On Papal Popularity

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A new poll shows that among Americans, Pope Francis remains very popular. The Holy Father has an 88 percent approval rating overall, and 68 percent approval among Catholics. Impressive numbers—certainly to be envied by most politicians in the US.

But why inquire about the popularity of a religious figure to begin with? We know the purpose of such polls for politicians. Elected representatives depend upon the goodwill of voters to maintain their positions, and polling allows them to keep their finger on the pulse of their constituents. Polls can tell politicians which policies have popular support, and can give them an idea of how likely it is they’ll be returned to office based on how “likable” they are.

Such concerns are hardly shared by a pope. While the Roman Pontiff is elected, he is never required to again win the confidence of his electors or face a campaign opponent. And as papal biographer Austen Ivereigh has recently reminded us, “the Magisterium is impervious to lobbies” (the context of that tweet to one side). So, if the pope has no use for opinion polls, why are they conducted?

Our news media apparatus is primarily geared toward covering politics, which means that their approach to other aspects of life and society almost invariably has a political tinge: either the story asks about the “political ramifications” of the event, or it’s presented in political categories. This tendency has had a particularly baneful effect upon religion coverage, as outlets like GetReligion have covered extensively. Political terms like “conservative” and “liberal” are mapped on to theological disputes or mere differences in emphasis among prelates. Core teachings are referred to as “policies.” And the Roman Pontiff, successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, is treated no differently than any other head of state (which he is, but that aspect of his office is rarely the point in question).

Since news media tend to treat politics and religion in the same way, a disturbing trend in political coverage has likewise entered religious reporting, too. Increasingly, political discussion revolves around the president—never more so than in the Trump administration, when the president’s tweets are treated as breaking news and voting for a discretionary spending bill marks one with the scarlet T as a “Trump supporter.” Suddenly, it’s “Trump’s America.”

Thus all too many stories about Catholic matters divide the sheep from the goats, labeling them “Francis supporters” or “opponents of Pope Francis.” Yet this sort of personalization distorts the office of pope and the faith itself. While Catholics are bound to respect the person of the pope in a way that would be inappropriate when applied to the presidency, nevertheless the question “Are you a Francis supporter?” is just as incomplete of a question as when “Francis” is replaced with “Trump” (or Obama, or Bush, or Clinton, etc.). To say “I support Pope Francis against vicious personal, slanderous attacks against him” is a requirement of simple decency. To say “I support Pope Francis in his proclamation of the Gospel and his defense of Catholic teaching” would be expected of any Catholic.

But the vast majority of the pope’s words and actions fall under prudential choice, and are subject to fair and honest scrutiny. Should the pope grant so many interviews and speak off-the-cuff so frequently? Should the pope answer the dubia? Should the pope intervene when various episcopal conferences around the world offer opposing interpretations and applications of Amoris Laetitia? To respectfully discuss these questions is not disloyalty to the Church or to the faith, any more than it was to discuss when Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication of SSPX bishops, or when Pope St. John Paul II for a time defended Fr. Marcial Maciel against his critics and accusers (who turned out to be correct about him).

Some, looking through this personalized lens, observe this reasoned debate and see only an attack on Pope Francis and thus an attack on the Church itself—that is, “the Church of Francis.” But to speak this way is to fall into the Corinthian error of belonging to Apollos or Paul rather than to Christ. This is a hyper-ultramontanism that would make every current papal utterance and gesture a dogmatic and binding act that relativizes prior councils, solemn proclamations, etc. And the irony is that the same sectors that warned against “creeping infallibility” are now wondering aloud whether fielding reporters’ questions on a plane is an exercise of the papal magisterium. This shift is driven no doubt from a combination of a perceived sympathy with their agenda and a desire to capitalize on the pope’s popularity—that is, by pragmatism rather than piety.

Man is a political animal, and certainly the halls of the Vatican are not immune to this fact. But to see the Catholic faith, its teachings and its hierarchy, only or primarily as a collection of policies at the mercy of a power struggle between red-clad men is to make a massive category mistake. And Catholic journalists must do better than to fall into the same secular cynicism.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

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