Every day after my rosary I say a Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Salve Regina for the intentions of the pope. For a while I stopped doing that, because I couldn’t be sure what the pope's intentions exactly were. Instead, I said them for the intentions of a good bishop.
That was a mistake. I went back to praying for the pope’s intentions after I read a quote by Catherine of Siena (it’s been making its way around Catholic circles quite a bit lately):
Even if the Pope were Satan incarnate, we ought not to raise up our heads against him, but calmly lie down to rest on his bosom. He who rebels against our Father is condemned to death, for that which we do to him we do to Christ: we honor Christ if we honor the Pope; we dishonor Christ if we dishonor the Pope. I know very well that many defend themselves by boasting: “They are so corrupt, and work all manner of evil!” But God has commanded that, even if the priests, the pastors, and Christ-on-earth were incarnate devils, we be obedient and subject to them, not for their sakes, but for the sake of God, and out of obedience to Him.
Each of the competing factions in the American Church will find something in this argument difficult to swallow. The liberals and ultramontanists won’t like the suggestion that Francis could be devilish (though he himself has done just that); the conservatives and traditionalists might not like the suggestion that we must offer him our loyalty, love, and affection even if he is.
There’s something even more desperately necessary about St. Catherine’s evocation of clear-eyed loyalty. It’s the reminder that, regardless of the scandal to which the Church succumbs, spiritual concerns must always come before temporal ones. We should work for justice in this life, but first we should strive for eternity in the next, and we’re responsible for the fate of our own souls first and foremost. We can’t become addicted to righteous fury, whether in defending the pope or attacking the clerical establishment.
Of course, I’m one to talk. I’ve had to make “not saying anything mean about the Holy Father” a special intention for Advent, and I’ve already failed twice. So, as a crutch, I think about the lessons Christ might be teaching us through His servant Francis. And here, I think, are the five most important.
1. Curtailing papolatry. Orthodox Catholics have been spoiled. Humanae Vitae, whose fiftieth anniversary we celebrated this year, was promulgated by a pope many dismissed as a tool (unwitting or not) of the modernists. John Paul II was not only solidly orthodox in theology, but also a global leader in the struggle against communism. Benedict XVI restored to the priesthood its liberty to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass and set the whole Church in array against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”: modernism masquerading as fidelity to the Second Vatican Council. It was easy to outsource our thinking, not only on religion but also on politics and culture, to the Holy See. Now, under Francis, orthodox Catholics know precisely where the pope’s authority begins and where it ends. We’re returning to a healthier, less centralist ecclesiology. And we know that local bishops—even priests and laypeople—have to do much of the intellectual heavy lifting themselves. Call it a “synodality of the trenches” if you like.
2. Exposing our own “crypto-Protestantism.” Each Catholic should be on guard against the belief that fidelity to theological orthodoxy can abrogate our fidelity to the pope, or that our loyalty to the mystical Church dissolves our loyalty to the institutional Church. It doesn’t, and it never will. Indeed, it can’t. We may forget that the original Protestants saw themselves as conservatives, championing traditional dogmata and ecclesiology. Let that serve as a reminder that our most “conservative” instincts are not necessarily the most orthodox. Not by any means.
3. Unearthing the mustard seed. Twenty years ago, Benedict XVI wondered aloud if the Church would return to the size of a mustard seed: smaller, yes, but purer and more resolved. Some mistakenly welcome this idea, as if the Church were better off without its weakest members, or as if Christ were not most eager to rescue the straying sheep. What we can welcome is the individual purification, the casting off of our private complacency and compromises with the world.
We’re called to love all people according to their station. That goes for the pope, whoever he may be and whatever he may do. We can never allow our dislike for the man, however legitimate, to compromise our faith in his office. Pope Francis continually asks the faithful to pray for him. Let’s.
Michael Warren Davis is US Editor of the Catholic Herald.