learned or insightful) is just one among many. He can drive a Renault if he pleases. If another priest chooses to drive a Mercedes, it may disappoint the Holy Father but it would certainly NOT be a rejection of him or what he stands for, although the Mercedes-driving cleric might win out in the practice of prudence: driving a more reliable auto. The choice of a Renault does, however, tend to more strictly define the conditions for infallability.
    Besides, Francis would certainly not judge him.

  8. Elisabeth Ahn: “As for Mr. Deville, as others have said, for someone who says we shouldn’t care much about what the pope says , he sure seems to care a whole lot about a whole lot of things that are about the pope.”

    Indeed, Mr. DeVille claims to have lit his lamp, swept his house, and found his silver piece. If he did, it seems to have fallen out of his pocket twixt the sofa cushions…

  9. The reason Pope Francis has made a big splash is that the media and people are attempting to define him. For more than 30 years we didn’t have a figure in the Vatican who aroused curiosity about who he was. JPII established himself as a pragmatic leader and B16 was vilified long before he became pope. Until people resolve the Francis enigma they’ll keep clinging to every word (unfortunately far too many clumsy ones have been offered) he utters. Once there is clarity on who he is the novelty will wear off and he’ll have to adroitly lead. That will be a meaningful phase for the faith regardless of how irrelevant Deville believes the papacy to be. When that time comes Francis will likely be tuned out by many, unless he backs up his words with actions.

  10. Hmm. For many conservatives, there was no problem with JPII’s celebrity status. Then Benedict came along, and he was heralded as an intellectual and humble pope. Now we have Francis, who’s severely criticized by the conservatives as being too much of a celebrity and not thoughtful or intellectual enough! C’mon. This is so transparent. Let’s at least be honest. Conservatives don’t like him because of what he’s saying. Period. It has nothing to do with celebrity or intellectual standing. If he were a doctrinal conservative and a pop star, conservatives would be praising him. If he were a doctrinal conservative and low key, conservatives would love him as a successor to Benedict.

  11. Francis, himself at this morning Mass, has some deeper thoughts. This is a deep criticism of the culture wars with their emphasis upon ideology and morality. (Thanks to Rocco for this early heads up from the East).


    Pope: Christians who don’t pray loose faith and fall victim to ideologies and moralism

    A Christian who does not pray acts as if he had a “key in his pocket and leaves the door closed “. When a church is closed “the people passing in front can not enter.” And , even worse , “the Lord who is inside can not get out .”

    “When we are walking along the street and we find ourselves in front of a closed church it feels a little strange” because “a closed church is incomprehensible”. Sometimes “we are given explanations” that do not stand up to scrutiny: They “are excuses, justifications, but the reality is that the church is closed and the people passing in front can not enter.” And , what’s even worse , “the Lord who is inside can not get out .” Today, Jesus speaks to us of this “image of closure” which is ” the image of those Christians who have the key at hand, but carry it off and do not open the door.” Worse again, “they stand at the door ” and “don’t let anyone in” , and in doing so “not even they enter”. “Lack of Christian witness does this ” and “when that Christian is a priest, a bishop or a pope it is worse.”

    “Faith becomes ideology and ideologies scare, ideologies chase people away , far away, they distance people and they distance the Church from people.

    This is a serious illness, this Christian ideology. Christians who lose their faith and prefer ideologies .

    Their attitude: they become rigid moralists, ethicists , but without kindness

    Francis agrees that we should not pay attention even to Popes when they become become ideologists and rigid moralists!!!

    And of course we should pay no attention to the ideologists and rigid moralists who stand in the doorway to the church and will not let anyone enter who does not adhere to their rigid standards of ideology and morality.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #16:

      Might it be that Francis here is also talking about all the parishes that have been closed down? Might he be starting to prepare the conservatives for married priests? The closed churches all over the U. S. and elsewhere are shut tight. Is he thinking about re-opening them with married clergy?

      (If he’s not, then he’s being mighty inconsistent!)

      1. @Ann Olivier – comment #20:

        “If he’s not, then he’s being mighty inconsistent!”

        So, if the pope doesn’t do exactly what YOU think should be done, then he’s being mighty inconsistent?

      2. @Ann Olivier – comment #20:

        In introducing the image of the “closed church” the Pope intended for us to be disturbed by it, and to question whether there were any good reasons for a church to be closed. However, he did not do that with the same total conviction that he had in condemning ideology and moralism as blocking the way for people to enter the church.

