“Hypocrites, well hath Isaias prophesied of you, saying: This people honoureth me with their lips: but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines and commandments of men”
— Mt 15:7-9 (DRV)
As Mike Lewis noted yesterday, during a pilgrimage to Loreto, Pope Francis made a beautiful address about the significance of family, based on the traditional understanding of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
What was the reaction from the usual papal critics, who constantly hound the Pope for supposedly shying away from this part of doctrine? A sigh of relief? A nod of approval? An “it’s about time,” even?
No. This fact has been completely ignored and overlooked by papal critics. What has caught their eye, then? The fact that for approximately one minute, the Pope apparently pulled his hand away from some of the faithful who attempted to kiss his ring. The desperation to unearth anything (anything!) to criticize the Pope and to bury away anything praiseworthy for him is so visible and shameless, it’s staggering. This goes beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, it’s a hermeneutic of denigration. Such an anti-papal bias effectively invalidates these sources from presenting themselves as faithfully Catholic.
Now, before I am misunderstood, I must stress this: In no way am I attacking those people in the queue who wanted to show their devotion to the Pope and were unable to kiss his ring. My focus is on those who have taken advantage of this to further their agenda. My critique is of those who spend all their time attacking Francis and who are now suddenly preoccupied with not being able to kiss his ring as a sign of respect to him.
How do they resolve this incredible cognitive dissonance? The sleight of hand is masterfully presented in a tweet by leading papal critic Michael Voris: “They are honoring the OFFICE. Not the man. This “humility” thing is just over the top.”
This is not a new argument. In fact, we’ve seen it several times before. It is deployed whenever these critics want to undermine Pope Francis while pretending to be Catholics in good standing (and therefore, faithful to the pope). They separate the office from the man.
Strategically, it is an outstanding move. As a man, Pope Francis can be criticized and denigrated at will. But if the “office” remains untouched by their reproaches, they are effectively respecting the Pope – so they say.
This ignores, however, a very crucial fact: the papacy is built upon real men. There is no papacy without the Pope. There is no floating tiara haunting the Vatican until it finds a suitable host. There is no platonic ideal of the Pope, sitting on the platonic ideal of a papal cathedra, signing a platonic ideal of a magisterial document with a platonic idea of a pen, in the otherworldly universe of platonic ideals.
Of course, the papal critics would be very pleased to pretend otherwise, in a way that actually illustrates the extreme cunningness of this argument. A platonic ideal living in an abstract world is not a real person.
A real person can contradict you. A real person has idiosyncrasies that force you to adjust, and therefore, to leave your comfort zone. A real person is nothing like what you had idealized.
A platonic ideal, on the other hand, can never intrude on your life, unless you let it. An immaterial idea, sealed away in a completely abstract world, utterly unfleshed, can never annoy you, can never contradict you, can never move you out of your comfort zone.
This means that the platonic ideal has yet another solid advantage over real people: it can fit completely inside your head. In the end, even if you are completely unaware of this process, the platonic idea may be given shape by being injected with your own thoughts, opinions and prejudices.
In other words, it can be molded into your own image and likeness.
So, of course the papal critics make recourse to the platonic ideal of a Pope. It is all too convenient. It is the same strategy they employ when they try to delegitimize Pope Benedict’s resignation. They are overthrowing Pope Francis from his papal throne, and replacing him with an unwilling Benedict. If Benedict is still the Pope, they can just disobey Francis without disobeying the Pope.
The election of Pope Office, The Platonic, fulfils the same vicarious role. In fact, it is even better than imagining Benedict is still the pope. Sometimes, Benedict has this pesky habit of issuing letters and speeches praising Francis. And Benedict legitimists have to explain them away. Pope Office would never do that. They can elect Pope Office as the true pope, and Pope Office will always do their bidding. Pope Office is always there to reprove, reproach, and excommunicate the same sort of people his disciples want to see reproved, reproached, and excommunicated… even Pope Francis. Especially Pope Francis. Since Pope Office’s authority outranks Pope Francis, they see no problem with this.
