And yes, I did just refer to the Pope as a leader I respect.
[Side point: people have often asked me how I can square my liberal politics with my religion. “Isn’t the whole point of Catholicism that you follow the Pope?” NO!! The point of Catholicism is the same as the point of any other strand of Christianity: that God sent his son to suffer in our place so that we could be saved from out sins. The Pope is miniature compared to all that.]
Okay, so why do I respect the Pope? And where does that respect end?
The Pope (whichever Pope, any and all Popes) is a far holier person than I am or can every hope to be. He has probably spent more time in prayer / conversation with God in the last month than I’ve spent in the last year. He’s also far more learned in theology / church history than I will ever be. This means that, at least sometimes, he’s going to be right and I’m going to be wrong.
In addition, Stanley Fish summarizes an Augustinian argument nicely:
St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him.Nonetheless, I definitely disagree with a lot of the Pope’s politics. (Do you agree on every point with every person you respect?) For example, I do not agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching about condoms – not only does it fail to make sense logically (why would natural family planning be ok if condoms aren’t?), but it doesn’t “ring true” to me.
When the Pope makes what to me appear to be bad decisions, I have to remember (apart form how much holier he is than I am):
- Everyone screws up on their job. The pope is not immune to that.
- The pope is a spiritual leader, but also a politician and, like all politicians, must sometimes make concessions for unity’s sake. (Though why he wants to make a concession about the existence of the Holocaust and not about the use of condoms is a little beyond me.)
- ...or he might be right. He's not infallible, but I'm even less infallible! And I need to reflect and pray about what our differences are and if maybe I'm the one who's not seeing the big picture.