How To Win Friends and Influence The People—or, Nothing Personal​,​ But You’re The Pope

Munkácsy Ecce homo
Munkácsy Mihály: “Ecce Homo!” (1896)
“[W]hen asked how he would like to be remembered, Francis simply responded: ‘As a good guy. … I hope they say: “He was a good guy who tried to do good.” I have no other aspirations.'” — Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D. (, May 25, 2015)
“‘I do not like the word “narcissism,” the pope said, ‘it indicates excessive love for oneself and this is not good, it can cause serious harm not only to the soul of the one who is affected by it, but also in relationships with others, with the society in which one lives. The true trouble is that those who are most stricken by this which in reality is a sort of mental disturbance are persons who have a great deal of power. Bosses are often narcissists.'” — Eugenio Scalfari (La Repubblica, October 1, 2013)
“[Let us] no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.” — Ephesians 4:14 (RSV)
The Extraordinary Synod in Rome drew to a close Saturday, just as the mega-hurricane Patricia dwindled to a mere tropical storm.1 This is a win of sorts for Rome: the Synod managed to cause far more damage and chaos than the largest hurricane ever recorded by satellite, proving that the Church is still a mighty force in the world. As dizzying and dismaying as the recent Synod was for many Catholics, it was just the latest variation on a familiar theme. The Synod was dubbed “Vatican III” by some observers, and with good reason. Pope Francis, in his address marking the 50th anniversary of the permanent Synod of Bishops as a whole, drew an explicit connection between the nature and purpose of the Synod and the Second Vatican Council, saying, “the Synod … is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method,” thereby officially invoking the “Spirit of Vatican II” as the basis of his vision for a synodal, decentralized Church. The bitter pill which many battle-weary conservatives must swallow is that thinking in terms of the dread “Spirit of Vatican II” is a feature, not a bug, of Francis’s papacy, and of the Conciliar Epoch as a whole.
In the name of taking a “pastoral” approach, the hierarchy at Vatican II decided to open the Church’s proverbial windows, let down the Bride of Christ’s proverbial hair, and adapt its message to be more in harmony with the world’s modes of thought. As an explicitly “pastoral” council, it followed that Vatican II was to be the most “personal” of councils, the main aim of which was to engage in unconditional interpersonal dialogue, and to overcome interpersonal, social barriers that a rigid and centralized papal tradition had built up against the world—to “raze the bastions” as Hans Urs von Balthasar would have called such papal perestroika. The aim of the Council was not to correct or—gasp!—condemn prevailing errors and worldly trends by simply reaffirming traditional teaching.
Fresh, not harsh; vibrant, not staid—that’s the ticket, fellas.
People over ideas; appearances over propositions; candidness over canons—that’s what the world needs, fellas.

