OK, I admit it. I have a small picture of Pope John Paul II hanging in my study at home. Peter Steinfels thinks that this is a problem. Here is a snippet of a recent post he wrote. It was republished the other day at dotCommonweal:
When I find the equivalent of such pictures hanging in the minds of first-rate intellectuals, however, I cannot help but wonder. I confess that a great deal of reading in the very spotted history of the Left in the twentieth century has forced me to ponder the resemblance of papal adulation by some Catholic intellectuals to that of various Great Leaders from Lenin to Fidel to Mao by some left-wing intellectuals. When I once suggested this parallel out loud, my friend Jean Bethke Elshtain was appalled. Was I suggesting that John Paul II resembled Stalin? Of course not. Those who sang Stalin’s praises had to willfully blind themselves to many of his deeds, while those who sang John Paul’s praises had the very contrary at hand. Nonetheless, there seemed something disturbingly similar in this impulse, and not just in the case of John Paul “the Great,” to highlight and extol virtually every papal deed and statement while finding a way to deflect or ignore almost all criticism…
And then this:
But the practical effect of all this does not bother me, though perhaps it should, as much as the questions it raises about the Catholic intellect. Catholic thinkers are well aware that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not worked straightforwardly in the history of the popes and, furthermore, that there has not even been a clear relationship between personal sanctity or theological acumen and institutional leadership. I pay attention when Benedict issues an encyclical. I welcome it as an occasion to reexamine my own thinking and choices. But knowing how many papal encyclicals are justly forgotten today, I do not feel the need to treat it as inspired or devise complicated excuses for why he should not be held responsible for the parts of it that seem to be wanting.
Frankly, I am not sure what to make of this post. Obviously Steinfels is using the “picture of the Pope on the wall” as a metaphor to chide conservative Catholic intellectuals for not being critical of Papal teaching. He calls it “papalotry.” Fair enough. (Although the use of the term “papalotry” is a bit over the top). But I also think part of him really does not like intellectuals hanging pictures of Popes in their offices.
I like this response to Steinfels from Gregory Wolfe. He questions the inherent elitism of Steinfels’s post, especially when he claims that it is OK for lay Catholics to have a picture of the Pope in their house, but not Catholic intellectuals.
This whole thing leaves me scratching my head. I agree with Wolfe when he writes: “Are Catholic intellectuals called to some sort of Olympian detachment–some height of austere critical consciousness–that we cannot hang the picture of a pope on our walls as the common people do?”
All of this leads me to wonder about what makes a Catholic intellectual “Catholic.” I am not saying that all Catholic intellectuals must agree with everything the Pope says, but there has to be some kind of loyalty to a religious tradition–The Tradition–that makes a Catholic intellectual “Catholic.” In other words, how can one take a stand of critical detachment from the teachings of Catholicism before one ceases being a “Catholic intellectual” and becomes merely an “intellectual?” Wolfe gives this concern a more positive spin when he asks: “How can criticism and loyalty, attachment and detachment, co-exist?”
One of the things I love about dotCommonweal is its vibrant group of blog commenters. Many of them are worth reading, including an extended response from Steinfels.
I am not a Catholic intellectual. But there is a lot I admire about Catholic social teaching. I admire John Paul II. I do not agree with everything he teaches, but I admire his courage to defend the dignity of humanity against a variety of forces–late term abortions, “savage capitalism,” totalitarian communism, the death penalty–that have attempted to undermine that dignity. I admire him enough to place his picture in my home office.
I should add, by the way, that in addition to John Paul II and pictures of my wife and daughters, one will also find hanging in my study pictures of William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Johnny Cash, Frederick Douglass, Bruce Springsteen, and former New York Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool. (The Kranepool picture is autographed!).
I will now step aside and let my readers deconstruct my life…