Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Spectacle

It was nearly impossible to avoid being caught up in the coverage of Pope Francis landing in Washington, DC. The media swarmed to the event. The glamour and seeming adoration that flanked John Paul II during the peak of his years (and somehow avoided Benedict XVI through the duration of his papacy) flanked every step of Papa Francesco as he limped (bad hip!) in the company of the President of the United States.

The pundits who must have grown up on images of John Paul II greeted Francis with a familiar appellation, "the people's pope." Did it strike them that something was missing? It was hard not to think back of those now iconic images of the same John Paul II kneeling to kiss the ground of every country he landed on.

One sees the stark images of those white robes against the backdrop of Western dress fit for dignitaries and heads of state, one hears the cheers of the crowd and the undertones of adoration in the press coverage (one anchor referred to him as "His Holiness"), and it becomes impossible to find one's way out of the spectacle of papal pageantry. There are even a few moments at which the thought may pass, either conscious or unconscious, that regardless how far the West goes away from its roots, this man, this office, remains the conscience of the West. This man, this office, remains the embodiment of whatever is left of the West's religious soul. The papacy has that much weight in the Western world.

Francis is another pope of spectacle and splendor. Perhaps not the geopolitical titan like John Paul II, and equally not the nearly universal focus of adulation and identity as Pius XII. Nevertheless, he is reviving the modern papacy's potency as a political power-broker and personality cult. Francis puts Benedict's papacy in sweet relief; Josef Ratzinger was quite content to let the papacy fade from view in favor of Catholicism itself, focusing primarily on bringing liturgy and doctrine to the foreground. In a media saturated society, this approach proved to engender hostility, the magnetism of a charismatic figure being preferred to the precepts of a religion itself.

The upcoming general Synod and all of his political and ecclesiastical maneuvers remain in the background of the live footage of Francis walking upon US soil. For the time being, there they will remain. Watching the man in action, one has little doubt of the genuine nature of his empathy and the sincerity of his convictions surrounding his role and his place at this particular moment in time. His charisma resides in his very human quality (as opposed to the larger than life personality of John Paul II and the ascetic, almost mystical, aura which Pius XII cultivated for himself).

Francis' humanity is his gift- this is how he plays to the crowd and why the crowd loves to respond. He is not a conniving iconoclast dead set on razing what is left of Catholicism's edifice. He very much believes in the themes that have come to mark his papacy. The man must be understood in his context. He is very much the product of the theology, ecclesiology and spirituality that took root in the Roman Church after Vatican II. He reflects, then, what is arguably the archetypal fulfillment of everything that council produced. For well or ill, it is a reduction of 2000 years of theology and the study of the soul and spirit into social service and an overuse of the word "love" as a synonym for "God," such that both words have lost the force of their meaning.

If one wondered whether Vatican II would ever fade from view, one need only view the spectacle of this papacy. For the time being, this council and the paradigm shift it brought remains the new orthodoxy and now as it was then, it is nearly impossible to breakout of that paradigm and retain any relevance to the larger Roman body. Any appeal to pre-modern thought garners perplexed glances at best, thorough suspicion at worst.

Francis' popularity highlights how daunting it will be for anyone who rejects this particular manifestation of Catholicism to refuse and resist. Practically speaking, where does one turn? The satisfaction with the spectacle is so diffused, one will find it impossible to find many sympathetic ears. One's rejection of it will be seen as a deficiency and whatever legitimacy is present will be largely ignored.

This is where the Western Tradition has come to rest, with the will of one man who, through either an accident of history or series of ecclesiological blunders in the 19th century, has come to wield previously unknown influence over it.

Ratzinger's papacy wasn't popular. It was, however, one of the more healthy exercises of said office - he was only a ubiquitous presence to those who had an unhealthy obsession with him.

For now, this is the spectacle.  In the midst of all the splendor, one wonders how much substance is lost.

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