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Two Cheers for Pope Francis, So Far…

John Zmirak - published on 03/15/13

Francis seems to be holy and learned, but will he continue Benedict's "reform of the reform" of the liturgy?

What to make of the new Pope Francis? When I first heard the name “Bergoglio,” I thought it might be a kind of pasta sauce. On learning its Argentine connection, I guessed it might be a red wine like Malbec. Only joining the rest of the world to Google him did I learn a bit more about Pope Francis. And my reaction to his election is… complicated.

Most of all I am grateful that we have been given a pope of obvious personal holiness and unquestioned doctrinal orthodoxy. Those two things should come first, second, third, fourth, and fifth among what we hope to find in a Vicar of Christ. And they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Sure, we have had an excellent run of pious and learned men for the past 200 years—but the papacy didn’t always attract such holy souls. The clichéd choice for an obvious bad pope is typically Alexander VI, the Borgia who lavished papal funds on promoting the military exploits of the robber barons in his family—or the Medici Leo X who supposedly said, “God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it.” But these popes were far from the worst ones which the Holy Spirit has—through the permissive will of God—allowed the Church to elect over two millennia. That honor really must go to Pope Stephen VI, who dug up the corpse of one of his predecessors, Pope Formosus, to try the dead pope for heresy. As I recounted in The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism:

In the course of the festively named "Cadaver Synod," the rotting form of Pope Formosus was disinterred (minus the three fingers used for papal blessings, lopped off at Stephen’s orders), vested in papal robes, propped up in a chair, and charged before a court of bishops with a long list of crimes. These ranged from perjury and impersonating a priest to an attempt at seizing the papacy by force – but all were merely pretexts for the new pope to vent his rage upon his predecessor, who’d taken the opposite side in the struggle for power in Rome. The reigning pope (surprise!) won a guilty verdict against the dead one, and the court declared that even the priestly ordinations Formosus performed had been invalid. Formosus’s body was thrown in a potters’ field, then dug up again and tossed into the Tiber.

But as Kinky Friedman
said of Christ, "you just can’t keep a good man down": Legend tells that Formusus’s body bobbed back up in the Tiber and began performing miracles.

(None of these has been evaluated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, I hasten to add.) This comeback so impressed the Roman mob that they rose up and deposed Stephen, who was promptly strangled in prison. This sordid, Dark Age prequel to
Godfather III was mitigated only by the absence of actress Sofia Coppola.

So we shouldn’t take the simplicity and holiness of Pope Francis for granted. Those aren’t qualities that Christ promised each pope would have. Nor is personal orthodoxy a slam-dunk. It’s true that the pope cannot solemnly teach error on faith or morals; if he tried, he would surely be rendered speechless or simply dead. (For an animated account of the theological principle “teach heresy, get a heart attack” check out this little movie I made.) But that doesn’t mean a pope can’t, in his private opinions, pick up some funny ideas. Pope John XXII (NOT the 23rd) believed that when we die our souls go to sleep, to await the General Resurrection; it took his cardinals rebuking him in a synod to convince him that this was heresy. A number of popes (i.e., Liberius and Honorius) were lax or even confused in their own responses to theologians’ heresy. Pope Paul VI was much harsher on traditionalists who resisted his tinkerings with the liturgy than on bishops who defied his doctrinal teaching on birth control. And so on.

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