Is it time to cautiously lower the volume of acclaim for the new Bishop of Rome? Is there a danger of losing a proper perspective on the papacy? Do we need a new papal superstar? Are some people blindly promoting a new cult of the papacy? Is the pope really the heart of the church?

I suggest these are important questions. I leave it to thoughtful brothers and sisters in our community of faith (the church) to ponder and propose the answers.

Historically, superstar popes have not always generated and promoted a healthy institutional church. I leave aside for the moment the Polish Superstar Pope John Paul the Great. We can more objectively examine an earlier papal superstar: Pope Pius IX. (He started at least as a papal superstar, before becoming more of a theological death star; and later a self-centered pontifical megalomaniac.)

Following the death of Pope Gregory XVI (1831–46), the conclave of 1846, not so unexpectedly, began with a struggle between conservatives and liberals. After the first ballot there was a deadlock. Liberals and moderates then decided to cast their votes for Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti . On the second day of the conclave, on 16 June 1846, Mastai-Ferretti was elected Pope. Historian Francis Burkle-Young wrote about him: “He was a glamorous candidate, ardent, emotional with a gift for friendship and a track-record of generosity even towards anti-Clericals….”

Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Bishop of Spoleto, took the name Pius IX in honor of his great patron Pope Pius VII (1800–23), who had encouraged him to enter the priesthood despite Mastai-Ferretti’s childhood epilepsy.

Somewhat like today’s Pope Francis, the election of the liberal Pope Pius IX created great enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere. For twenty months following his election, “Pio Nono” was the most popular man in Italy. Even English Protestants were delighted with him, cheering him as a friend and a reformer who would move Europe toward greater freedom and progress. The press applauded him as pious, progressive, intellectual, a really decent fellow, friendly, and open to everyone. Many religious and secular observers considered him a model of simplicity and poverty, in his every day affairs

Three years after his election, however, Pius IX was already revealing himself as another kind of leader: autocratically imposing an ever-increasing centralization and consolidation of power in Rome and the papal office; and exaggerating the place of Jesus’ Mother, proclaiming her Mediatrix of Salvation in 1849.

At Vatican I of course he had himself proclaimed infallible. Prior to that, in 1864, he had issued the Syllabus of Errors, which set the Roman Catholic Church in reverse gear for almost a hundred years.

Some of the key “MODERNIST ERRORS” condemned in the Syllabus were the following points:

• “In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.” (No. 77)

• “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.” (No.18).

• “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” (No. 55)

• “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.” (No. 15)

• “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (No. 80)

One can argue – perhaps feverishly – that Pope Francis is not another Pope Pius IX. I certainly hope he isn’t. I applaud the new pope’s simple attire, friendly approach, and rejection of Renaissance papal pomp and circumstance.

Nevertheless I do fear a return to the cult of the papal personality. Papal canonizations of previous popes simply underline my concerns. How many former popes is Francis going to canonize? Why?

And very frankly, I have seen very little “progressive” theology or healthy and truly contemporary theological decisions coming from his pen.

Since Vatican II, we have stressed that we are a church of collegiality and shared decision-making. At all levels. I want to see some powerful signs that Francis and his administration are moving in that same direction.

And of course, three years from now I hope Pope Francis has not become a resuscitated Pio Nono!



    1. Laura, that indeed is the big question. Right now I suspect it is too early to say…… A couple of my friends have already reprimanded me for asking the question. That is pure nonsense. – Jack

  1. Catholics and noncatholics are so relieved to see a loving approach and a moderated posture from this pope. It just shows how hungry people have been for something positive. It’s not wrong to ask the question about substance. And it’s not just a question of, “will he,” but “can he?”

    1. Yes….when we can no longer question, we have fallen into a very dark hole. Thanks for continuing the reflection… – Jack

  2. I have read some of his writings and they really are dated. But maybe it is attitude that helps. When he was elected, I vowed not to have high hopes, but I was willing to be surprised.

  3. Excellent point Jack, and a very telling parallel. As I was reading your text it all suddenly unfolded. Pio Nono was radicalized by the 1848 revolutions if I remember right, and ultimately by losing the Papal States. It was undoubtably easier to be charming and progressive before the presuppositions of papal power were threatened.

    Regarding Francis, the key will be whether he can progress from affirming the Church’s identification with the poor as such, to recognizing the feminization of poverty — and not merely as an economic phenomenon, but as a cornerstone in building a new and credible Church in which women’s natural and baptismal dignity can never be relativized.

  4. No, we do not need another Papal Superstar – we need some honesty and we need some progress and we need some action. And we are not getting any of that at all! It seems to me my initial reaction to Francis was pretty near the mark- just another cover for benedict, a front man who is going to do what he wants but cannot do himself now ( the true reasons for which I feel we have still not heard. I just don’t ‘buy’ the health reasons convenient explanation. Popes do not just resign, they die at the Vatican.)
    According to the news report some few weeks back in the U.K. which is where I am based, Francis indicated that he fully supports the traditional views and dogmas of the Church including not allowing women to become priests. That says it all. My patience with all this is at an end. It’s time we, the Laiety, the people who constitute the Church took a very firm and revolutionary stance. We are NOT sheep to be dictated to. The Church must become a democracy like evrything else and start listening to people who are thinking for themselves. Mari Sutcliffe.

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