PopeWatch: The Vicar of Christ




Michael Potemra at National Review reminds us of a novel that in some ways is prophetic of the current pontificate:


When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, and took the name of Francis (in Italian, “Francesco”), I thought immediately of Pope Francesco I, the fictional radical pope created by Walter P. Murphy in his epic 1979 novel The Vicar of Christ. But of course I put the parallel out of my mind immediately, because the new real-life pope was an elderly Argentinean with a sad, shy facial expression and a conservative reputation, not a radical who would turn the Catholic Church upside down.
Here’s a sample of the fictional Pope Francis, responding to some conservative cardinals who ask him why he has written a document that undermines the historic 1968 anti-contraception encyclical Humanae Vitae:
We have written a pastoral document, not a theological one. You theologians may spin your spidery webs but our task is to lead souls to Christ. Humanae Vitae was wrong. It must be discarded.
The real-life Pope Francis of today has said publicly — and quite recently, at that — that he endorses Humanae Vitae. But otherwise the fictional Francis sounds a lot like the real one. Note the contrast between “pastoral” and “theological” — if you want to give heartburn to conservative Catholics, a good shortcut is to make much of that distinction. And note also the contrast between the “spidery webs” of the “theologians,” and his simple concern for people’s souls; this rhetorical populism (e.g., the declared preference for “the smell of the sheep”) is a hallmark of the current pontificate.
And here’s the fictional Francis, contrasting the traditional view — that the pope and the Church “must speak with the clarity and the force of lightning . . . with absolute authority and absolute certainty and absolute finality” – with his own view of papal authority:
As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Christ emptied Himself” of His right to Godness while He was on earth . . . then the Church may stumble and grope toward the truth, not fully comprehending the fire of ultimate truth that burns within it. It can err in the sense of failing to achieve ultimate truth.
I think the real-life Pope Francis is trying to combine this sort of papal humility — expressed in a much greater emphasis on “mercy,” dialogue, and outreach than on reassertions of dogma — with a desire not to flatly contradict any official doctrines. 

Go here to read the rest.  PopeWatch read the novel when it came out in 1979.  Although written from a liberal Catholic perspective it isn’t bad.  The novel is in three parts told from three points of view:  a tough as nails Marine Gunnery Sergeant during the Korean War, a liberal Supreme Court Justice appointed by Franklin Roosevelt and a Cardinal.  The protagonist is a Marine Colonel, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Pope.  Although liberal on most issues, the protagonist, and the liberal Supreme Court justice who is the narrator during that section of the novel, vote against abortion.  The novel is a good examination of three very different worlds.  At the time the novel came out, John Paul II had just been elected, and the reaction of PopeWatch while reading the liberal pope section of the novel was that the Church had dodged a bullet in 1978.

More to explorer


  1. I stopped reading anything Michael Potemra had to say about Catholicism several years ago — I believe it was during the 2005 conclave — when he cited Cardinal Kasper as his ideal for who the new Pope should be.

  2. Oh, he is quite liberal. He was an aide to Reagan as a young man but has steadily moved left, and I assume that it is simple inertia that keeps him among the National Review writers. He converted from Catholicism to Episcopalianism a few years ago. Would that all liberal Catholics had that amount of honesty.

  3. “As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Christ emptied Himself” of His right to Godness while He was on earth . .”

    Kenotic theology has been on the go since the middle of the 19th century, originating, I believe with Thomasius; perhaps, its most celebrated exponent was Sergei Bulgakov.

    Books have been written wrangling over the meaning of ἐκένωσεν (from κενόω) in Phil 2:7. Its other uses in the NT (Rom 4:14, 1 Cor 1:17 and 2 Cor 9:3) all refer to abstract things, faith, preaching, boasting, not to a person or even a thing, leaving its meaning in Philippians peculiar to that text, so we are thrown back on other ancient Greek sources. As a result, there are as many meanings as scholars.

  4. Potmera is a nice guy. He even reached out to me via email once when I left a comment on one of his posts, and we carried on a pleasant exchange. (Ramesh Ponnuru also has a tendency to do this). That being said, his writing is a bit all over the place. Even this article is hard to follow and make sense of the point he’s trying to make. He has this odd, stream of consciousness writing style that I find difficult to take.

  5. “the smell of the sheep”. Has Pope Francis never heard of the odor of sanctity or the joy of marriage beyond the marital act, when man and woman become the bride and groom of one another? Nobody needs counterfeit love, adulterated love, that is, love adulterated by lust, selfishness and ignorance.
    As Vicar of Christ, the Pope gets to live in the moment that he, the Pope, lives “in Persona Christi” at the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. In Persona Christi is when the Pope’s own body is transubstantiated into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. All the people through the Pope, as priest and every priest, are transubstantiated into the Body Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. This is Holy Communion…with Jesus Christ.
    Calling the Holy Eucharist “a meal of bread and wine” is a horrible heresy that denies the Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The “meal” denies to the people, the sheep, me, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist and our chance to live in the moment of transubstantiation into the Divinity of Christ as “alter Christi”. Every priest, especially the Pope is duty bound as real representative of Christ, the “Vicar of Christ” on earth to offer the real sacrifice of the crucifixion, to God, the Father, for the atonement of our sins and the price of mercy, for in Love, God created man, in Justice, God condemned him and in mercy, God redeemed him. (One may see here, the contradiction of “no mercy” of Islam)
    The Vicar of Christ must keep his people in the perfect, real presence of Jesus Christ, Whose Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at all times is being transubstantiated, that is, brought down from heaven onto the altars of the Catholic Church around the world. It is no small thing that Saint Teresa of Avila said that one Holy Communion with Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity lived throughout one’s life is enough to get a person to heaven. (Sorry Saint Teresa, I did the best I could)) There is more as I rummage around in the darkness of my soul and beg the Holy Spirit for light. This is why I “repair” to the Sacrament of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.

  6. Let me add to the chorus of praise for Potemra the man–he’s a prince of a guy. I like him.

    Because of that, his writing on things religious rankles less. That, and his writing on religion seems to be part of a lengthy effort to put spiritual pieces together, which I think explains why he can be hard to follow. For me, it’s not so much stream of consciousness as a work in progress.

    Where I think he falls down is that he seems not to have a good grasp on the “conservative Catholic” experience in this country. We’ve too often been at receiving end of the mailed fists of little tyrants who use words like “pastoral,” “dialogue,” and “mercy” in every other sentence–and they contradict each and every one of those words as they punish their enemies.

  7. Oh, he is quite liberal. He was an aide to Reagan as a young man but has steadily moved left, and I assume that it is simple inertia that keeps him among the National Review writers.

    You have to wonder what their applicant pool looks like. Mr. Lowry has for about 15 years now been unable to hire staff editors who write engaging pieces and favor the magazine’s posited editorial mission. For about 10 years now, nearly all his major hires have been pathetic as exponents (Mr. Ponnuru a partial exception). His managing editor is savaged by their regular commenters (and with some justice) every time he offers a piece for online publication. That man has worked there for ten years (evidently living in Salt Lake City and telecommuting, go figure).

  8. Someone has a sense of humor. On Murphy’s Amazon page* the authors of Vicar of Christ are listed as “Walter F. Murphy and Samuel Alito”.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: