What’s so bad about “bad popes”?
For that matter, lest anyone think I’m surreptitiously banging on the Pope Francis drum again, my question applies to “bad clerics” in general. I’m talking about the kind of corruption and hypocrisy that Dante and Chaucer lampooned. Forget about Pope Francis for now. In fact, let me make it clear that I AM IN NO WAY LIKENING POPE FRANCIS TO John XII, Boniface VIII, Alexander VI, et al. This is a philosophical query, not a journalistic ploy. I’m curious what other Catholics think here. If the key is to trust the pope because we trust God, then why are we skittish about endorsing popes like John XII or Alexander VI just as warmly as we endorse a Pope Leo I or a John Paul II? Why can’t we say something like, “Despite all their personal failings and pastoral mistakes, John XII and Alexander VI were still good popes“? Similarly, if part of our duty as laymen is to heed and submit to our pastor as a sacramental minister of God’s grace–as a true alter Christus–, even if we think he lives too ostentatiously, is liturgically sloppy, gives mediocre and confusing sermons, is not a warm “people person,” etc., then what are the criteria for “ranking” priests and bishops?
Let’s say that Alexander VI was as bad as his critics say he was. Who cares? He didn’t, and couldn’t, change official doctrine, so he didn’t, and couldn’t, do any lasting harm to the Church. Arguably, the souls of the faithful are protected even more strongly by the same indefectible graces of Holy Mother Church and the compensating actual graces of the Holy Spirit during especially bad ecclesiastical weather. If all popes are inevitably and incommensurately a mix of good and bad, and there are no objective criteria by which their “performance” or “dereliction” of duty can be ranked, why should we even countenance the idea of “bad popes” and “great popes”? In the crucial respect of being the voice of Peter in their day, all popes are given the same measure of divine protection in order not to teach falsely concerning faith and morals in a binding way for the Church–so why should we even care about their pastoral styles, personalities, projects, changes, opinions, etc.?
As I say, my question applies to ordinary bishops and priests in general. We may not like a pastor, or we may think he’s the bee’s knees–but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that he is endowed with sacramental grace and therefore can be relied upon in that respect, no matter how effective or ineffective, how charismatic or repellent, he may be as a person. At what point does assessing the personal aspects of a clerical officeholder become more than mere gossip or vain fretting? God’s grace in the sacraments cannot be thwarted, so as long as he is still a validly ordained minister of the sacraments and does not explicitly (formally) profess heresy, why should we ever criticize the personal accoutrements of a pastor? Technically, isn’t “technically good enough” good enough?
I think this quandary boils down to understanding the essential function and role a Catholic pastor. What is the primary role of a priest, of a bishop, of a pope? I have my ideas–but I’ll stop here in order to leave the floor to you, dear reader.