man men creativity

Dialogue Or Bust 
Since Vatican II, then, the idée fixe for the hierarchy has been pastoral accommodation. While “the personal touch” is very important in evangelism and pastoral ministry, the Evil One never ceases trying to twist our good ideas and best practices into his own weapons. The prevailing assumption for decades has been that the main risks in evangelism are “proselytism” and “judgmentalism”, and that the worst sins in ministry are  “Pharisaism” and “dogmatism”. (Never mind trying to pin down what these terms mean; all we need to remember is that they’re taboo!) The problem is that these prevailing assumptions ignore the other side of the coin, namely, that persons-over-ideas pastoralism is fraught with dangers of its own, dangers which the Evil One constantly exploits to undermine the Gospel, as was manifest during the Synod, where a call for “mercy” and “listening” was a raft for heresy. Meanwhile, a commitment to plain ol’ Catholic orthopraxis was sneered at as, you guessed it—Pharisaism and dogmatism.
Providentially, last week I discovered some insights that encouraged me as much as they enlightened me about the underlying causes of the scandal and confusion emanating from the hierarchy (cf. I Corinthians 14:33). While the Synod seems to have blown over, much as Hurricane Patricia fizzled out, the effects of the confusion and uncertainty unleashed there must be redressed with solid spiritual wisdom—with mature spiritual discernment—as we proceed along the path of synodal “decentralization” that Pope Francis envisions for the Church.
Spiritual Discernment 
Translated into English in 1996, Fr. Segundo Galilea’s book, Temptation and Discernment, provides a brief but very enriching guide to spiritual discernment in the overlapping spheres of Christian ministry and prayer. Galilea, a Chilean priest who died in 2010, defines the discernment of spirits as “discerning what is a call from God and what is temptation” (p. 11). He admits that the discernment of spirits is “much more complex than any other type of discernment,” which is why he relies so heavily on “the most well known and influential” guides to such discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross.
The two mystics, Galilea notes, agree on a fundamental criterion in spiritual discernment: “the most subtle and dangerous temptation in spiritual persons is that which occurs under the appearance of good” (p. 15; my emphasis). Thus, in the fourth rule of the Second Week of his Spiritual Exercises (#332), St. Ignatius warns, “It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own” (ibid.; my emphasis).2 This danger is also sometimes referred to as “in cauda venenum“. St. John likewise warns “that among the many wiles of the devil for deceiving spiritual persons, the most common is deceiving them under the appearance of good rather than of evil, for the devil already knows that they will scarcely choose a recognized evil (Precautions, 10)” (ibid.). In our day the dominant method for smuggling evil under the appearance of good is invoking buzzwords like “mercy,” “conscience,” “dialogue,” “courage,” “freedom,” “creativity,” and the like.3 U.S. Presidents have not needed to change the Constitution to flout it, so why should leading prelates have to “change doctrine” to achieve the same effect?
Fueled by such Pavlovian buzzwords, Christian witness descends from principled discourse to personal interaction. Insofar as the Divine Logos (or, Idea) is a Divine Person, there simply can be no clash in evangelism between being rational and being personal. The most personal thing we can do is rationally proclaim the Good News that Divine Reason is the greatest Person in existence, and that Reason Himself loves us from all eternity. Yet, while “the personal” and “the principled”—the doctrinal and the pastoral—are inseparable, we must also respect the revealed teleology of the Gospel: all personal interaction is directed towards defending and articulating the principles of Christ’s loving reign. A focus on persons, therefore, is but a means to an end, that of “pulling down … fortifications, destroying counsels and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, DRA).
But back to Fr. Galilea’s manual.
He mentions a final criterion for true spiritual discernment, namely, that one must avoid subjective bias and error by consulting with competent people for their advice. As St. Ignatius explains: “When the enemy of our human nature tempts a just soul with his wiles and seductions, he earnestly desires that they be received secretly and kept secret. But if one manifests them to a confessor, or some other spiritual person who understands his deceits and malicious designs, the evil one is very much vexed. For he knows that he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed” (“Rules for the Discernment of Spirits,” The First Week, Spiritual Exercises, 326; my emphasis).
Perhaps you’ve heard that we should keep our worries to ourselves, and keep mum about the scandalous gyrations of the hierarchy. While I do not endorse tearing down bishops and the pope in public, we must accept the fact that keeping silent about spiritual dangers—much like keeping silent about abusive priests—is exactly what the Devil wants. We must not cause undue scandal with muckraking, but we dare not play the Devil’s game of keeping silent in the face of evil. (Just ask the sexual abuse victims at the hands of sly pervert priests and their complicit bishops.) As St. Ignatius teaches, the Evil One “cannot succeed in his evil undertaking, once his evident deceits have been revealed”! Where the line falls between scandal and speaking the truth in love is, of course, why we must cultivate spiritual discernment.
The demon of messianism leads ministers to set themselves up as the center of all pastoral activity in which they participate. The temptation subtly penetrates their lives, until they end up feeling indispensable in everything. … Those who fall into this temptation do not ignore God nor do they fail to pray and appeal to the Lord with problems. They do so, however, so that God may help them in the ministry they plan and direct. Ultimately, what we are dealing with here is incorporating the Lord into our work, and not incorporating ourselves into the work of God. Following the temptation, we unconsciously substitute our personal messianism for the messianic ministry of Christ, the one evangelizer.
This attitude before God manifests itself in an equally faulty attitude toward those with whom we collaborate. We become incapable of delegating responsibilities or tasks. We do not really trust people, except for a few—those who are a consistently faithful copy of ourselves, with whom we permanently surround ourselves. … There is always a relationship between the attitude towards God and the attitude towards others, and vice versa. Distrust of collaborators in ministry, therefore, reflects a distrust in God. This is what we mean by the demon of messianism. …
