The Thinking 

The Pope Blesses the Olympics

August 8, 2012


AT Tradition in Action, Marian T. Horvat explains how Pope Benedict XVI’s recent blessing of the Olympic Games, and his statement that the Olympics are important in creating “universal fraternity,” were in contradiction of earlier teachings of the Church. The modern world idolizes sports. In 1952, Pope Pius XII, who almost certainly would not have placed his benediction on the London Olympics, said sports, as the highest aim of life, would be “too trifling for man, whose primary greatness consists in far higher aspirations, tendencies and talents.”


—— Comments ——

John E. writes:

Marian Horvat raises some very valid points that need to be heard by Catholics who would otherwise not give so much as a pause to the blatant immodesty, the unnecessary undress displayed by so many of the athletes, or to the idolatry of athletics. I find fault with her method of presenting this, however, in the context of Pope Benedict’s blessing of the London games, and of using his blessing as yet another means of criticizing him. The blessing, at least in the context of Ms. Horvat’s article, is by no means an obvious endorsement of the cult of the athlete or of the immodesty on display, and I don’t see any reason to think the Pope would not disapprove of these things. With Ms. Horvat I would that the Holy Father, along with our other pastors, would speak out more on these matters of human modesty and decency, but she seems to force the issue in connecting the Pope’s few words regarding the games to a criticism of his failure to mention all that she thought he should have in his blessing. One wonders whether she was purposely looking for something to criticize. Indeed, I have never read any of her writings that have spoken of the current Pope or his predecessor in anything except a tone of criticism.

This critical spirit, at least in the context only of her article, continues as she writes, quoting the Pope, ““Let us pray that, according to God’s will, the London Games are a true experience of fraternity among the people of the Earth,” [Pope Benedict] said. Can Catholics accept a universal fraternity based on sports and games, setting ideas and faiths aside?” While I am not arguing against the idea that Pope Benedict has at least at times seemed to entertain ideas of utopian equality among humanity, he is not obviously doing that here. It was not, as she said, an “unrestricted blessing,” but invoked “according to God’s will.” Nor should we conclude that the blessing of a meeting of a small and elite group of athletes representing each nation is the same as blessing revolutionary ideas of radical equality among every member of the human race. If she judges it necessary to demonstrate Pope Benedict’s discontinuity with prior Catholic teaching, it seems she ought at least to restrict it to more obvious examples, unless her purpose is actually to criticize the person of Pope Benedict. To my eyesight, she seems unfairly prejudiced against him.

It is perhaps a weakness of mine, but I look at the Holy Father in much the same context as I would my own father. Is my father above any kind of public criticism? No, but I loathe ever having to see it occur. Should I his son criticize him publicly? It is an unseemly thing especially for a son to do this in any matter no matter how large, but if the criticism is petty, what might have been merely unseemly becomes rebellious and a flirtation with betrayal, or worse. The blogger The Mad Monarchist had a very thoughtful post (though he called it a rant) a few days ago indirectly touching on this issue, in the context of our rejection of our fathers, and our relegation of the same to restrictions that ensure the preservation of our own personal freedoms at all costs. The entire post is well worth reading, but he does actually address the modern Catholic’s relationship with the Holy Father when he writes:

In the west, the Bishop of Rome is not subject to any secular power but he has been blocked and hindered by a bureaucratic complex of committees and commissions where there is a great deal of accumulated corruption, accumulated over such a long period of time and so entrenched that even for a man who is officially an absolute monarch it is extremely difficult to impossible to cut through and eradicate. It grew up so insidiously, for a long time most people there didn’t even realize it. Pope Paul began to realize it and John Paul II tried to ignore it and just speak to the people directly. He did that very well and the people loved him and responded to him but the effectiveness of this was blocked by the bureaucratic wall that not only prevented a lot of good but blocked cleaning up what was bad.

Even in the Church we see the republican mentality (as I call it) taking hold so that the wishes of the Pope are not carried out. This means the clergy, not just the laity, which is seen when bishops flagrantly disregard papal wishes and written directives. All of this is a result of the overall republican atmosphere most of the world exists in. No one can remain totally unaffected by the environment they were born into, grew up in and live their daily lives in and this republican atmosphere everyone is breathing has an affect on us…

I do wonder if the concept of loyalty has been lost on Ms. Horvat. I do not place the Holy Father above criticism (though as with my own father, I am loathe to see it occur), but there are many outside the fold who are more than willing to hold Catholics’ feet to the fire in the matter of liberal popes (Mr. Lawrence Auster seems more than happy to fill this role). They provide what is perhaps a necessary, though ugly and painful, service to us. Is it really necessary for the sons and daughters of the Church to do the same of their own father?

