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Papa Bene: Naming the Pope

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 25, 2005

The sloganeers are already in full swing, and we daily see new and catchy references to Pope Benedict XVI. For some, he is Hitler’s Pope all over again. For others, he is B-16. The nicer nicknames are applied by those who value orthodoxy and ecclesiastical discipline. They hope the Modernists will have their hands tied almost before they can throw them up in despair. But even the orthodox may be a little quick on the linguistic trigger.

Recognizing Our Limits

In a Biblical sense, the power to name reflects the power to know fully, and therefore to proclaim a destiny. But after the Fall, we must be very careful about naming things. For example, the nickname B-16 reflects the beliefs of some that Pope Benedict XVI will be a strong disciplinarian because of his long tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But our best guesses are necessarily limited. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger served the CDF only at the request of Pope John Paul II and, by all reports, he didn’t particularly like the job. In any case, while he was called upon at all times to be a brilliant theologian, he was called upon to discipline only rarely, under instructions from the Pope he served.

One can argue that while head of the CDF, Benedict XVI had his finger on the pulse of many more problems and controversies than those resulting in public discipline. He is certainly well aware of the length and breadth of infidelity within the Church at every level, and his many statements, both those made privately and those promulgated magisterially, make it clear that he theologically opposes all that is unfaithful to the authentic teaching of Christ as it has been interpreted and proclaimed by Popes and Councils down through history. Nor could he have long survived in his previous position without being a man of considerable courage.

Popes are Different

Still, there is an order of magnitude of spiritual difference between being even the best of cardinals and being Pope. In any organization, the top position is fundamentally different precisely because the top position has the authority to command. Subordinates, even highly-placed subordinates, find it much easier to criticize past trends and propose new policies than do those who can actually change the trends by mandating the new policies. The one who can merely advocate change will rightly do so based on his understanding of the end in view. The one who can actually effect change is forced also to consider its impact on those who must both endure and implement it, including those who may not be willing to do so.

Moreover, the papacy is a special case, being constrained by the Holy Spirit. Since the death of Pius XII in 1958, we have had four popes who did not make discipline a high priority. Under John XXIII, the need was not yet acutely felt, and John Paul I scarcely had time to think of such things. But Paul VI was, by his own admission, fundamentally incapable of discipline, and John Paul II, who clearly had the gifts to discipline, rarely did so, though he wondered late in his papacy whether he had failed in this regard. Indeed, there are many all too human reasons for this absence of discipline in the Church over the last half-century, but Catholics who still believe all the reasons are human do not understand how the Church is governed—especially when she is governed by self-evidently holy men of constant prayer.

Has the Time Come?

I am among those who hope that the time has come. It would make very good human sense, to put the matter in terms of sports, for Benedict XVI to gather the bishops and heads of religious orders together to explain that they have had more than a quarter-century to get comfortable with the Catholic system as explained by one of the premier papal coaches in history, and that if they can’t buy into that system by now, they should prepare to be cut from the team. At this point, I don’t even care if all conversions are sincere. Going along to get along is better than not going along at all. Players need to be benched when they temporarily fail to follow the game plan, and they need to be cut if they refuse to follow it at all.

But it isn’t about my hopes, is it? We must be very wary of imposing our own vision on the Holy Father, or of viewing him only through our own tinted lenses. After all, the time for discipline seemed already over-ripe in 1978, but we were given instead a man who single-handedly revitalized Catholic theology, philosophy, sexual ethics, some facets of ecclesiastical life, and the prestige of the papacy while scarcely disciplining anyone at all. Those deeply discontented with continuing problems in liturgy, priestly training, and old-line religious orders sometimes scarcely realize the gifts we have received, or the fruits they can bear in our own lives.

The Pope as Gift

In fact, each pope is a gift of the Trinity to the Church, ministering on behalf of the Son under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Father. There is a sense in which the pope is not a perfect gift, because the weaknesses of the man can interfere with God’s purposes; but there is also a sense in which the gift is perfect, for the Father knows the man’s weaknesses before the Holy Spirit inspires his election. In any case, it behooves us to receive this gift graciously.

As the package is opened, will we show our disappointment if the gift isn’t just what we want? Or will we rejoice that Providence has once again provided for our needs? If we nickname the Pope at all, let us nickname him for affection rather than for policy, joining those for whom he is simply Papa Bene. We must never try to name the Pope as if to determine his destiny. Instead, we must be docile to his leadership, ready to have our very perceptions altered by his message. If we are to be open to God’s gifts at all, we must be supernaturally receptive to the Pope.

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