Pope Francis’ tour of the Americas continues and wherever he goes Catholics flock to get a glimpse of him or perchance a selfie. And for many of them, getting within a few hundred yards of the man is a religious experience because of who they perceive Francis to be…the Vicar of Christ, the successor to Saint Peter, the Holy Father.
But as I argued in my post from my month-long series on the Catholic Church last October, calling the pope “Holy Father” is an affront to the only One who deserves that title. Please read it if you would be inclined to address Pope Francis as such, should he be in your neighborhood.
John 17:11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
In Chapter 17 of his gospel, the apostle John records Jesus, after warning, instructing, and comforting his disciples in light of his impending death, turning his eyes to heaven and fervently praying to his Father. What we read there is often referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. It is the night before he goes to the cross, and his concern is for his Father’s glory and for the protection and unity of his disciples, then and now. This is the only place in the Bible where anyone is addressed as “Holy Father,” and it is in the context of a sacred and pivotal moment when God the Son is at the climax of his ministry, about to be sacrificed, made to be sin, and temporarily but painfully separated from God the Father…yet through it gaining the victory over the “prince of this world.” It is as if Jesus has been on a journey his whole earthly life to get to this moment and place where he will be crowned King, and he comes to the One who will crown him and calls him, “Holy Father.”
It is truly dissonant to move directly from thoughts of the great God of the universe as Holy Father, to thoughts of a fallen human being as the same…a mere mortal whose proper title is properly God’s Name. It startles the sensibilities. If there were nothing else improper or dishonoring to God in the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice regarding the pope, that he is called Holy Father is enough reason, for me, to reject his authority.
But there is. The elevation and exaltation of the papacy in assigning the pope universal power and honor, with great pomp and pageantry, divert praise and exaltation away from God, and are completely contrary to Jesus’ example of humility and his instructions to his apostles not to follow the lead of the Pharisees and exalt themselves. As beloved and humble as the current pope may be, he assumes the titles and power given him by the Church, and receives the praise and adulation given by her people.
An audience with the pope involves a whole list of items of protocol, I’m sure. Among them is the expectation that the visitor will bow or kneel before the pope and kiss his ring. Would Peter, whom the Church looks to as the first pope, have allowed anyone to prostrate themselves before him this way? In Acts 10 we have the story of God calling Peter to go share the gospel with a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who was expecting him because of a vision he received in answer to his prayers. When Peter arrives, Cornelius “fell down at his feet and worshiped him.” The Greek word translated “worshiped” is proskuneō and means “to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand; to fawn or crouch to, that is, (literally or figuratively) prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore): – worship.” And how does Peter respond to this treatment? “But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.’” He would not receive such adoration. But every one of his ‘successors’ has and does.
Much has been made of Pope Francis’ more humble choices in living quarters, automobiles, and garments, as compared to his predecessors. That this is admirable only serves to highlight the material excesses that are typical of the papacy. Silk finery, Prada shoes, jeweled headgear, ornate palaces, being carried around on a throne so that his flock can catch a glimpse of him. All more befitting of a king than a shepherd.
The power conferred on every pope more befits a king as well. This man, no matter how godly or corrupt, “by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”1 This power extends even to the submission of mind and will. “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.”2
The scope of the Supreme Pontiff’s reign was dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870, and those who would deny the council’s definition were pronounced cursed: “If anyone thus speaks, that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world; or, that he possesses only the more important parts, but not the whole plenitude of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate, or over the churches altogether and individually, and over the pastors and the faithful altogether and individually: let him be anathema.”3
One simply cannot extrapolate such excessive and far-reaching power and authority, nor justify the material trappings of a worldly king, from the witness of the New Testament documents. Only time and “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life”4 can account for it.
Surely, this is not what Jesus had in mind when he told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”5
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882 2 Lumen Gentium, 25 3 http://www.catholicplanet.org/councils/20-Pastor-Aeternus.htm 4 1 John 2:16 5 John 21:17