The messianic attitude does not allow others to grow, since the apostolic endeavor’s growth and maturity do not run parallel as they should with the maturation and growth of all who carry it out. In the same way, the messianic ministers’ [sic] initiatives and creations do not necessarily contribute to a community’s formation nor do they prepare anyone to succeed them in ministry. Often they identify themselves with their work even to the point that the ministry ends when they leave or are transferred. It has been tied too much to the person, and successors are not prepared to step in. (pp. 23-24)
Little Trust in the Truth 
[Another temptation is] not trusting in the power of truth…. [which] is a variation of lacking confidence in God [as in messianism], but it has separate characteristics as a temptation. … Many cannot believe that there are times to accept without understanding. It is not ‘popular’ to assert truths such as the positive value of austerity, suffering, and the cross, or life after death. Likewise the value of chastity, virginity, persistence in marriage, or the defense of life even in extreme cases may be unpopular. …
In this context, the minster is tempted to vacillate. He or she may not offer Christ’s truth as it is…. The assumption may be that the truth will not be accepted and followed, or that is inconvenient. Some truths go by the wayside or fall into ambiguity when in various ways the minster of the Word trusts more in human prudence than in the truth force and attraction. … Instead of the the Gospel’s demands and its light, the minster proposes the ‘reasonable’ advice of human experience, depriving people of the opportunity to yield progressively to the truth that sets them free. (p. 29)
Preaching Problems 
[A third temptation is] preaching problems and not certainties… [which] causes confusion between different moments and levels of ministry in the Word. … [O]n the level of catechesis, homilies, and missionary preaching, it is always necessary to hand on the Christian message…. People in this situation expect the certitude of faith in order to renew their lives. They do not want their issues and problems returned to them without a response. … The essence of evangelization is to announce a message and not problems…. Evangelization announces certainties, not conjectures or personal opinions.
There may be many causes of this temptation. Ministers may lack experience, judgment, or discernment. They may be projecting their interior state. If they themselves are vacillating in their convictions, or if their Christian life is more a bundle of problems and questions than certitude, they will tend to transmit that to others. The old saying ‘the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart’ fits ministry perfectly. The Christian community is built on the faith, hope, and love of its members. It is not built on doubts, confusions, and shared problems. (p. 30)
Secularizing Hope 
[A fourth, and, for the purposes of this essay, final, temptation is that of] secularizing Christian hope…. [This temptation] consists in transmitting a message of purely secular hopes to the detriment of fundamental Christian hope. For example, the minister promotes a better social or political future, with the accompanying freedoms that men and women are searching for today. He or she preaches confidence in overcoming sickness, poverty, and other human dilemmas. Although we should strive for these legitimate human hopes, the promises of Christ do no guarantee them in this life. We do not know with certainty if they will be achieved. To proclaim them as Christian hope deceives the people, and reduces the Gospel to a message of legitimate human liberation or optimism about the future. …
To secularize hope is to do away with the proclamation of the human vocation to eternal life, holiness, faith, and love as the driving force and the supreme value of human liberation. With that, ministers will be tempted to change their service into the inspiration of secular expectations and the commitment to a better future. (p. 31)
Theandric, Cruciform, Ultramontanist—Catholic
Our bishops are mere humans as we are, and even the Pope, “Our Sweet Christ on Earth,” is but a peccable fellow human, and only very occasionally infallible. Keeping both of these truths in tension—the divine dignity of the office and the mundane frailty of the officeholder—is all of a piece with Catholicism, which embraces apparent contradictions without itself ever falling into contradiction. As such, the Christian life is theandric: the human and the divine are preserved in a mysterious unity. The Christian life is also cruciform, wherein everything worth offering to God—including our obedience to His duly appointed shepherds and the Chief Shepherd—feels like bearing a cross.
In a strange but very real sense, it is every Catholic’s birthright to be—gasp!—ultramontanist. As loyal sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church, it is the most reasonable thing in the world to harbor childlike love for the Vicar of Christ, il Papa. Yet the cruciform, theandric tension abides: love for the Vicar of Christ is no excuse for denying, much less blindly imitating, his moral frailties and intellectual errors. As deep as the ultramontane instinct is in the Catholic mind—a supernatural instinct to love the Pope as we ought to love the poor and the Eucharist—, we cannot deny that when our shepherds, and even the Chief Shepherd, succumb to the temptations described by Fr. Galilea, it becomes a cross to show them unflinching love.
I was reminded of this dilemma a a few weeks ago when a friend noted a “creepy” parallel that Maureen Mullarkey had drawn in late September in a piece here at One Peter Five. On the one hand we have a scene of fascist adulation from Mussolini’s salad days, and on the other hand we have a scene of clergy taking cellphone photos as Pope Francis passes:
pope francis il duceiPhones capturing iPope
As noted above, I don’t think such affection for the Pope is creepy in principle. It’s a basic Catholic instinct, a reflex, to venerate the Pope as our sweet Christ on earth, to honor him as the sacrosanct keeper of the keys, and to bow before him as the vice-regent of the Risen King of the Universe. Having been a Catholic for less than a year when I went to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, I admit I was thrilled and humbled to see Benedict XVI pass by in the Popemobile—The Popemobile!—a mere arm’s length from me. If I had a “smartphone” then, I probably would have taken a picture like the priests shown above did.4 I do admit, though, that there is something very odd, and oddly disturbing, about a hall full of ordained men snapping photos at the pope like teens at a pop concert. That’s what you get, though, when you raise up a generation of pastors to “learn from the world.” So, the problem is that otherwise legitimate papal affection has been running on the wrong kind of fuel for decades–the crude oil of pastoral populism, a zombie-like infantilism that confuses universal authority with widespread popularity, confuses “P.P.” with “P.R.”


