The critical reactions, sometimes extremely negative, provoked by the accusation of “papolatry” are easily understandable. The sound of the word immediately evokes another term that indicates one of the most serious sins denounced by the Judeo-Christian Tradition: idolatry. This association is normal considering the etymology of the two words. Of Greek origin, the latter term is composed of eídōlon (“idol”) + látris (“worshipper”) or latreúō (“I worship”), and indicates the highest act that man owes exclusively to God, an act that, instead of being directed towards the supreme, infinite, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator, is directed towards a creature – the idol (whatever it may be). In summary, idolatry consists of worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. The history of the chosen people of Israel is a long confrontation between the monotheistic Judean religion and the polytheistic, idolatrous religions of the surrounding pagan nations.
Since my conversion in 2000, I have encountered some Catholics who believe in a “papal oracle.” For them, the pope is permanently guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that everything he says – at least as Pope, if not also as a private person – must be received as if it came directly from the mouth of God.
The term “papolatry” has a mixed origin, Greco-Latin. It comes from the Latin pāpa (“Pope”), to which, similar to the term “idolatry,” the Greek látris (“worshipper”) or latreúō (“I worship”) is added. Therefore, from a strictly philological point of view, the term “papolatry” seems to indicate the worship of the Pope instead of God. It is evident why the use of such a word often triggers strong reactions. Adding the fact that the first to use our term were Protestant reformers makes the rejection even clearer. For these reasons, Dr. Kwasniewski chose to create a new term, “hyperpapalism,” which does not sound as excessive to the ears of certain Catholics.
Although I acknowledge that the term “papolatry” is strong, I interchangeably use both words. If someone were to ask me about their meanings, I would first respond with a concrete example taken from the words of many Catholic believers, priests, and bishops who often speak of the “supreme authority” of the Pope. I think that it is imprudent and risky to use such words when not speaking about God – because only God has “supreme authority.” As I have already shown in other articles, the authority of any member of the Church hierarchy, be it a priest, bishop, or pope, derives from divine authority and depends on it. It is exactly like our teaching about the Holy Virgin Mary: although she is unquestionably called the mediator (mediatrix) of all graces, no true Catholic will say that she is the source of these divine graces. Similarly, the fact that the Pope is indeed the highest authority on earth does not mean that he is the source of this authority. The Pope is just a vicar – that is, the representative of the Savior Christ, whom he represents – but not His substitute.
In such a confusing and chaotic context as the modern world, where we all feel the need for true guides, we often become victims of our own lack of discernment and moderation.
Since my conversion in 2000, I have encountered some Catholics who believe in a “papal oracle.” For them, the pope is permanently guided by the Holy Spirit in such a way that everything he says – at least as Pope, if not also as a private person – must be received as if it came directly from the mouth of God. Such a belief has serious consequences regarding the exercise of discernment. For example, under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, things happened that, from a Christian perspective, fall into the category of the sin of scandal or even sacrilege (e.g. the meeting at Assisi, the enthronement of a statue of Buddha on the tabernacle of the altar at Saint Peter’s Church in Assisi, the turning of a blind eye to the case of Marcial Maciel despite the evidence, etc.). All such facts are systematically overlooked – and even denied – by those who are touched by hyperpapalism. They cannot accept that a Pope can grievously sin and make mistakes in such serious matters. Also, they cannot accept under any circumstances that a Pope could be a heretic or schismatic, even if this possibility has not raised any concerns for Catholics in other epochs.
Some defend themselves by saying that “papolatry” is not a heresy. Although it is not a heresy in the strict sense of the word, it is indeed an excess that is difficult to define. It is not related only to the Pope. Any religious leadership position can be accompanied by similar phenomena of “idolization” by the followers. The problem is that we, as fallen beings, are prone to error. And in such a confusing and chaotic context as the modern world, where we all feel the need for true guides, we often become victims of our own lack of discernment and moderation.
