Catholics follow the pope. Everyone knows that. What some people don’t know is what that really means. Non-Catholics tend to think this means Catholics believe whatever the pope tells them to, and that the pope can change Catholic teaching with his words or the stroke of a pen. In fact, a good number of Catholics (incorrectly) believe that too. To understand things a little better, it may be best to look at a few terms and what they mean…
The word Catholic simply means “universal” or “whole” and “complete.” It’s the old Greek way of saying “non-sectarian” meaning a Christian who doesn’t get caught up in denominations, affiliations, sects and divisions. Today, modern English-speakers used the term “nondenominational” in a similar way, but when they say it, they’re almost unanimously talking about Evangelical Protestants who no longer wish to identify with the historic Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, etc.). They still very much cling to the sectarian teachings of Luther, Calvin and the Church of England, but for whatever reason, they no longer wish to identify with those historic Protestant denominations. So in the English-speaking world, a “nondenominational Christian” is really just an Evangelical, which is a Protestant who no longer wishes to identify as a Protestant. It would be pretty rare to see a “nondenominational Christian” praying to Saints, using a Rosary, or making the sign of the cross. That’s because these “nondenominational Christians” are really Protestants at the core of their belief system, and Protestants usually oppose these things at various levels.
However, the old Greek way of saying “nondenominational” (Katholikos or Catholic) is much more universal than this. Catholic means universal in a more “universal” sense, in that it is the faith embraced by the most Christians everywhere, and in unity with the most Christians in the past and throughout history. The Catholic Church can boast of 1.3 billion members today. Yes, that’s “billion” with a “b.” That’s more than half of all Christians on the planet. So when we’re talking about universality of Christian belief, we have to consider that Catholics make up more than half of all the 2.4 billion Christians worldwide. It doesn’t get more “universal” than that in the Christian world. The vast majority of Christians live in the “Mostly Catholic” regions of the world. Eastern Orthodoxy is limited primarily to Eastern Europe and Russia, while Protestantism (which includes the “nondenominational” versions) is limited primarily to Germanic language countries of the world (which include English-speaking countries of course).
To be Catholic is to follow the historic teachings of the Catholic Church. In the English-speaking world, these are most clearly represented in three Catechisms: The Catechism of Trent (or “The Roman Catechism”), the Baltimore Catechism and the Universal Catechism of Pope Saint John Paul II. Catholics are all about following the FAITH of the Church, taught by these historical Catechisms, and the Sacred Scriptures of the Bible. So to be Catholic means to follow the Catechism and the Bible. (NOTE: Catholics must use the Catechism to help them interpret the Bible, so there are no misunderstandings of the Sacred Scriptures. Protestants don’t use the Catechism, so they have many different denominations, because each has a different interpretation of the Bible.) Now the pope is very much a part of the Faith taught in the Catechism, but while the pope is part of the Faith, he is not THE faith embodied. Rather, he has a job to do in the Catholic Church, and Catholics are required to respect him for this, and be submissive to his teachings, insofar as they don’t contradict the Catechism or the Bible. That, however, is where our agreement with the pope meets its limit. The pope must agree with the historic Catholic faith, as embodied in the Catechism and the Bible, and if he contradicts it, we must respectfully disagree with him. He’s still the pope, of course, and we pray for him, but we cannot go along with him should he contradict the established and historic Catholic Faith as taught in the Catechism and the Bible. This is Catholic.
A papist is a Catholic. It was once a derogatory term used to describe Catholics, meaning Christians who support the OFFICE of the papacy (pope). Naturally, this is what Catholics do, or at least what we should do, if they want to remain Catholics in good standing. Supporting the OFFICE of the papacy is not the same as supporting each and every pope. There are popes in history who were not well-supported because these men were criminals. During this time, a papist (or Catholic) would be somebody who supported the office of the pope in principle, even if he didn’t support the man currently occupying that office. Again, this is Catholic. This is how Catholics should think, an it’s how Catholics should support the papacy. We always support the office, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we always agree with the man who currently occupies that office.
