John XXIII once remarked that the Vatican was the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian. The pope’s impish bon mot floated like skywriting over the double canonization in St. Peter’s Square on the Second Easter Sunday. On the glittering heels of this production came advance notice of another: London’s The Tablet reported that Paul VI is on the books for beatification this coming October.
Are we at the point where election to the Petrine office is itself a signal of godliness, a guarantee of eventual canonization? Will each pope canonize his predecessor—or two or three of them—with the unspoken assumption that his own successor will return the compliment? Is election a promissory note drafted in white smoke, and redeemable at death for public elevation to the rank of saint? It begins to look that way.
Not only the faithful but their shepherds, too, are susceptible to media-induced semblances of sanctity. Devotion to the aura of sanctity and to the machine that produces it makes cult figures out of mere men. Like that talking snake in Eden, it murmurs in the ear. It excites the illusion that every papal opinion—however lacking in prudence or responsible facts—is oracular.
This expedited exercise in saint-making was a premature apotheosis, a pageant of synthetic piety staged for immediate media consumption. With this as a precedent, canonization risks becoming one more pseudo-event, like bread and circus, thrown to a culture besotted with virtual reality.
In our lifetime, we have watched the papacy descend into spectacle. By now, showboating—from kissing feet to a mega-Mass on Copacabana Beach—is an established feature of the modern papacy. As if spectacle itself could cure the malaise that has emptied churches, closed parishes, and turned cathedrals into pay-per-view tourist sites.
Benedict seemed to have little appetite for the parade. During his reign, he appeared more a captive than an agent of it. Yet even he cooperated with his captor. In his last general audience in St. Peter’s, he lapsed into the kind of mutual deception that fans celebrity culture: “The Pope belongs to everyone, and so many people feel very close to him.”
No, the man does not belong to everyone. Any suggestion that he does is a saccharine oblation to consumers of image. That illusion of intimacy, so seductive and so crippling, is the very ground of demagogic populism. It is a dangerous chimera, as lethal to the judgment of a faith community as to electoral politics. Catholics—popes among them—are no less subject than anyone else to the lure of the star system and its crafted emphasis on personality.
It took no time at all for Francis to degrade into a celebrity. And like any politically astute showman, he takes to the camera for carefully designed photo-ops. (Posing with an anti-fracking T-Shirt in November, he conferred on activist filmmakers the kind of endorsement we expect from Yoko Ono and Matt Damon.) Media-conscious symbolic gestures are mirrored in an airy, imprecise rhetoric that is a receptacle for whatever meaning the public drops into it.
Francis clearly likes the elusive phrase “economy of exclusion.” He has used it before. Imprecise, it is a phrase for rent to fixers and mongers of any stripe. This time he served it to Ban Ki-Moon and visiting attachés of that grand sepulcher on the East River. But what do the words signify? Are they a gloved jab at the crony capitalism disabling his native Argentina? Do they aim at an American president who obligates an unborn generation to insurmountable debts not of its making? Was Francis making veiled reference to the debased status of imperiled Christians in Syria? Or, perhaps, to Islamo-leftism and the price of totalitarian theocracy? Might the phrase have sideways, metaphoric application to Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?
None of these. Uttered in concert with an autocratic injunction for “legitimate redistribution” of wealth, our pope was lending his office to apostles of the same tired, ideological hostility toward the market that ends in economic slavery under the guise of social justice. Papal messianism, bolstered by lack of competence in economics, is the road to a familiar hell, however finely paved with lovely intention.
We know the old curse: May you live in interesting times. This might be a good time to expand the malediction to include the charm of popular popes.