In a response to a reader upset about using the term “papolatry” in an article, Michael J. Matt explained that this is a term “coined by the late Dr. William Mara to describe the Protestant caricature of the theology of the papacy, i.e., that we Catholics ‘worship’ the pope as if he IS Christ rather than His vicar.” The essence of this accurate description is related to a more difficult-to-perceive issue. It is about the misguided transfer of divine prerogatives to someone to whom God Himself has entrusted the mission of representing Him on earth. More specifically, it is about considering the Pope not as a vicar but as a substitute for Christ with capabilities similar to those of the Savior. As a note, I clarify that this happens with any Christian who, instead of obediently respecting the commands and teachings established by God Himself, replaces them – through unfaithful personal interpretations – with his own teachings. Remember the Pharisees and Sadducees? They were “experts” at turning insignificant things into essential commands and minimizing essential commands.
Imagine how grave it is for a Church hierarch – especially a Pope – to do such a thing in order “to be nice” to unrepentant sinners. But to understand this in all its horror, we must first admit that a Pope can sin just like any other baptized Christian, including through the sin of heresy, apostasy, or schism.
Such an incredible episode is recounted in the Gospel according to Mark (7: 5-13), when the Pharisees and scribes reproach Jesus for the fact that his disciples, the apostles, eat with unwashed hands. The Savior’s response shows how, in the name of such human traditions, they ignore grave divine commandments such as “Honour thy father and thy mother and He that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die.” In other words, by substituting themselves for God, they had come to dictate, against divine commandments, which teachings are essential and which are not. Even if they did not necessarily invent an alternative set of laws to the one received by Moses from God, they replaced, through “subtle” interpretations, God’s commandments with human commands. With utmost clarity, we must admit that anyone who attempts to “interpret” God’s commandments with the purpose, consciously or unconsciously, of not fulfilling them, has substituted himself for Christ the Savior. God alone has the right to teach us how to live so that we may enter His Kingdom, enjoying the heavenly happiness for which He created us.
If it is already extremely serious for a believer to “craft” his own Gospel in order to avoid those commandments he does not wish to respect, imagine how grave it is for a Church hierarch – especially a Pope – to do such a thing in order “to be nice” to unrepentant sinners. But to understand this in all its horror, we must first admit that a Pope can sin just like any other baptized Christian, including through the sin of heresy, apostasy, or schism. However difficult it may be for us to accept this possibility, there is no dogma postulating the contrary. The corruption of soul and mind can engulf even the highest levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Let us remember that the High Priest (a function equivalent to that of the Pope, as Saint Francis of Sales suggests in The Catholic Controversy), Caiaphas, is the one who condemned Jesus Christ to death, saying, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50).
Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, refuses to acknowledge the true king when revealed. In other words, the steward, although never sitting on the King’s throne, behaves as if he were the King himself, demanding subjects to honor him as such and treating the true and only King of Gondor with disdain. Here lies the essence of the phenomenon called “papolatry.”
To complete all that I have said above, I will remind you of an episode from J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary creation, The Lord of the Rings. I do this convinced that, often, writers and poets wonderfully describe difficult situations and teachings through images. The essence of the entire story in the Oxford professor’s novel is related to one of the deepest hopes of Christians throughout history: the return of the Great King. Whether it is the victorious return of Christ on a white horse at the end of history, described in the Book of Revelation (11:19 sq.), or just the return of a rightful Catholic king like Alfred the Great or Charles I of Austria, this is the core of Tolkien’s epic story.
So, in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, the hidden king who is the heir of Isildur, an ancient King of Arnor and Gondor, must reclaim the throne of Gondor. However, the most terrible thing is not his confrontation with the disciple of Satan (i.e., Melkor), Sauron. It is the fact that the steward (that is, “the vicar”) of the King in his absence, Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, refuses to acknowledge the true king when revealed. In other words, the steward, although never sitting on the King’s throne, behaves as if he were the King himself, demanding subjects to honor him as such and treating the true and only King of Gondor with disdain. Here lies the essence of the phenomenon called “papolatry.”
Through an illegitimate (and, maybe, unconscious) transfer, qualities and privileges that pertain exclusively to God himself come to be attributed to His Vicar on earth, the Pope, while the King himself, God, is disregarded. If my words seem too strong to someone, I invite you to remember one thing: when God himself, the King of the Universe, asked at Fatima through the Virgin Mary for Russia to be consecrated by the Pope and all bishops in communion with him to the Immaculate Heart, none of the “stewards” fulfilled His command. Personally, I believe that in the entire history of the Church and the world, there has been no more unfortunate event than this. Probably it was the highest act of disobedience ever recorded. Can we, perhaps, be surprised by what we see happening even at the highest levels of the hierarchy?
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