Habemus Papam et Habemus Mediam Frenziam: A Few Things to Keep in Mind When Listening to the News

Wanna know a secret?  Come closer.

Wednesday was my first “Habemus Papam!” exclamation as a Catholic.

Yup, it’s true.  Eight years ago, I was a high school senior going through a very anti-Catholic phase that was informed mostly by my own ignorance and misconceptions.  So as I sat on my living room couch on Wednesday afternoon (Spring Break, what what?) munching on half the contents of my fridge in a fit of nervous energy (it did take an ENTIRE HOUR for the new pope’s identity to be announced and that Walpole Creamery Maple Walnut ice cream was gooooooood), checking Facebook approximately every three seconds and listening to the increasingly dry commentary from the ABC News correspondents stationed at the Vatican (“Uh, so Steve, what does the latin on that building say?”), I was surprised at how emotionally invested I felt.  “I don’t get all the people cheering in St. Peter’s Square,” I’d told my husband about a week prior, “It’s the Pope, yeah, but we don’t worship him.”  My husband, a cradle Catholic who spent the last conclave and subsequent announcement with the cheering throngs at Franciscan University at Steubenville just smiled. “If you were there, I guarantee you’d be cheering with everyone else.”  Fast forward to me jumping up and down in my living room yelling “HABEMUS PAPAM, KITTY!!!!” at my cat every five minutes and crying when they announced his new name.

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All of this is to say that now, a few days after the announcement of Pope Francis I’s election, I am simultaneously disappointed by and understanding of the media frenzy surrounding the new leader of our church.  I haven’t heard a news report either on TV or the radio that has yet gotten it all right, so here are a few things to keep in mind for the next few weeks until the media storm dies down:

We Don’t Think the Pope is God, So Why Do They?

We Catholics see the Pope (aka the Holy Father, aka the Bishop of Rome) as many things:  the earthly leader of our church, the successor of St. Peter, the “Servant of the Servants of God”, our shepherd in the faith…..but certainly not God.  We don’t worship him, we don’t think he is perfect (see the section on papal infallibility below), and we don’t (or at least we shouldn’t) see him as the center of our spiritual lives.  At the end of the day, he’s a faithful Christian like the rest of us who has to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like any other human, and that means that he makes mistakes and even–gasp!–has sinned.  He’s sinned in the past, he’ll sin today, and he’ll continue to sin throughout his papacy.  He’s probably lied, he’s probably lusted, he’s probably taken the name of the Lord in vain.  Priests have confessors for a reason; it’s because we all fall short of the glory of God and we all need Jesus Christ to make that relationship right again.  So when the media starts dredging up each and every indiscretion or poor choice Jorge Mario Bergoglio has ever made (with the benefits of both hindsight and the Internet at their fingertips), I roll my eyes.  We don’t look at Pope Francis as God, so why are they?  I’m pretty sure the man who is now our Pope has never claimed to be perfect; in fact, the thing he publicly claims every day by being a priest and wearing that (very simple) cross around his neck is that he is not perfect, that he’s in dire need of Christ’s saving grace, and that he wants to dedicate his life to being a witness of the transformative power of that grace.

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Papal Infallibility Does NOT Mean What Most People Think It Does

Papal infallibility is not “the belief that the Pope can do no wrong”, as a recent Keene State College editorial put it.  What it really means is that when the following conditions are met, the Pope’s teaching is going to be preserved by the Holy Spirit from error and therefore is to be considered as infallible:

  • he is intending to teach
  • he is teaching on matters of faith and morality
  • he is intending to teach in his official and public capacity as the Pope, the successor of St. Peter (there are some theological characteristics that come with this that are too complicated to get into now)
  • his teaching is intended to bind the entire Church

So basically, if the Pope walks outside one day and says out loud, “Hmm, the sky looks green” that doesn’t mean that all Catholics automatically say “The Pope said the sky’s green!  THE SKY IS GREEN!”  It does mean that when the Pope says, “Okay, guys!  It’s me, the Pope, head of the universal church and I want you all to listen up!  We’ve been dealing with this certain issue that really needs to be decided once and for all and here it is, so we’re all in agreement.  Everyone listening?  Okay, here it is: ______.  Got it?  Cool.”  THAT’S to be considered infallible.  And there are some really complicated theological reasons for that which I’d be happy to discuss over a cup of coffee sometime, but which are really difficult to explain over a blog.  It should be noted that infallibility is not just confined to the office of the Pope; church councils can claim infallibility in certain teachings as well, and it’s not like it happens every day.  I’m still trying to find a really reliable source to confirm the exact number of times that infallibility has been claimed for a teaching and when I find that, I’ll follow up.

Liberation Theology Is Way More Complicated Than That

I heard a quote on NPR this morning that made my blood boil:  “So Pope Francis didn’t support the other Jesuits’ teaching of Liberation Theology, which is the belief that Jesus came to serve the poor…”  Let’s get this straight in as few words as possible:  Of course Jesus came to serve the poor.  Christians are supposed to serve the poor.  Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t serve the poor, not even the Pope (who, incidentally, is a fabulous example of serving the poor).  Liberation Theology is a WHOLE FIELD of theology that interprets Christ’s gospel through the lens of freeing a specific people group–there’s black liberation theology (anyone remember Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 election?), feminist liberation theology, liberation theology regarding the poor….you get the idea.  It’s complicated (like just about everything to do with religion), but I’ll say this:  I’m not a huge fan of liberation theology.  I think Jesus came to liberate humanity from the clutches of sin–and because of that, all oppressed people groups will be liberated too.

The Pope Can’t Affect “Change” Like That

The only thing Papal elections and Presidential elections have in common is the word “election”.  Bergoglio wasn’t a politician running on a platform, he was chosen by the Holy Spirit via the Cardinals.  So when people start saying things like, “I just really hope that the new pope affects a lot of change and brings the Catholic church into the 21st century by changing their stance on important issues”, it shows that they don’t really understand the role of a Pope or the Church.  The Pope’s job is to shepherd his people, not make laws to his or society’s liking.  In fact, the only way that he really needs to interact with “modern society” is to re-frame Christ’s teachings so they are understandable in a modern context; something Catholics call “The New Evangelization”.  “Important issues” to the 21st century secular mind are much different than (and often diametrically opposed to) “important issues” in the Christian worldview.  Several Scripture verses come to mind, including Matthew 10.22-25 (“You will be hated by everyone because of me…If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!”), and John 15.18-21 (“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.”)

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So there you have it.  Rejoice, for our church has a new leader who appears to be incredibly humble, spiritual, and devoted to Christ.  Let’s keep praying for him and taking all the buzz surrounding his election as an opportunity to educate ourselves and others about what our church really believes.  Coincidentally (seriously, this was planned last Friday), our first gathering of Theology on Tap will be in early April and will be focused on Common Misconceptions about Catholics.  Stay tuned for more info about that gathering as well as news and reactions to the new Pope, and check this out for some encouragement!

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