Pope Francis is in the news. Perhaps you have read some of the stories. Political and theological progressives love him, more traditional Catholics are not so sure about him and non-religious political conservatives cannot stand him. This stuff and more has been covered in all manner of news outlets, ad nauseum. What I have not seen discussed is a more basic discussion of what the Pope is, as well as what he is not.
I grew up as a Lutheran. I can recall Popes making the news from time to time, but I failed to find those stories interesting, except to the extent that they impacted politics and the secular world. After all, he wasn’t my Pope. And why did those crazy Catholics need a Pope anyway? It wasn’t until I married a Catholic girl and looked into whether converting to Catholicism was something that I could even remotely consider that I learned a few things about the office of Pope – things that I had no idea of, and was frankly a little ticked that nobody had ever told me.
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. Francis is the the 266th Bishop of Rome. And why is the Bishop of Rome so important? Because the first Bishop of Rome was the Apostle Peter, to whom Christ entrusted the Keys to the Kingdom. Each Bishop of Rome chosen thereafter has been Peter’s successor as the head of what Catholics consider to be the Universal Church. If you are interested in the full listing, it can be found here. The term Pope is more a term of endearment than a title, and is a version of the term Papa, since Catholics consider the Pope as a spiritual father over the whole Church. And his authority is not just spiritual. His is the place at which the buck truly stops.
The Pope is not, however, free to make big changes like most secular authorities can. This is not an easy concept to grasp for those of us who have grown up in a protestant culture and in a representative democracy (and the U.S. is both of these things, without doubt.) On matters of doctrine, the Pope lacks the power to change Church teachings. He can teach on docrine, and he can clarify it and settle theological disputes about it, but he cannot change it. This is something that completely escapes popular media, and a lot of the general public as well, as we are not used to the idea that some things about the Catholic faith are even above the Pope’s pay grade..
What the Pope can change is HOW Catholics practice the faith and what might need emphasized at a given time (as opposed to the WHAT Church teaching is). So, where the Pope could decree that Catholics are required to wear Spandex during lent (as unfortunate as that might be for most of us), he may not declare that there is no Trinity after all, or that the human person actually lacks an eternal soul.
And what about this infallibility thing? When I was a Lutheran, the first mention of Papal Infallibility conjured pictures of those awful Popes of the middle ages who went around secretly fathering children and selling indulgences. What kind of feeble minds believed this nonsense? Later, however, I learned that those kinds of personal failings had nothing to do with infallibility.
The best explanation of Papal Infallibility that I can recall is from a book by Catholic author Karl Keating. His example, as I remember it, is that if a Pope were infallible in matters of long division, and a sheet with 100 division problems was placed on his desk, what is the minimum number of problems that he would answer correctly? If you answered 100, you would be wrong. The answer is actually zero – because the charism of infallibility does not guarantee that he actually does any of the problems. A Pope can be a bad administrator, a dishonest person, a moral failure, or any one of a number of things that would reflect poorly on the Church. Popes are, after all, human. But Infallibility is the Holy Spirit’s way of insuring that if a Pope is going to teach on a serious doctrinal question, he will not screw it up. Does it work? Given that no Pope has ever reversed or been reversed by another Pope on a matter of doctrine, it would seem so.
It is important, though, that we do not consider narrow doctrinal issues with broader pronouncements about how we should live. A Pope’s opinions about politics or economics or who should win the World Series are not infallible statements. They are just opinions much like those expressed by most of us on the same topics. They are, however, usually a Pope’s way of trying to make a larger point, so in that respect they are perhaps entitled to at least some weight, even when we might disagree with them.
Another unique thing about Popes is their names. How does a guy named Jorge Bergoglio become a Francis? The first fifty five Popes kept their given names. But when a man named Mercurius was elected Pope in 533 A.D., he determined that it would be inappropriate for the leader of the Christian church to be named after the pagan god Mercury. He took on the name John II, in honor of a predecessor (John I) who had been martyred seven years earlier. The custom took hold and has been with us ever since.
People have asked me what I think of Francis. The answer is that he makes me feel a bit uneasy. Not so much uneasy about him, but about myself. I think that Francis goal is to make everyone a bit uneasy. After the passions that arose following the Second Vatican Counsel in the 1960s and the counter-reforms that occurred more recently, Catholics (especially in America) have stratified into two camps. The Progressives who are all-in for social justice but who are reluctant to buy into some of the behavioral doctrines and the Conservatives who are all about good liturgy and life issues but who might not be so keen about some of the social doctrines. I will come out and admit that I identify with the latter group.
It seems to me that Francis comes to the office with a way of bringing all of us out of our comfort zones. He is not changing the teachings (which irritates the Progressives) and he is not ignoring issues like climate change and its effect on the poor (which gives heartburn to the Conservatives). Although it is early, I could see the theme of Francis’ pontificate as being “If you are too comfortable in your Christian faith, you are doing it wrong.”
So there you have it – the Papacy explained, with a free analysis thrown in besides. There will be plenty to read about Francis and his views over the next several days. Just keep in mind that Francis lives in a religious paradigm, not in a political one. Remember also that many sources in secular media tend to quote him selectively, either out of ignorance or sometimes because of ideology. John Paul II was comfortable on the stage and Benedict XVI was comfortable in the classroom. Francis is comfortable in the slums, ministering to those in need of what he has to offer, both physically and spiritually. We Catholics believe that more often than not, we get the Pope that we need at a given moment in history. I, for one, plan to take in what he has to offer with an open mind, and try to apply it to my own life.