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updated 11:41 AM CST, Dec 21, 2014

PopePope Francis has a funny way of naming and shaming certain tendencies in the church, using insults that are inventive, apposite, and confounding. His ear is finely tuned for the way the Catholic faith can be distorted by ideology. And I'd like to imitate his example when I say this: Most Catholics are completely unprepared for a wicked pope. And they may not be prepared for Pope Francis either. They are more loyal to an imagined Catholic party than to the Catholic faith or the church.

Between Pentecost and the launch of Vatican.va, most Catholics did not have access to the day-to-day musings of their pope. The Roman pontiff's theological speculations have been of almost no interest to Catholics throughout history, and never became so unless he was a great theologian already, or there was a great controversy which the authority of the Roman Church might settle. To the average Catholic living hundreds of miles from Rome the Faith was the Faith, whether the pope was zealously orthodox like St. Benedict II or a sex criminal like Pope John XII.

But the social crosscurrents of the last 50 years of Catholic life have made the pope a more intimate figure in the lives of Catholic believers. During the post–Vatican II upheavals in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, conservative Catholics developed a mental architecture that told them that even if their parish priest or local bishop was lax, immoral, or even vaguely heretical, there was practically a living saint in Rome, whose unassailable orthodoxy, personal charisma, and good works were taken as the living sign of the indefectibility of the church. The solidity of the message coming from Rome has been for many Catholics the practical experience of this truth about the church.

The near omnipresence that the modern papacy achieves through media makes me worry that the institution of the papacy would have already hit upon a grave crisis if it weren't for the unusual theological ability of Joseph Ratzinger, first as cardinal and later as Pope Benedict XVI, acting as a ballast. Modern media, especially the modern Catholic media, has brought the pope into our homes, across the radio, in television, and into our niche media world. He's in the browser of many Catholics every day. And conservative Catholic media relies heavily on the inflated imaginative role of the papacy, just like British tabloids rely on the royals. The pageantry, mystery, and fame attached to the office are a great way of selling magazines, getting clicks, or raising funds. He is the worldwide celebrity that represents "us." He's the reason the Faith gets talked about by others.

When you add to this the fact that the cultural formation of most engaged Catholics is primarily the ideological combat of political and cultural factions, they tend to treat the pope as their "party leader," and to treat "the world" as an opposing party. It's difficult to describe how distorted this mental image is to true faith, but some examples could suffice.

Look for instance at the reaction of conservative Catholics to the pope's phone call to Jaquelina Lisbona, a woman in Argentina civilly married to a divorcée, in which Francis supposedly counseled her to practically ignore church teaching on divorce, adultery, confession, and Holy Communion.

Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture speculated, "[F]or all we know, she and her husband are now living as brother and sister, in which case there would be no reason why she could not resume receiving the sacraments." Of course, if this were the case the parish priest could have determined this without the extraordinary phone call from Christ's vicar.

Before deleting it (perhaps in embarrassment), Jimmy Akin reminded his readers at the National Catholic Register that the pope has the power to act as the church's chief legislature and to execute judgments immediately, and so therefore he could annul the first marriage and radically sanction the second, implying all this could be done over the phone. That he would have short-circuited the church's entire juridical process, undermined faith in the church's discipline, and undercut Catholic priests seems to bother Akin not at all. This same defense was used to justify the pope's breaking of liturgical rubrics, essentially employing the Nixon defense that "when the pope does it, it's not illegal."

Let me suggest that these two good Catholic men are acting not as church men but as party men, and falling into what Hillary Jane White aptly diagnosed as "papal positivism." Lawler and Akin are not alone. The bulk of Catholic media is devoted to moon-faced speculation about how the discreet governing decisions, words, and gestures of the pope are accomplishing some larger goal that we further speculate must be in the pope's head or heart. It's very easy to make the pope into a saintly superhero when you act as his ventriloquist.

Conservative Catholic apologists say all the right things when you press them. They say that the doctrine papal infallibility does not imply papal impeccability, but the bulk of their commentary about Pope John Paul II in relation to the child-abuse crisis or Pope Francis when he goes off-script seems based on the idea that the pope is irreproachable.

Party membership and church membership are not alike at all. Party bids its members to spin, minimize, and explain away supposed contradictions between one party leader and the next, to hide deviations by party leaders from the party platform. Because party members cannot know the outcome of the next election, crimes, oversight, or simple mismanagement by the party leader are treated as much less serious offenses to the cause than the scandal that would come from admitting or publicizing them in the sight of the opposing party.