It’s no wonder they want to keep the tradition of kissing Pope Office’s ring. And it’s no wonder they hate Pope Francis for not allowing them to do that. It is very convenient to place Pope Office on an untouchable pedestal, where those real life human popes can never reach and pervert. But isn’t this turning the papacy itself into an idol? Isn’t this the kind of papolatry those critics are always decrying? No, it is worse. This papolatry does not idolize the Pope, but rather an idea of the Pope built in their own image and likeness. They are not engaging in papolatry, but in egopapolatry, an even worst kind of idolatry. They are idolizing a Vicar of Christ on their own terms and calling him “office“, so that he can never pull his ring away from them.
This strategy, however, as convenient as it is, doesn’t stick. One of the greatest advantages of Catholicism is that our religion is not gnostic, nor manicheistic. It is a sacramental religion (i.e., a visible sign of the reality of God). It is a religion built around the Incarnation of God as man. It is a religion with the highest devotion to the Real Presence. It’s a religion built on historical facts. Not a religion of lofty, abstract, intangible principles. Not a Platonic religion, but a Thomistic-Aristotelian one. It is a religion directed to concrete, palpable realities.
What we do have is an actual, real, flesh-and-blood Pope, who acts as the true Vicar of Christ, the realization of Jesus’ promises in the flesh: the promises that He would stay with us until the end of time and that the gates of Hell shall not prevail.
What is the Pope’s role, then? Being servo servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God. This means that, if the Pope wanted to do away with the kissing of the ring, he could do it, and nothing would be subtracted from his dignity for doing so. Just as nothing was subtracted by St. Paul VI relinquishing the papal tiara, or the retirement of the sedia gestatoria. He is still the Pope. It is solely within the Pope’s purview to abdicate from such externalities, and not incumbent on demagogues to demand such abdications, as we often see in secular media. But those externals are in no way intrinsically connected to the essence of his office in such a way that he would cease to be Pope if he didn’t have them.
What is essential is that the Pope exists to lead and guide the universal Church. He exists to confirm the faithful. He exists to magisterially interpret Scripture and Tradition, in a way that commands assent of will and intellect from the faithful, even when he is not making infallible pronouncements.
In other words, you can’t respect the office of the Pope if you dissent from his magisterial teachings.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you publicly undermine the documents he promulgates.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you find excuses to dissent from Laudato Si’. You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you find excuses to dissent from his revision of the Catechism on the death penalty. You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you find excuses to dissent from Amoris Laetitia and its magisterial interpretation (the Buenos Aires guidelines) as per the manifest will of the Pope.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you say you don’t need to assent to his non-infallible teachings.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope when you read his papacy through a hermeneutic of suspicion.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you spend all your time accusing the Pope, to the point of trying to find anything to undermine him, no matter how shallow it is.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you constantly malign the Pope, always insult the Pope, repeatedly calumniate the Pope.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you take the actions of a famously humble Pope to try to ensnare him, so as to judge his intentions and his heart, as if his humility was only for show.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope by trashing the Pope all day on social media.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you consume and share media with a notorious anti-papal bias.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you give more credence to a political party’s agenda than to the Pope’s teachings.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you see the Pope’s authority being undermined, and you travel the world giving lectures and interviews about the limits of the papacy, without correcting dissenters when they appropriate your arguments.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you set yourself as the true interpreter of Tradition and Scripture against the Pope.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you want to honor him with externalities, all the while disrespecting him when and where it truly matters.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you try to strip the Pope of his office.
You don’t respect the office of the Pope if you disrespect the person of the Pope.
In conclusion, it is utterly inconceivable to criticize the Pope for allegedly disrespecting his office for not allowing people to kiss his ring, all the while turning a blind eye (or even engaging) in all sorts of disrespect for his office and person. If they rebuke the Pope for that, they should do well to take the beam from their eyes first. No one has been more disrespectful of the Pope’s office than them. No one has damaged the papacy more than them. Their kisses are hollow, for their hearts do not follow their lips.
Francis’s detractors may want to divorce the office of the Pope from the person of the Pope. But those are interconnected realities that do not exist apart from each other. As dissenters themselves proclaim as a sacred truth: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
[Image: “Kiss of Judas“, Ludovico Carracci, ca. 1589]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.