A popolator, on the other hand, is somebody who idolizes the pope (pope-idolatry or popolatry). A popolator is usually a Catholic who has gone off the rails, so to speak, looking to the pope as some kind of demigod of guru. These people usually believe the pope is incapable of error in matters of faith or morals, or that he can change Church doctrine with the utterance of his lips or the stroke of a pen. Popolators can be either liberal or conservative, modernist or traditionalist.
Basically, the whole thing is based on a false belief (a heresy) implicitly condemned by the First Vatican Council in 1869 through 1870. This council limited papal infallibility to ex cathedra decrees, which are primarily used in the canonization of Saints, but outside of that are very rare. The text of the Council on this matter reads as follows: “Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the sacred council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.” (First Vatican Council, Session 4, Chapter 4, paragraph 9, given on 18th Day of July in 1870.)
Notice the text of the decree does not say the pope is always infallible, at all times, just as it says the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. While the decree gives unlimited authority to a singular act, it implicitly limits that authority to that singular act. When the pope is not speaking ex cathedra, he could be fallible. He could be in error. As I said above, most of the time these infallible decrees, which are made ex cathedra, concern the matter of canonizing Saints. They very rarely involve other matters of faith and morals. The last non-canonization, ex cathedra decree was in 1950, concerning the Assumption of Mary into Heaven at the end of her early life.
Beyond that, it is possible for the pope to error, even on matters of faith and morals, so long as the teaching is not made ex cathedra. That means Catholics should take the teachings of the pope very seriously, whether formal or informal, and should compare them with the previous teachings of the Church, especially those found in the Catechism and Scripture. Guess what? This means in order to be good Catholics, we have to actually read the Catechism and Scripture. We can’t be lazy. Indeed, laziness is how popolatry gains a foothold among Catholics. Don’t think for one moment that Catholics are alone in this phenomenon. Protestants do it too, just not with the pope. We see it all the time in the form of megachurch pastors and televangelists, who become “pope-like” figures within Protestantism, seemingly infallible, incapable of error in the minds of their followers.
Perhaps we could say this is the main difference between a religion and a cult. A religion has standards, or historical teachings, which religious leaders are held accountable to, and must answer to. Even Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah who is God in the flesh, was held accountable to the Law of Moses, and the teachings of Israel’s Prophets. If God himself was held accountable to his own previous teachings in the Law of Moses and Israel’s prophets, it’s unreasonable to assume that any pope could be above the teachings of previous popes as taught in the Catechism, or the Apostles themselves, as taught in the New Testament. A cult, on the other hand, is based on personality, wherein one person (or more) dictate doctrine without any accountability to previous religious standards.
No, the popes are not demigods or gurus. They’re fallible men, who occupy a position (or office) with infallible potential. They must be held accountable to the teachings of previous popes and councils, as well as the Apostles. This is why it’s so important for Catholics to study both the Bible AND the Catechism. For the Catholic Christian faith is contained therein. However, the heresy of popolatry appeals to the laziness of human nature, coddling the desire to avoid critical thinking and the necessity of study.
Now popolatry takes on two forms, depending upon the temperament of the Catholic who embraces the heresy.
If the Catholic has a liberal or modernist temperament, popolatry will take on a “dial-a-pope… get a new doctrine” mindset, wherein the popolator is eager to have the their faith reshaped into something completely different with each new pope who steps out onto the loggia after the decree habamus papum is read. If, however, the popolator doesn’t like a particular pope, because his teachings don’t tickle his or her fancy, then he or she just waits for the next one to step out onto the loggia. I recall listening to modernist Catholics lament the conservative moral teachings of Pope St. John Paul II, calling for him to retire and bring in a newer (more modern) pope. When he finally died in 2005, the conservative Pope Benedict XVI was elevated to the Chair of Peter, and these same modernists threw their hands up in the air saying “we’ll just have to wait for the next one!” Then, in 2013, when Pope Francis was elected after the retirement of Benedict XVI, those same modernists rejoiced. Now to be fair, Pope Francis hasn’t been quite the modernist that these people were hoping for, but he appears to have dabbled in modernism quite a bit, at least enough to keep these modernists happy. Modernist popolators look to the pope as a demigod or guru who can shape the Catholic religion in a way that’s desirable to them.
