Imagine the following three scenes from history:
Scene 1: You are an English peasant living in 1187. Your life revolves around the Church calendar. You participate in her feasts and fasts. Holidays are the Holy Days, in which you can escape from the daily grind and celebrate the life of a saint or some event in salvation history. You go to Mass regularly, confess yearly, and follow the Church’s rules as best you can. You live the Faith as your father did, and as his father did before him; you expect your son to do the same, as well as his son. Although you are a faithful Catholic, you aren’t completely sure who the current pope is, and even if you knew, rarely if ever do you think about him other than to include him in your prayers.
Scene 2: You are a professor of theology at the University of Paris in 1333. You have heard that the reigning pope, John XXII, is publicly preaching that souls do not enjoy the Beatific Vision until after the Last Judgement. You know from your studies that this contradicts the perennial teachings of the Church. You publicly challenge Pope John XXII’s views, worried that his public preaching may lead people astray. You ask him to conform his teachings to the teachings of the Church. Thankfully, the pope recants his views, and after his death, his successor, Benedict XII, declares it doctrine that souls who are saved see Heaven after death.
Scene 3: You are a Catholic priest living in Rome in 1501. You see the incredible corruption within the Church all around you. It’s well known that the pope, Alexander VI, has fathered many children by several mistresses. He has elevated his relatives to high-ranking positions in the Church. The spiritual priorities of the Church have taken a backseat to her political designs. Saddened by this corruption, and worried for the souls under your care, you preach a homily at Mass in which you condemn the actions of the pope and call him and all Church officials to repentance.
Each of these scenes capture life in the Church at various times in the past and the individual Catholic’s relationship with the pope during those times. The English peasant could live his entire life as a faithful Catholic with little or no awareness of who actually occupied the Chair of St. Peter. This had no impact on his spiritual life, and the thought that he had to know the latest pronouncements of the pope would have been a foreign concept to him and everyone around him (including his parish priests). The Parisian professor was rightly concerned about scandal and felt it was his obligation to speak out, even if it meant opposing the pope. And the simple Roman priest knew that his responsibility was to the souls under his care and did what he believed best to help those souls reach Heaven, even if it meant calling out corruption from the vicar of Christ.
Proving Their Orthodoxy by Idolatry
But today, the New Papolaters would tell you there’s a problem with the peasant, the professor, and the priest. Who are the New Papolaters? They are those who believe that a Catholic should hang on every word of the current pontiff; accept his every public pronouncement as Gospel truth; and never criticize him, even slightly, in public. These are not the Old Papolaters, who are now mostly sedevacantists and who, like the New Papolaters, also believe that the pope can never issue any erroneous public teaching. Unlike the New Papolaters, however, they reject the validity of the current pope (or even the last few popes). Also to be distinguished are the Convenience Papolaters, people like Fr. James Martin, who become papolaters only when the current pope already agrees with them and fight the pope when he does not.
Just a few years ago, the New Papolaters were “conservative” Catholics, often in loose confederation with traditional Catholics (not that all conservative Catholics are New Papolaters; many are not). But with the advent of Pope Francis, the New Papolaters’ underlying belief system has been revealed. Their beliefs are molded not around the perennial teachings of the Church, but instead with the latest pronouncements from the Holy Father. Note that the New Papolaters believe that it is important to be orthodox in their beliefs, but they believe they prove their orthodoxy by defending every syllable uttered by Pope Francis. They will give lip service to the idea that a pope is infallible only when teaching ex cathedra but in practice argue in defense of every single word that comes out of the pope’s mouth or from his pen.
Protestant Fears Come to Life
This attitude is foreign to the well formed Catholic. Many years ago, when I was a Protestant learning about Catholicism, I was uncomfortable with what I mistakenly believed was the Catholic position on the papacy. How could a Christian, I thought, look to a man — fallen like all of us — and think he was some oracle of divine truth? How could Catholics say he was unable to be in error? That was ludicrous. Fortunately for me, I had good Catholic friends, knowledgeable in their faith, who showed me the errors in my perception. “The pope isn’t always infallible,” they told me, “and in fact rarely are his teachings infallible. He’s not an oracle we look to for divine guidance, but instead, he is the protector of Christ’s teachings. He’s the one who makes sure the Church keeps believing and teaching what we have always believed and taught, as Christ promised in Matthew 16:18–19.” I came to realize that this made sense and was in fact in keeping with both Scripture and how Christians have believed since the time of Christ.
Yet today, the New Papolaters are acting exactly as my Protestant-born fears led me to think all Catholics acted. They are anxiously following every public word from Pope Francis, ready to fire off articles, blog posts, and tweets defending whatever he says, no matter what he says. They put themselves in ridiculous contortions trying to square the circle of some of Francis’s teachings with the traditional teachings of the Church. And they are ready to pounce on any criticism of the pope, no matter how soft, declaring that such criticism is a schismatic act, worthy of excommunication.
Stand Firm and Hold to the Traditions
What is the Catholic to do in the face of such mindless hysteria? The first thing is to know the Faith as it has been believed and practiced for almost 2,000 years. The Catholic faith does not consist of breathlessly waiting for the latest pronouncement from the pope, nor do we believe that his every word must be defended. Further, it’s perfectly fine to just ignore all the goings on in Rome, put your head down, and live out the faith in your home and in your parish (hopefully a solid parish that hasn’t succumbed to either the New Papolatry or Convenience Papolatry). Each of us is responsible for his own soul and, to a lesser degree, the souls under our care, such as our children. If following Roman gossip harms your soul, ignore it.
Some are called to publicly fight for the Catholic Faith. For those who are, we must repeat, over and over, the proper role of the pope in the Church. We need to point out the fallacies in the arguments of the New Papolaters and show how their viewpoint is inconsistent with perennial Catholic practice. And we must be consistent: the teaching about the role of the pope applies whether we like the current pontiff or not. We should not fall into the “celebrity pope” idolatry that has been particularly acute under John Paul II and Francis. Even if the next pope were to be traditional (please God!), we should treat him not as an oracle, but instead as a protector of the Deposit of Faith handed on to him. We cannot be Convenience Papolaters like Fr. Martin when it suits us.
Lastly, always pray for the pope. Pray that he will always remember that he is the steward, not the king, and as such he is charged with defending the kingdom from attack, not recreating it in his image.
Almighty and Everlasting God, have mercy on Thy servant N., our Supreme Pontiff, and direct him, according to Thy loving kindness, in the way of eternal salvation, that with Thy help he may ever desire that which is pleasing to Thee and accomplish it with all his strength. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.