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COLUMN: Does ‘the three men I admire most’ include pope?

A SINFUL nature, much enhanced by diligent practice, explains my interest in the world’s religions. So far none especially reassures me, though I like my chances in Buddhism as a next-life Sheltie. Combined with 13 years of fieldwork—my marriage to a Roman Catholic—this spiritual exploration equips me to make certain statements about the pope.

On the one hand:

  • The pope is elected following the prayerful deliberation of church cardinals, who are in the main, surely, good and pious men.
  • Speaking ex cathedra—i.e., with the authority of his position—the pope is the absolute law in matters of church doctrine (which makes, say, “Catholics for Choice” a dopey non sequitur).
  • As influential figures in Christendom go, besides the pope the archbishop of Canterbury is a pygmy; Rick Warren, Franklin Graham, and Joel Osteen could dangle from a pontifical charm bracelet.

On the other hand: 

  • The pope is not divine. Godis divine, Jesus is divine, the Holy Spirit is divine. The Virgin Mary, according to Catholic teaching, has divine qualities—e.g., sinlessness. The pope makes no such claim.

  • In terms of holiness, the pope is normally inferior to a saint. Most saints—officially, the holiest humans—were not popes, and most popes were not saints. Some popes, especially in the old days, were scoundrels. I give you Pope John XII. Reigning from 955–964, he killed and mutilated political enemies and died in the act of cuckoldry.

And hands aside:

  • The pope likely has a sense of humor. In fact, the lame-duck pontiff, Benedict XVI, suggests that it is mandatory. “‘Humor,’” he once wrote, “is a barometer of faith.” Verily, is it that hard to imagine the affable Pope John Paul II, on the spit at a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast, cracking up at a Flip Wilson Pollock joke?

Some readers who wrote to object to The Free Lance–Star’s Feb. 14 editorial cartoon on Benedict, showing him in retirement as a greeter at Walmart, are evidently more Catholic than the pope, who I imagine would have chuckled at the rather gentle caricature.

I don’t fault the religiously orthodox for defending their church, however. It gets kicked around a lot in today’s popular culture and finds few fast friends in the mainstream media. Most reporters and editors, in my tumbleweed experience, are secularists (heathens, semantically perfumed), agnostics, mainline Protestants of the “social gospel” persuasion, non-observant Jews, and lapsed Catholics. The kinetic Pentecostal, the Rosary-saying Catholic, the Jew who keeps kosher—in most newsrooms, these species are as exotic as Komodo dragons. Reporters do stories about such people; they rarely work with them.

To be visibly religious at a modern newspaper is typically to be thought strange, or primitive, or—since conservative faith and conservative politics usually coincide—slightly suspect. Catholicism, because it stands—majestically, in my view—against the temper of the times, is especially disdained (though not at this newspaper). As proof, consider the cartoons, reprinted here, which we did not use. They appeared on the Cagle website, our main cartoon source, within a day or two after Benedict announced his retirement plans. All are disparaging or worse.

First cartoon: Daryl Cagle thinks that all candidates for the papacy are just the same—the very definition of stereotyping. Second: David Fitzsimmons heaps on mean and witless ridicule. Third: Olle Johansson has the pope tossing his pastoral staff into a trash can, a distasteful image. And, fourth, Adam Zyglis’ sinister-visaged Benedict, under a caustic caption, appears in need of an exorcism.

And some Catholics were upset by the Walmart cartoon?

There is no such thing in Catholic teaching as the Holy Quadrinity, and trying to create one by inserting the pope into the Godhead is heresy. He is a man—a very special man, indeed, the Vicar of Christ by Roman belief—but not one immunized from good-natured levity. If you want that kind of holy man, you’re in the wrong faith. Try Mohammed.

Who first poked fun at a pope? Perhaps the same figure who, looking at Peter, declared, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

Paul Akers is editor of the opinion pages of The Free Lance–Star.

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