In contrast to the photo of the iPriests, ponder this photo of Pope Pius XII in procession:

Procession with Pope PiusXII

The multiple layers of order, decorum, and rank act like a Kevlar vest for the fusillade of instinctive popular affection, or like the arresting wires for a tailhook on an aircraft carrier, slowing down and tethering the ultramontane instinct of the masses before it goes the way of Kid Icarus beneath a papal sun. Precisely because Pacelli was ensconced in such an intricate web of sacred semiotics—his individuality cloaked by the mystical bureaucracy of the papacy—the appeal of Pacelli the Man was blunted, dimmed, diffused, so that the popular devotion could flow over him, past him, beyond him towards what he was merely animating, rather than being caught in the populist hydraulic of his personal charisma (much less his shoes).

Once upon a time, a man elected to be pope did not just die to himself by devoting all his labors to the care of the Church, but also rather literally buried his own self under the byzantine demands of the papal attire, routine, manner of speech, associations, residence, and so on. “Congratulations, you’re the pope—now vanish!” That was how a sacrosanct apparatus like the papacy ran on the stable fuel of sacrosanct populism.

When the papacy decided to “loosen up,” lose the triple tiara, and dye the Church’s allegedly graying hair, the semiotic and spiritual focus shifted from the office to the man in that office. “Ecce homo!” As the traditionally robust papal exterior has been scraped and sanded down to a thinner, more “functional,” more “personal” veneer of down-to-earth pastoral accompaniment, rather than a seemingly aloof royal authority, an otherwise healthy love for what the pope represents has been projected onto the man who happens to be representing the papacy.

