On Monday I wrote a short piece on Pope Francis’s trip to Loreto, where he visited the Holy House that is believed to have been Mary’s home when she was visited by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. My piece focused on his address (in which he defended the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family), and the fact that he officially signed his new apostolic exhortation on young people, entitled Christus vivit (“Christ lives” in English). I speculated on what we might expect from the exhortation and why Francis wrote it, as well as potential controversies that might erupt after its release.
Other details of the trip that I didn’t know about at the time but were also notable include the fact that he celebrated Mass ad orientum (facing East) and that he spent approximately a half an hour among the sick and elderly, as well as greeting pilgrims and blessing them.
When I wrote the piece, I was blissfully unaware of the “controversy” that the pope’s detractors would fixate upon. A video, which ran for less than a minute and a half, showed the pope repeatedly pulling his right hand away from a number of pilgrims who attempted to kiss his ring.
Immediately, this video galvanized the Holy Father’s detractors. LifeSite News has issued multiple stories on the “disturbing” video. A popular traditionalist podcaster uploaded a “special” 15-minute podcast devoted to this “scandal.” Many prominent conservative Catholic commentators and journalists weighed in with negative responses, with their contempt for Pope Francis on full display. I won’t link to them here, but if you spend any amount of time on these blogs and websites, you’ve seen the attacks.
Never mind that Pope Francis’s spokesman explained that Francis pulled his hand back for reasons of hygiene (If you watch the full video, the greetings in the short, viral video took place minutes before he went to greet a group of sick, elderly, and disabled). Never mind that it is well-known that he and his two most recent predecessors have all discouraged people from kissing their papal rings. Never mind that many people kissed his ring in Loreto, as can be seen from the full video, outside of the one-minute period caught on video. It’s not important. Even if his reason had been simply that he was in a bad mood and didn’t want people kissing his hand that day, it’s still not important.
The problem is, the pope’s detractors used this incident to attack and undermine him. They used their media platforms, which appear to be gaining influence, to reinforce the idea that Francis is a terrible pope, a heretic, and should be resisted by “faithful Catholics.” They understand the power of imagery, and they capitalized on an image that can be seen as portraying Francis in a negative light.
Pedro Gabriel stole some of my thunder on Tuesday by describing these people as engaging in “papolatry.” (I came to the same conclusion on Monday and expressed this on Twitter). Pedro wrote about how instead of following Church teaching and accepting the actual pope, they’ve created some kind of abstract papal ideal, where instead of Pope Francis or Pope Benedict, they follow “Pope Office.” Their thinking goes, “I’m not following the man seated in Peter’s Chair, I’m following the Office of the papacy.” He goes on to write:
“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 sort of thing is getting more and more brazen. It seems that this attitude of contempt for the pope has become cemented into the minds of many influential media personalities, and they have used their influence to plant seeds in the minds of everyday Catholics. It is truly pernicious.
In 2017, in his “Open Letter to the Four Dubia Cardinals,” my friend Stephen Walford wrote of these bloggers and journalists:
“The abuse from many, including those who run websites and Traditionalist blogs aimed at the Holy Father and those who are loyal to him, is nothing short of satanic.”
At the time, I challenged him on his use of the word “satanic.” I thought something a little less preternatural, such as “malicious” or “destructive” would be more appropriate or constructive. He didn’t back down, and insisted that he meant every word. It’s difficult to argue with him now. I’ve seen the evil of this work firsthand, and witnessed its infiltration of our Catholic culture.
We can’t ignore it anymore. Spending too much time in the weeds with these enemies of the Faith is stressful, but the destruction they are doing to the Church must be addressed. We must defend the pope and the Magisterium.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.