Unlike a party, the church already knows the outcome of its election; the blessed reign, the accursed don't. The church already has victory. And so the church and its believers do not depend on the righteousness of the pope; the papacy and the church depend on the righteousness of Christ. The Catholic faith teaches that the pope has the same duty to remain constant in the faith as we do, the Holy Spirit doesn't turn him into an automaton upon his election. If he lies, we must rebuke him in charity. If he fails at something, we should help him. He ain't just the Catholic heavy, he's our brother.

Church members have assurance that comes from God not Rome, the type that if it ever sunk in would prepare them for martyrdom. Party members suffer from a twitchy, defensive anxiety, the type that when it sinks in makes them petty see-no-evil demagogues.

The Catholic Party eclipsing the Catholic Church has a distorting effect on the world's perception too. If the loudest and most prominent orthodox members of the church in the media treat the pope like a party leader and are so quick with clever-dick rationalizations of the massive changes to the practice of the Faith over the past 50 years, why should they be surprised that the world conceives of the doctrines and dogmas of the Faith as mere party planks or mutable policy, to be exchanged, updated, or abandoned as the times change?

And why should they be surprised that even their co-religionists fail to understand the Faith? In truth, the most salient fact of contemporary Catholic life in the West is the way it is pervaded by the pattern of saying things and then acting as if something else were true.

Catholic parishes teach their catechumens that people must be absolved from their mortal sins in sacramental confession before presenting themselves for Holy Communion, yet priests serve communion to packed churches just hours after tiny lines for confession. They say one thing, but act another way. Catholics teach that the Holy Eucharist becomes the body and blood of their Lord, yet the ad-hoc nature of their revised liturgy, the disappearance of genuflection as a Catholic gesture (it's now Tebowing!), and the behavior of priests and extraordinary ministers says that we are as unmoved by consecrated host as Pentecostals.

And the debate that Pope Francis' Lisbona affair sparked about letting divorced and "remarried" Catholics partake in Holy Communion would be yet another instance of saying one thing and acting as if the opposite were true.

Catholics say that a valid marriage is indissoluble and that a civilly remarried person is living in adultery. The church requires anyone who sins mortally to abstain from Holy Communion until they repent and receive absolution for their sins. How can the church say these things and allow those she deems in adultery to the communion rail, while demanding that those who merely missed one Sunday Mass through their own fault deny themselves this same salve for the soul? How can the church even explain the English Reformation if somewhere, hidden in its own tradition, is the ability to tolerate adulterous marriages? How could the church possibly honor the English martyrs like St. Thomas More if they died for mere "policy," and not a truth about the sacraments?

Of course, it cannot.

And yet, Catholics conditioned by the last 50 years of life in the church are totally unprepared for the eventuality of the pope or a papally approved Synod (i.e., a governing council) issuing a "policy" that flatly contradicts church teaching. For many of them, many good men, it will just be a new party line. Or perhaps, more insanely, they will claim, in an Orwellian turn, that the new policy was always the church's real policy.

The Catholic Party has cultivated a very specific form of forgetting of the church's confounding history. They do not recall that ecumenical councils like the one at Vienne wasted church authority on a silly grudge against the Knights Templar. They do not remember Councils like those at Sirmium, later condemned, where churchmen made compromises with Arianism. They do not remember that Pope Pius VI encouraged a Synod in Italy that eventually promoted Jansenist heresy, condemned much Catholic piety, and improvised new liturgies.

Catholics were reminded at the Second Vatican Council of a doctrine with a foundation in the early church fathers, in St. Vincent Lerins, that the whole body of faithful Catholics in their cultivated sense of the faith, are one of the guarantors of the church's teaching authority. Sometimes, the duty of a faithful Catholic is not just to rebuke and correct those in authority in the church like St. Catherine of Siena, but to throw rotting cabbage at them, or make them miserable, as we once did, with the connivance of worldly authorities, during the deadlocked papal election in Viterbo.

For now the members of the Catholic Party are cultivating a kind of denial, saying that Pope Francis cannot possibly endorse the line on divorce and remarriage suggested by Cardinal Kasper when very clearly this reform is being actively debated within the highest reaches of the church, and seems to have been implemented in one phone call. If adopted, it will be time for members of the Catholic Church to reach for the rotting produce and give our prelates a taste of the sensus fidelium.

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