The Pope as Flag

When Benedict was elected Pope, a new word was instantly coined on the Internet by Catholics delighted over his election: Ratzenfreude. I must confess I indulged in a bit of Ratzenfreude myself. It was hard not to as the Usual Suspects in the Media shrieked that he was a Nazi and emitted the usual blah blah about our need to remain faithful to the teachings of the Third Vatican Council which will soon make abortion a sacrament and guarantee God’s blessing on whatever it is Americans want to do with our groins today.

But at the same time, I was aware that, precisely because the media portrayals of Pope Benedict were so unrealistic, there was a danger that even the people who were delighted with his election were delighted for unrealistic reasons as well. The more I listened to Internet chatter, the more it seemed to me that many conservative Catholics assumed he would apply the full might of the papal office to the task of rooting out all the Bad Catholics and sending them packing. Hopes began to rise among conservatives (just as terrors were rising on the Left) that he was at long last going to inaugurate the show trials, purges and excommunications. The Church was about to pass through the Great Benedictine Cleansing Fire!

This seemed to me as wildly unrealistic as the hysterical notions on the Left that Benedict was the enemy of democracy who wants homosexuals stoned to death, women barefoot and pregnant, and Protestants burnt at the stake. As the gleeful hope for The Purge continued to rise on the Right, I made a prediction on an internet forum to the effect that, within six months, many of those cheering Benedict’s election would be complaining about his failure to be Der PanzerPapa.

I was wrong. It only took about two weeks.

Conservative critics on Internet fora whose sense of failure, doom, and despair sustains them through moments of hope and happiness soon began to sniff that, “Many of us have greatly lowered our expectations of this Pope.”

Benedict’s crimes? Among other things, “He’s participated in … which were much less than what traditionalists expected from a Ratzinger papacy. Contemporary hymns, flutes, oboes, etc.” More terrible still, “Doing away with the Papal tiara on his coat of arms was another unpleasant shock of this new pontificate.” Worst of all, there is the sin of imitating Pope John Paul with “a trip to a synagogue added to his itinerary for World Youth Day in Germany, excessive emphasis on ecumenism, even down to simple things like continuing to wear the same vestments at all Papal functions that John Paul II wore. Popes always had their own new set of liturgical vestments. This made it all very disappointing.”

Now one of the common polemical boasts of conservative Catholics (when Protestants are in the room) is that Catholics have a universal shepherd and teacher, while Protestants are “scattered sheep”. We have (it is boasted at Protestants) this glorious treasure of a Petrine teaching office given us by Christ himself. But when Protestants leave the room, it is stunning how often the very conservative Catholics who make such boasts seem to be singularly bent on complaining about where the shepherd is leading and what the teacher is teaching. The author of Dominus Iesus is condemned for engaging in ecumenism (frequently with tired and ignorant claims that this is equal to indifferentism). He is scolded for supporting Jews in an increasingly anti-semitic Europe. His conservative critics (so recently shouting “Hosanna” at his election) don’t seem to be interested in what the Pope teaches. They appear to long instead for him to finally fulfil the pre-Christian Messianic dream of a Davidic Warrior King who will establish righteousness by force. They are impatient for Benedict to kick out the Bad People and create a Pure Church. They roll their eyes when he lives out wimpy drivel like charity, gentleness, and respect for non-Catholics (AKA “excessive ecumenism”). Warrior Kings don’t dialogue! They conquer and rule! That’s why the departure of Thomas Reese from America caused such glee on the Right. It was, some hoped, the Firstfruits of the Long-Hoped-For Purge!

Except that it wasn’t. Reese resigned: he wasn’t fired. There was no General Order from Rome calling for the roundup and execution of Undesirables in Catholic media. For Benedict is not going to fulfil either that fantasy, nor many others. So people like the critic quoted above are disappointed. Instead of ruling o’er time and space with an iron fist, Benedict talks to Jews! He labors at “excessive ecumenism” instead of telling the Protestants, “Go to hell! We don’t need you.” He is not about Power.

I can’t help but think that, for those who regard the Pope as a flag–not as a shepherd or teacher in any living sense–this will continue to constitute an increasingly sore trial. I hope such folk pass it. For it is they who being tried, not Benedict.


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