It is, to use a crude analogy, as if children at an amusement park have been conditioned to fawn over the man inside the Goofy suit instead of loving Goofy qua iconic reality. Once you removed Goofy’s head, the spell was broken, and the only choice for most children was to walk away disillusioned or to latch onto that new, all-too-human face with the same instinctive zeal. But just as an actor is hired to hide inside his role, so a pope is elected to deny himself inside the larger iconic reality of the living authority of St. Peter, who “to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood” (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 2).

pope francis time cover bold message“The Catholic Church’s Bold Message—nah, not quite the same ring.”

Pope Francis america visit cover people's pope in person

“Catch him in person”

pope francis lipstick kisses

“Healthy numbers”

What We Now Call Personality

As long as our pastors insist on thinking with “the world,” on trying to learn from “the world,” on appealing to “the world,” rather than simply calling it to conversion–in a word, as long as the hierarchy remains stuck in the rut of pastoral accommodationism that was carved out at Vatican II, we will not shake the perception that the pope is but the most prominent “mega-church” pastor in the pack. The papacy has become so democratized, so “personalized”, that the ancient instinct to venerate the pope can only find purchase on the particulars of The Man With The Papal Ring. Hence, authentic love for the pope and our shepherds is not based on popular relevance, but on traditionalism. For it is by anchoring ourselves in the ornate sanctuaries and estuaries of the larger Catholic Tradition that we, to paraphrase Chesterton, may be freed from the tyranny of our own age–the age of the image, the I’mAge.

To cite Chesterton again:

Luther opened an epoch; and began the modern world. He was the first man who ever consciously used his consciousness or what was later called his Personality. He had as a fact a rather strong personality. Aquinas had an even stronger personality … [but] it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defence of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon. … [H]e belonged to an age of intellectual unconsciousness, to an age of intellectual innocence, which was very intellectual. Now Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual. … When he quoted a Scripture text, inserting a word that is not in Scripture, he was content to shout back at all hecklers: “Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” That is what we now call Personality. A little later it was called Psychology. After that it was called Advertisement or Salesmanship. … [Luther] destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.5 Thomas Aquinas (1933), chapter VIII.

Personal Charisma, Popular Appeal, and Pastoral Persuasion vs. Reason, Tradition, and Royal Order–that is the choice Catholics face, a choice between good-guy, rockstar popes, on the one hand, whose kinetic personalism compels them to “open for” Buddy Jesus in all the major cities, and popes, on the other hand, whose quasi-anonymous bearing and traditional, sacrosanct trappings actually bespeak the vice-regent of Christ the King.

Without the traditional semiotic buffer that obscures his individuality, the Man In The High Basilica cannot but become one Great Leader among others (e.g. “the Catholic Reagan,” “the Catholic Obama”, etc.). This is why Pope Francis’s World Famous Humility™ rings so hollow. By rejecting the conventional residence, clothing, shoes, expressions, liturgical disciplines, etc. of the papacy, Pope “Call Me Jorge” Francis becomes a tractor beam of attention, deepening, as I have argued, a spiritual displacement that began in the Conciliar Epoch, when the papacy decided to vulgarize itself in the name of ecumenical outreach. By emphasizing how different he is from, and how much more selfless he is compared to, his predecessors, Pope Francis has become the biggest egotist in the world. After all, sadly, “bosses are often narcissists.”

Nothing personal, Fr. Bergoglio, but you’re the pope–please act the part. We Catholics will be your biggest fans.

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1 This is a win of sorts for Rome: the Synod managed to cause far more damage and chaos than the largest hurricane ever recorded by satellite, proving that the Church is still a mighty force in the world.
2 This danger is also sometimes referred to as “in cauda venenum“.
3 U.S. Presidents have not needed to change the Constitution to flout it, so why should leading prelates have to “change doctrine” to achieve the same effect?
4 I do admit, though, that there is something very odd, and oddly disturbing, about a hall full of ordained men snapping photos at the pope like teens at a pop concert. That’s what you get, though, when you raise up a generation of pastors to “learn from the world.”
5 Thomas Aquinas (1933), chapter VIII.