If the Catholic has a conservative or traditionalist temperament, popolatry can take on a much more interesting form. Conservative or traditionalist popolators tend to hold that the pope is incapable of making any error, whatsoever, on matters related to faith and morals. There is one difference, however, that separates them from the modernists. These people actually study the Catechism and the Bible (at least superficially), but they particularly study the writings and decrees of popes in ages past. So when a modern pope, like Pope Francis for example, seems to contradict historical papal teaching, something interesting happens. The popolator cannot accept the new (apparently heretical) teaching from the new pope, and since the real pope cannot commit any error (according to their thinking), he must not be the real pope. He must be, rather, an impostor pope! Or what is called an Antipope. Since there is no other pope to be found, they conclude that the Chair of Peter must be empty. In Latin, the word “chair” is sede, and the word “empty” is vacante, from which the English word “vacant” derives. Thus, these conservative and traditional popolators have come to be known by the Latin phrase sede-vacante, or sedevacantist, meaning they believe the current pope is an antipope (or an impostor), and the Chair of Peter is now vacant. There are some sedevacantists who believe the Chair of Peter went vacant with the election of Pope Francis. Others believe it went vacant with the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958.
As you can see, having a proper understanding of the pope, and the office of the papacy, is vitally important to dealing with popes that don’t meet the usual criteria of doctrinal excellence. Most of the time, popes are very careful about their teachings, and often send them through rigorous scrutiny by doctrinal experts before making them public. But not all popes are like that. Some, like Pope Francis for example, are known for “off the cuff” remarks that seem to contradict historic Church teaching. Pope Francis has even appeared to challenge orthodoxy with his official teachings in written form, and some of his actions have been cause for scandal as well. The challenge of Pope Francis to Catholics is one of popolatry. He literally leaves no room for it in his papacy. Modernists popolators, initially thrilled by his seemingly liberal attitudes, are now frustrated by his refusal to budge on pet modernist issues like abortion, artificial contraception and women priests. At the same time, traditionalist popolators may feel vindicated by Pope Francis’ unpredictable reign, but at the same time are frustrated by the majority of traditionalists who refuse to join them in their sedevacantist conclusions. That’s because the majority of traditionalists are not popolators. Because, you see, the majority of traditionalists are just Catholics — good ol’ fashioned papists — who support the institution of the papacy, but don’t idolize the pope as some kind of demigod or guru who is incapable of error. They understand that the pope can error, outside of ex cathedra decrees, and while they find the Francis papacy frustrating, they know it does not change the Catholic Christian Faith, nor can it. No pope can undo the infallible teachings of previous popes, nor that of any Church council, and certainly not the Sacred Scriptures. It’s not within his authority to do so.
If you would like more information about how to grapple with a pope who seems to contradict the faith, it’s best to have a good understanding of the papal office and the history behind it. We’ve had both good popes and bad popes. I address this further in my essay entitled When Peter has Fallen.
The moral to this story is that if you call yourself a Catholic, and if you really want to practice authentic Catholicism, you need to actually study the Catholic faith, via the Catechism and the Scriptures. You can’t be lazy, and you can’t rely on somebody else to do it for you. You can’t depend on the pope, to act as your demigod or guru, so you can lazily follow his latest decrees as they’re announced on the evening news. You can’t rely on your “hip” and “cool” priest to just spoon feed it to you in his Sunday homilies.. No, you actually have to do it yourself. That means you might actually have to crack open a book and read. I recommend the Baltimore Catechism #4 and the Revised Standard Version of the Catholic Bible as a good place to start. Of course, not everyone learns well by reading. Some people are more audio-visual. Thankfully, in this age of the Internet, you can get pretty good Catechism training at the 3 Minute Catechism series on YouTube, and you can hear the Bible read to you on your smart phone or tablet (download your application at the Apple Store for iPhone, or the Google Play Store for Android). Of course, for all those tough questions, not easily answered, you can view my apologetic page RealClearCatholic.Com. As difficult as it is for some to accept, personal study is now the only way to get a really good understanding of the Catholic faith, which means applying one’s self. You have to try. If you rely on others to do it for you, you could end up becoming a popolator.