by Matthew Walther

In May 2013 Pope Francis received a set of one-hundred and seven C.D. recordings by the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as a gift from Angela Merkel. Unlike most presents exchanged by heads of state, this one appears to have been carefully chosen.

The Holy Father’s well-known affinity for Furtwängler has never seemed to me incidental, and not only because the German maestro’s occasionally haphazard conducting—especially his blithe disregard for tempo markings—are reminiscent of Francis’s own freewheeling style in interviews and papal audiences. Among the pope’s favorite Furtwängler discs is the Milan recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

For years I have insisted that there is something essentially Wagnerian about this pope. Despite its musical complexity and astonishing run time—around fifteen hours—the theme of the Ring cycle is remarkably simple: the renunciation of heroism, which brings an end to the order of the gods. In their place, mortals find themselves adrift in a homelier but less certain world. In a similar way, it increasingly seems as if Francis’s pontificate has brought us to the end of what I have come to think of as the “heroic papacy,” an understanding of the Petrine office that, from the vantage point of ecclesiastical history, looks every bit as untenable as Valhalla.

The origins of the heroic papacy belong to the nineteenth century, to Pius IX and the sacking of the Papal States, and to the debates that led to the definition of papal infallibility. Since then, in part due to advances in communications technology, in part (one suspects) simply because popes shorn of their temporal power have been forced to reconceive the nature of their teaching office, Catholics have become accustomed to hearing a great deal more from Rome than their ancestors had. 

While the great princes of the Church during the Renaissance had issued bulls addressing juridical and, less frequently, doctrinal questions, the popes since Leo XIII have written thousands of documents—encyclicals, apostolic letters, exhortations, motu proprio—on subjects ranging from trade unions to Shakespeare to Martin Luther King. This is to say nothing of their weekly Angelus addresses to the faithful, transcribed homilies, speeches, and published interviews, some of them conducted by non-Catholic journalists.

Much of this discourse has been edifying. Without it, modern Catholic social teaching would not exist, and the achievements it helped to make possible—the New Deal, post-war Christian democracy in Europe—would have been less likely. But it is hard to deny that their sheer volume has also led to a corresponding debasement of the currency of papal utterances. It also gave rise to expectations that popes across the decades would express themselves with a consistency that was neither possible nor likely even desirable, which in turn made possible absurdities such as sedevacantism, one of those characteristically modern errors, like strict biblical literalism or the stridency of so-called “historically informed performance” enthusiasts. 

The pontificate of Saint John Paul II was the capsheaf of the heroic papacy. It is difficult now to conjure the atmosphere of those days. Many faithful Catholics believed that the pope was the only thing that stood between them and oblivion. An unspoken attitude suggested that amid the chaos that followed the Second Vatican Council, and the corresponding decline in Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood and women’s religious life, the entire edifice of the faith was sustained not by the promises of Christ but by the force of the pope’s indomitable will. (Something of this once-pervasive view was captured by Joan Osbourne in the lyrics to “One of Us,” her top 40 hit featuring a lonely Jesus: “Nobody callin’ on the phone / ’Cept for the pope maybe in Rome.”) This atmosphere of heroic struggle was heightened by his public suffering at the hands of Parkinson’s disease, which the world rightly found ennobling.

Among other things, John Paul’s papacy tacitly encouraged a kind of childish complacency. No matter how bad things were in individual parishes and dioceses, priests and lay people alike believed that the adults in the room would take care of things—as long as their decisions were never questioned. Thus, critics of some of John Paul II’s obviously disastrous episcopal appointments, such as Theodore McCarrick in Washington, D.C., and Roger Mahony in Los Angeles, were dismissed as cranks or proponents of schism. The same was true of those who objected to plastic cups at World Youth Day or the normalization of Communion in the hand. John Paul’s conservative allies insisted that if he permitted such things in the exercise of his disciplinary infallibility, there was nothing else to say about the matter. The faithful who questioned the quality of the formation received by priests in their dioceses were told that the theology professors had been selected by the rectors of the seminaries, who had been appointed by the bishop, who had been elevated to the episcopate by the Holy Father—that was that. (Among the chief proponents of this fideistic understanding of ecclesial authority was Father Maciel.)

Meanwhile, during his pontificate theological speculation and even catechesis too often gave way to a mere rehearsal of the pope’s apparent “views.” The answer to every theological question was always: Because the Holy Father said so!

However well-intentioned, such responses were unhelpful for a number of reasons. The first is simply that they did not persuade those who were already inclined to discount Rome’s authority. They gave non-Catholic observers the impression that irreformable teachings were simply questions of positive law that could be revisited by future popes, the same way that the Mexico City Policy is reversed and re-instated by successive American presidents. (This is why in secular media the Church’s irreformable teaching that the ordination of women to the sacrificing priesthood is ontologically impossible is routinely described as a “ban.”) This framing discouraged Catholics from thinking about the ultimate sources of their faith in terms that transcended the current pontificate. Instead of traditional formulations of Catholic belief such as the old Penny Catechism, with its admirably terse question-and-answer format, two generations of the faithful were directed to John Paul’s own writings, a fascinating synthesis of French Nouvelle théologie and German phenomenology that was remarkably ill suited to the task of providing basic religious instruction to children and young adults.

Pope Francis does not see his office in heroic terms. He is not interested in holding the Church aloft. He does not take pains to speak or write only in terms that will re-assure the faithful. A hint of crepuscular gloom hangs about many of his utterances. The impression we are invited to receive is of a lonely wanderer one might meet while traveling a dark forest road at night—a sympathetic companion but one who insists that he has very little wisdom to share for the uncertain journey ahead.
If Francis has abnegated the role of hero pope in favor of a humbler self-understanding of his office, it should be observed that his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made this possible. His abdication demystified the papacy; it should have prepared his admirers for a future in which they would have to defend what they believe even in the absence of an unambiguous papal warrant, amid a changed atmosphere in which the Church’s greatest enemies receive succor from her leaders.

Now for many of us the hour has grown very late indeed. There are faces in the Wild Wood and strange voices whisper in the shadows. But in a Church in which progress is measured in centuries, the end of the heroic papacy strikes me as a welcome and inevitable development.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.