        One could argue that celibacy has become an ideology which scares people away, and a rigid moralism that lacks kindness and gentleness. However, I suspect Francis would likely see those who want to change celibacy as in many cases ideologists who assume that a mere change in discipline will produce priests who go out to the peripheries, who see Christ in the poor and the immigrants, and who bring the gentleness, and humbleness of Christ to them. I don’t think he sees a married priesthood as a key to the church any more than he sees celibacy as a key.

        My hunch is that he will leave celibacy up to bishops’ conferences to tackle when they are ready. He certainly knows that many bishops in Latin America and Africa question celibacy because many of their priests do not observe celibacy but have mistresses on the side. While these bishops have raised the issue in the working groups of past Synods, their concerns have not gotten any place in part because of the heavy control exerted by the Curia over the Synods. Whether removing that control will change the discussion at Synods remains to be seen.

        Francis seems to leading us toward an “Eastern Orthodox” reform in his advocacy of Synods, and a new look at divorce and remarriage along the line of the Orthodox practice. Whether his “leaning toward the East” also includes a married priesthood and women deacons (the Orthodox still have a rite for their ordination they just rarely use it) remains to be seen. But they would be consistent with a more Eastern approach to church governance.

        Francis has a strong Eastern experience in his history like John 23 had. Pope John insisted that Mass be celebrated each day at the Council (in this he was at odds with some of the more liberal leaders of the Council) but those Masses were often Eastern and may have given the Council Fathers a broader experience of the Church like Pope John possessed.

        It is interesting how much Francis has made his daily Mass and “meditations” the center of his Papacy. His daily Masses with visiting church leaders and Vatican “quatermasters” are like mini-synods. They are not only preparing the Vatican and the visiters for synodal government, they also seem to be one of his “sneaky but very transparent” ways (like ad libs and interviews) of communicating directly with all of us.

  12. I heard a Bishop preach last week and he said that our young people are confused about religious liberty, marriage equality, and the sanctity of life. The Pope’s words that we have become obsessed with these issues rested in my mind. The best preacher could not have extracted these issues from either the scripture readings or the litrugical texts of the celebration. I wonder if our Bishops in the United States are really listening to Pope Francis?

    1. @Mike Burns – comment #17:
      Francis didn’t say we should never preach on those issues and perhaps there may have been a legitimate reason for the Bishop to preach as he did.
      But seeing as how the values Francis has preached and modeled have not been seen in many of our Bishops, nor have those values seem to come naturally to them, I can’t seem them instituting courses in “Pastoral Ministry According to the Mind of Pope Francis” in their seminaries nor their own lifestyles.

  13. A very interesting post about twitter and Francis over at NCR of a speech by the second-in-command at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications :


    Explaining that the pope’s Twitter posts, called tweets, are re-tweeted more than any other public figure, Tighe said that shows that church “comes not from the center, but from the local.”

    Tighe also said Vatican officials were surprised with how quickly Twitter followers latched onto the pope’s efforts for a day of prayer for peace in Syria as part of his call against U.S. military intervention in the country.

    Officials at the communications office chose for the event a special hashtag — a way for Twitter users to easily categorize each others tweets — labeled #Prayforpeace.

    “It’s almost like the hashtag became the point of contact for Catholic communities around the world to get that message out there,” said Tighe.

    “The hashtag created this almost subversive network of people who were getting the word out there, even though it wasn’t getting a huge amount of play in the mainstream media.”

    Tighe also said his office was surprised at how quickly the pope’s first message in English, made Friday for a conference in the Philippines, spread on Facebook. Within 3.5 hours of posting, Tighe said, some 250,000 Facebook users had shared the message.

    So the Vatican is beginning to realize just how important electronic social networks are in shaping the importance of anything that Francis does.

  14. Vatican Insider has a similar piece featuring the Assessor for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State Peter Brian Wells.


    Wells said that online access to the Pope’s homilies and speeches has freed individuals, families and communities from a reliance on media coverage that may be manipulative or biased.

    At the start of every pontificate, media outlets decide what image to attach to the new Pope, Mgr. Wells said without sounding scandalised. The result of this is sometimes a rigid narrative that seeks to confirm a set of pre-packaged interpretative keys of their own. In the first six months of his pontificate, Pope Francis seems to have dodged mediators with his daily morning sermons which are published on Vatican websites such as Vatican Radio, L’Osservatore Romano and http://www.news.va. Thanks to these websites everyone can read about and listen to what the Pope has said, done and written, starting with his morning homilies in St. Martha’s House.

    So they have concluded that not only is the Vatican not in control of what people make of what the Francis is doing, neither is the dominant world media. The little people of the world are having a greater opportunity to make up their own minds about Francis and shape the events of his Papacy.

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