Michelle Boorstein covers religion for The Washington Post.
If you’ve posted inspiring Pope Francis quotes on Facebook, if you’ve devoured every article about him, if you’re banking on him to revolutionize a tradition-heavy, 2,000-year-old institution by force of personality, Francis has a message for you:
Stop it. Just stop it now.
“Depicting the pope as a sort of Superman, a star, is offensive to me,” Francis told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published Wednesday. Mythologizing and idealizing him, he said, is a kind of “aggression. . . . The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.” (His legions, of course, responded to this by sharing his words and praising their divine wisdom.)
While the pope may have sounded like a celebrity hounded by paparazzi, Francis was in fact tapping into a matter of debate among Catholic theologians: Is it good for the church to have a rock-star pope?
Since becoming pope almost a year ago, Francis has been working in symbolic and concrete ways to tame the office, rein in the sway of the Vatican and reduce the image of the pope as a sort of divine king. Except he’s stuck in a loop — the more he strives to seem like a regular guy, the more he is praised and beloved as a revolutionary pope.
It began in the first moments of his papacy. Catholics were struck when Francis introduced himself on the balcony of St. Peter’s as simply “the bishop of Rome” — the lowliest of a pope’s multiple titles. (His predecessors often used the more imposing Vicar of Jesus Christ or Supreme Pontiff. Even in the Vatican’s official directory, he is listed as “Francis / Bishop of Rome.”) That same night, he rode back from St. Peter’s with the other bishops on the bus, and within days he had decided to live not in the papal palace but in a guesthouse with other priests — solidifying his desire to remain just one of the guys.
Francis has also begun unprecedented power-sharing moves, including creating a “G8” team of heavy-hitting cardinal advisers and expanding the role of the Synod of Bishops — the key body that connects the world’s bishops with the pope. In a formal teaching last fall, Francis made major news when he called for a “conversion of the papacy” and said bishops’ conferences — the national bishops’ groups in different countries — should have “genuine doctrinal authority.”
A pope can serve as a unifying, clarifying figure for Catholicism, but as the church becomes more diverse and more global, many theologians believe it’s dangerous to put too much weight on one man. A superstar pope can undercut the role of local bishops, for instance. In November, Catholic lawmakers in Illinois advocating for same-sex marriage argued against local church leaders; on the state House floor, they cited Francis’s “who am I to judge?” line from last July. Others worry that overemphasizing the pope leads to lazy faith — Catholics concluding that they’re in good standing if they agree with whatever they interpret the pope to have said — or that a clerical pyramid with a super-pope up top discourages people from taking initiative or risks.
“This is the paradox of modern Catholicism: It’s a much more global church — and Francis is really the first pope who has become global — but a church that is more visible because of the papacy,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “What the pope is trying to do is reverse this dynamic, to use his voice, his authority to make the church less monarchical.”
The origins of the superstar pope lie in the First Vatican Council in the late 1800s, when bishops formalized papal infallibility, which holds that under certain rare circumstances, the pope’s teachings are free from error and can’t be debated. Catholics had been wrestling for centuries with kings and political rulers across Europe who meddled in picking bishops, and the council was seeking to protect what it saw as a church under siege. Elevating the pope was an effort to fight back.
The following decades saw big personalities in the Chair of Saint Peter. John XXIII, who called the modernizing Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, became an icon, particularly to liberal Catholics. The skier-actor-humanitarian-Cold Warrior John Paul II became one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, making the notion of a global church real. He traveled widely and created World Youth Day, when millions of elated young Catholics from across the globe could mingle. The papacy transcended the faithful, and John Paul became a global media figure.
In the 1980s, when the U.S. bishops publicly argued against nuclear armament and said deterrence was immoral, Vatican authorities worried about an end run around the pope, not to mention church teachings on just-war theory. The American bishops were called to Rome and later “issued a careful limited acceptance of nuclear deterrence,” said Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at Catholic University. “It was worked out.”
Yet John Paul II himself worried about his ballooning role. In 1995, he wrote an encyclical saying that the papacy, with all its historical baggage and modern authority, could be seen as a stumbling block to ecumenism, or inter-Christian relations. If the pope couldn’t better honor the authority of other bishops, he implied, how could Catholics ever come together with other parts of Christianity?
Of course, the trouble for Francis is that the more humble he appears, the bigger he becomes. Just in recent weeks, he has been praised for opening to the public the elaborate gardens at the pope’s summer retreat, calling for priests to stop envisioning themselves as “peacocks” and “crusaders,” and even inadvertently letting loose an Italian swear. (He just misspoke.) “It only makes me love him more,” religion columnist Cathleen Falsani posted on Facebook of the accidental profanity.
At issue in the theological debates over the papacy are how to keep a truly global church unified, how to balance the Vatican’s authority with that of bishops to carry out church teachings, and how much leeway laypeople have to make decisions about parish life and about their own conscience. While the Second Vatican Councilspoke about empowering the laity and making bishops somewhat more equal to the pope, most historians feel that central control has become tighter than ever. Indeed, papal power has been reaffirmed even under the cloud of recent clergy sex-abuse scandals, which many believe have eroded the Vatican’s moral authority.
“I think the goal, as Francis sees it, is not to undercut papal authority but to say: The church is stronger if everyone takes up responsibility that should be theirs — if laypeople and religious and bishops and everyone are more active, instead of people just sitting around waiting for orders,” said Catholic University’s Ruddy. “But what’s the role of the pope in this? Have we just loaded so much onto what the pope is that it is both unmanageable for any one person and is also not really an accurate understanding of what the papacy is?”
Now Francis may be even transcending the superstar status that John Paul II attained — and embracing the affection so apparent for him in global social media. And some, particularly conservative Catholics, worry that Francis’s collaborative style may be opening the church up to trouble. In calling a meeting of top cardinals in Rome this fall to discuss family issues — including whether to liberalize access to communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry without first getting an annulment — he may be giving reform-minded Catholics hopes that could end in disappointment and more division.
It is far from Rome, in the places Catholics live and worship, that the real impact of Francis’s efforts will be seen. In an 11th-grade Christian ethics class last week at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, a student said he’d turn to the pope for advice because “he is the closest person to God.” His teacher, Julie Penndorf, was quick to clarify: “God doesn’t love the pope more than God loves you. This is an area where the church has moved in a positive direction. The pope is human.”