I sometimes hang out at the Reformed Catholicism blog. Tim Enloe recently wrote this piece about the Pope being God in some medieval writings. Read the original post. Then you can read my comment, which I reproduce in its entirety here. (Hey, I gotta post something.)
I found this post very interesting, particularily since I have read many books on Neoplatonism lately. I would like to think that it is clear for most Catholics that Jesus Christ is the One to which all must return, and it is the Pope’s duty to facilitate that return. I don’t think the whole balance between the One and the Many can be adequately obtained in real life; many Orthodox theologians claim that this is the reason they do not accept the modern Papacy as well. But all of the jurisdictional squabbles, moral ambiguity, and ethnocentrism in Orthodoxy often mean that plurality often wins out over unity. The Neoplatonic categories are too neat to apply to everyday life.
As a Roman Catholic, I will say that I DO NOT believe that the Pope is God on earth. The Church as the Body of Christ is God on earth, and the Eucharist is the image and the promise of that presence; the Church as a whole is the light of glory and the pillar and the ground of Truth. I think the equation of God’ presence to the Pope’s authority is limited to a very few individuals during certain polemics with you Protestants. If anything, the Catholics I admire would think that their crucifix or their image of the Virgin of Guadalupe represents more the presence of the Divine in their daily lives, not the Pope. I think that the slow receding of “superstitious popery” (rosary beads, statues, novenas, etc.) facilitates a Newman-like scenario where one tries to justify doctrines and beliefs one is not really comfortable with, such as the intercession of the saints or purgatory. A son of a farmer in the Mexican countryside who becomes a priest and a theologian would have never formulated the development of doctrine because for him, the Church had always been one.
(My mother, when she first came to this country, used to make the Sign of the Cross everytime she passed a church, even if it was Protestant, since she did not know that there was any other church other than the Catholic Church.)
Authority, then, becomes the ultimate arbitor of what is Catholic. Since one is not comfortable with praying a Hail Mary or kissing the hand of an ecclesiastic, one has to justify it to oneself by saying that it’s somehow okay since the authority of the Church says it is. As if it was the Church hierarchy that invented these things. I am beginning to think this is untenable for a variety of reasons. Authority only becomes a refuge when daily life, the ethos of how the Gospels are historically read, comes into crisis.
I have been thinking recently that many of the things that you Protestants find objectionable were not the inventions of Popes or bishops, but rather practices that emerged in the lives of average layfolk that the Church hierarchy only approved of ex post facto. I can’t see how the intercession of the saints, for example, emerged from some sort of scholarly debates about Scriptures, but rather from our Catholic and very human habit of talking to dead loved ones. This happened with certain individuals, mostly martyrs, and the prayers worked. (That is what is often left out of these apologetic conversations: when we pray for the intercession of the saints, they respond. Just last month, I prayed to St. Joseph, and he came through.) The hierarchy saw some precedent in the Scriptures, and deemed it was okay to do this.
Sometimes authority has to step in and say what the layfolk are doing is not okay, like the recent condemnation by the hierarchy in Mexico of the cult to “la Santa Muerte”, the Grim Reaper, which is just unjustified superstition. But as in the approbation of Marian apparitions, the hierarchy only says that it is permissible to believe in them, and they prove no harm to the Faith. Again, I reiterate, the hierarchy does not create our religion; it regulates it. I like our current Pope, for example, since he is trying to give more deference to organically evolved liturgical practices over the practices created in the 1960’s by panels of “experts”.
In the end, I am not an enthusiastic advocate of the development of doctrine since I don’t think history is all that neat. If anything, I understand it more as “punctuated equilibrium”: new understandings and practices emerge all of a sudden, with some gaps in “development” and may (emphasis on “may”) look radically different from what came before. (Though one would have to ask to what extent historical imagination plays in all of this.) I don’t think this is particularily scandalous since this is how life is. In this case, one has to trust the “authority” of the Church, the whole Church, and defer to the way of life it passes down to us, from dipping our hand in the holy water font when we enter a church to listening to the Urbi et Orbi speech on Christmas and Easter (though that is far more recent). For me, that is the way to “read” the Gospel; in the context of the greater historical and spatial reality of the Body of Christ, not in the illusion of my own ideal of what the Church should be like.
My main problem with Protestantism, then, is also one of authority. You feel yourselves free to re-invent the wheel everytime you deem it convenient or desirable. Up to very recently, we Roman Catholics were quite conservative bunch in this regard. (I think it was the “devil incarnate” himself, Blessed Pius IX, who when it was suggested that St. Joseph’s name be inserted into the Canon of the Mass, objected that he could do no such thing, since he was only the Pope.) I don’t object to “private judgement”; I object to private judgement when it is accompanied by absolute authority to negate and destroy. That is why I find Protestantism so unappealing, and dare I say it, irrational.
And that is why, even if I have a thousand difficulties with Church, I would never leave it, since that would mean I would trust myself over and above the cloud of witnesses that has shined throughout history. And in my book, that is making me God over and above them.