What loyalty do we owe the pope?

By Dan Connors

Christians have been fighting with each other — and with Church leaders — since our earliest days. So what do we do today when we find ourselves disagreeing with the pope?

Night had come. The Easter fire was burning. And in a church in Constantinople in the year 379, worshipers keeping the vigil of Christ’s resurrection pushed forward to hear the words of their saintly bishop, Gregory of Nazianzus.  

But as Gregory spoke in the hushed church, the crowd began to hear noise outside. Was a storm brewing? Who was shouting? As it grew louder people threw confused and questioning glances at each other.   

Then the mob burst in through the doors, screaming and yelling murderous oaths, swinging clubs and swords and throwing rocks. The Christians in the church fought back, and bodies on both sides began to fall. A bishop was killed, and Gregory, badly wounded, was lucky to escape with his life. 

I wish I could say that this was a mob of pagans attacking a Christian worship center, but by 379 the age of pagan persecutions was long past. No, the mob that attacked that Easter Vigil service was a Christian mob — Christians who were filled with murderous rage against other Christians who looked at the divinity of Christ differently.  

The Christians who attacked the church that night were “Arians” — Christians who believed that, while Jesus was certainly exalted way above human beings, He was not equal with the Father or made of the same substance. At one time they may have even been a majority of Christians, at least in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Their opponents were the Christians we know as the Orthodox — those who held, from the Council of Nicea, that Jesus was true God from true God, of the same substance as the Father. 

Nicea supposedly settled the question, but in reality it ignited a firestorm of theological discussions, debates, fights, battles, emperor interference, and mob violence. It’s hard to imagine that so many people died to work out a doctrine that we now take for granted, but indeed that’s what happened. And mobs were used by both sides. When the anti-Arian pope Damasus was elected in 366, he faced so much opposition in Rome that a rival pope, Ursinus, was also elected, and Damasus only prevailed through street battles and massacres of Ursinus’ supporters. 

It’s no wonder the Roman pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at about this same time, is quoted as saying “No savage beast is as dangerous to humankind as are Christians in their rabid hatred of one another.” 

From the time of St. Paul, we Christians have been a quarrelsome bunch, hardly ever showing the unity Jesus prayed for, or looking like the image of peaceful sheep the Scriptures suggest we should be. We’ve fought over just about everything, and even today we’ve got battle lines set up on lots of fronts, from the real meaning of Vatican II to the new translation of the missal, to artificial birth control, to the status of lay people — especially women — in the Church. We may not be killing one another these days, but we still have our nasty moments. 

In all of this, today, I guess I’m feeling a special sympathy for Pope Benedict XVI, who is not only a major symbol of our unity as Catholics, but is somehow, in some way, supposed to effect what he symbolizes. That can’t be easy, not with all our factions, and our factions of factions. Most of us feel very free to disagree with His Holiness on one issue or another, and I suspect that even some of those claiming to be 100 percent faithful to the pope and the Magisterium really only mean it when the pope and Magisterium are in 100 percent agreement with them (more on that in a minute). 

So my question is this: We do not, of course, owe blind obedience to every non-doctrinal word that comes out of Rome, but what sort of loyalty do we owe the pope? Again, I’m not speaking here of our dogma and doctrines, but of all the unsettled issues we argue about every day. When the pope takes a stand, when should we feel free to disagree with him? 

Case in point: A couple of weeks ago Margaret Palliser, OP, editor of our sister publication Living with Christ, shared with me some angry letters she had received from subscribers. The source of the anger? One of the Sunday reflections had used the words “climate change.” 

Want to start a fight among Catholics (or in Congress)? Mention “climate change.”  For a lot of people, the very words are code for “global warming,” and “global warming” is code for what they believe to be a fraudulent extremist environmental political agenda to destroy the American way of life. And for people who feel this way, even mentioning this “political propaganda” in the context of Jesus and the gospel is akin to blasphemy. 

One letter-writer summed it up this way:

“Please keep on being a spiritual magazine and avoid any quasi-scientific theories like ‘climate change.’ We are loyal readers and have been for years but were dismayed that a theory would enter your discourse when it could easily have been worded without the use of ‘climate change’ in the reflections for the 1st Sunday of Lent. If this magazine turns into that kind of magazine we are gone.” 

Sister Margaret gently replied to these letters. She said we were sorry we offended these readers, but that, on this issue, we stand not only with the American bishops, who have web pages devoted to climate change, but with Pope Benedict XVI, who has spoken on many occasions about the reality of climate change and the moral challenges it presents to us. For example, in his January 1, 2010,World Day of Peace address to the world, the pope said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity… and the growing phenomenon of ‘environmental refugees’?…” Pope Benedict not only acknowledges the reality of climate change, he acknowledges it in a religious context. 

The person who wrote the letter I quoted above was not impressed with our response, and he dismissed the pope’s position rather cavalierly: “Shouldn’t the Church have learned its lesson from the Galileo incident not to mix in science?” he wrote. “Since this is not an ‘ex cathedra’ proclamation we are free to disagree with His Holiness.” 

I found myself perplexed by this reply. Using this reasoning — that the Church should never mix in science — should the pope never say anything about such scientific matters as in-vitro fertilization or embryonic stem cell research? (Some scientists say exactly that.) Of course not. The Church must speak out about these issues because they have profound moral implications. What Catholic would disagree? But why, then, should we feel free to ignore the pope when he speaks of climate change and the profound moral implications that come with it? I don’t think we can have it both ways. It makes no sense to say the Church can mix in science on some issues, but not others. 

Climate change, some critics say, isn’t really science. It doesn’t matter to them that the solid consensus  (more than 95 percent) among climate scientists is that the Earth is warming — and perhaps dangerously so where human life and culture are concerned. Instead they point to a few scientists who disagree with the consensus, or, they say (correctly, but only up to a point) that climate science is so complex that it is hard to say with absolute certainty just how bad the effects will be. Some of them go further and argue that the data has been faked in a huge, ideologically driven conspiracy (even though independent investigations to show fraud have come up with little more than noise). 

Pope Benedict XVI is not naïve. If there is anyone in the Church capable of resisting seduction by a radical conspiracy, it’s Pope Benedict. He seems to realize that if you delete the extremist voices on the left and right of this issue, you are left with disturbing scientific information that cannot be dismissed easily. For example, this chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:


Even high school science experiments show that a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (or water) retains more heat. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to rise at a frightening rate. And here’s a NOAA summary of all the data: 

“Seven of these indicators would be expected to increase in a warming world and observations show that they are, in fact, increasing. Three would be expected to decrease and they are, in fact, decreasing.” 

We can argue about how much of this climate change is manmade — a considerable amount according to the scientific consensus — or how catastrophic the changes will be. But climate change itself is real enough. On scientific issues, Pope Benedict also has the benefit of all the experts in the Pontifical Academy of Science, and as one paper on species extinction from the Vatican’s own scientists says: “Bad as things are already, the addition of global warming as a major driver of extinction makes the situation even more serious. Over the past decade, the evidence for the existence of human-induced global climate change, including warming and shifts in patterns of precipitation, has become overwhelming” (emphasis added). 

Climate change is an important moral issue for Pope Benedict, as he says clearly in his recent book Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times: “In view of the threatening catastrophe, there is the recognition everywhere that we must make moral decisions. There is also a more or less pronounced awareness of a global responsibility for it; that ethics must no longer refer merely to one’s own group or one’s own nation, but rather must keep the Earth and all its people in view.”  

Benedict is especially concerned about climate change’s impact on the poor, and that any action to deal with it not be taken at the expense of the poor. And, he says, nations will not deal well with this until individuals face it in their own lives. “In that respect, this is a challenge for the Church,” he says. “She not only has a major responsibility; she is, I would say, often the only hope. For she is so close to people’s consciences that she can move them to particular acts of self-denial and can inculcate basic attitudes in souls.” 

I’ve spent time on climate change here because, for me, it’s a recent example of how so many Catholics feel free not only to disagree with the pope, but to dismiss him out of hand when he says something that goes against their own attitudes. But many other issues could have served as well. How many of us think the pope is right on target when he agrees with us, but find lots of excuses to dismiss him when he runs counter to our moral or political views? “What can a celibate man know about married life? …  He doesn’t understand the complexities of the war on terror … or the American economy … He’s getting bad advice,” and on and on. 

While blind, unquestioning obedience is really not the traditional Catholic way, dismissing our leaders out of hand when we disagree with them does not represent the best of our tradition, either. Do we not at least owe them a fair and careful hearing on these issues? Shouldn’t we work to understand their arguments and reasoning and think about how the issues they discuss might be calling us to conversion? Or do we treat the Church — as I read in an old copy of Catholic Digest from the 1940s — like a bus that we only climb aboard when it is going in our direction? 

Granted, we always have been and probably always will be a quarrelsome, even stiff-necked people. In light of this, what kind of loyalty, what kind of a hearing do we owe the pope when he takes a stand we don’t like?  

As we enter into the second half of Lent I’ll be thinking about this and what it means in my own life. And I’d love to hear your thoughts.



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