Laura writes:

You write that the Pope’s blessing was not necessarily an endorsement of the games. I have never known a Catholic prelate to bless an activity he disapproved of, but in any event the Pope said in his address:

I send greetings to the organizers, athletes and spectators alike, and I pray that, in the spirit of the Olympic Truce, the good will generated by this international sporting event may bear fruit, promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the world. Upon all those attending the London Olympic Games, I invoke the abundant blessings of Almighty God,” Pope Ratzinger concluded. (1) [emphasis added]

 This seems a clear endorsement to me.

This blessing, you say, did not necessarily reflect the Pope’s full views on the Olympics. But Horvat’s point was that he has omitted to express to the public any other views on the Olympics and, given the nature of the games, this is a serious omission. Given that millions of Catholics are watching the games, it seems that a pontiff who recognized the serious dangers they represented would have spoken up.

You write,

Nor should we conclude that the blessing of a meeting of a small and elite group of athletes representing each nation is the same as blessing revolutionary ideas of radical equality among every member of the human race.

The blessing does contain a reference to the revolutionary concept of the universal brotherhood of man, “a true experience of fraternity among the people of the Earth,” as the Pope said. When did a universal brotherhood based on athletic competition or sentiments of oneness become a desired end of the Catholic Church, whose mission is to promote faith in Jesus Christ? When did “peace and reconciliation throughout the world” become a desired end of the Church? This reads as if it comes from the charter of the United Nations, not from an institution which by its very nature cannot help but create some division and irreconcilable differences in the world.

It would not be fair to criticize the Pope for promoting a Cult of Man based on this blessing alone, but Horvat sees this blessing in the context of other statements and actions by Benedict.

You write:

It is perhaps a weakness of mine, but I look at the Holy Father in much the same context as I would my own father. Is my father above any kind of public criticism? No, but I loathe ever having to see it occur. Should I his son criticize him publicly? It is an unseemly thing especially for a son to do this in any matter no matter how large, but if the criticism is petty, what might have been merely unseemly becomes rebellious and a flirtation with betrayal, or worse.

Horvat shows the utmost respect for the Papacy and for the Pope himself. There are few more eloquent defenders of the authority of the Pope. What greater respect can one show the leader of the Church than to take his words seriously? It is not respectful to view his public statements as  immaterial emanations. Certainly, criticism of a pope can be disrespectful, but I have always found Horvat to base her judgments on reasonable evidence. And there is abundant evidence that the crisis in the Church involves its highest levels. By the way, I do think she has praised the Pope in the past too, but I don’t know of an example offhand. Even if one were to accept that she is too harsh toward the Pope, which I do not, the statements and actions she examines are at least related to ideas that are epidemic in the Church at large. Therefore, her criticisms are instructive.

The comparison of a pope with a father, while useful and meaningful, has limitations. There is no need ever to criticize a father in public because one’s relations with him take place in private as well. But how else can one get the attention of a pope and of the people whom he influences, but by public statements?

Horvat, along with several other authors, explains the theological grounds for criticizing a pope in the book We Resist You to the Face (Tradition in Action, 2000). St. Paul challenged St. Peter publicly. Augustine stated (Ad Galatas 2,14), “St. Peter himself gave the example to those who govern so should they stray from the right way, they will not reject a correction as unworthy even if it comes from their subjects.”

Also Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Some say that fraternal correction does not extend to the Prelates either because a man should not raise his voice against heaven, or because the Prelates are easily scandalized if corrected by their subjects. However, this does not happen, since when they sin, the Prelates do not represent heaven and, therefore, must be corrected.

There are others among the saints and Doctors of the Church who provide similar justification for respectful criticism.

As for threats to the monarchical character of the Church, that charge is not relevant to Horvat as she and the other authors at Tradition in Action have strenuously criticized the excessive collegiality and loss of authority in the Church.

As for your point about leaving criticism of the Church to those outside the Church, those outside the Church very rarely have its best interests at heart or the focused determination for the complexities and history involved. I don’t think, indeed I’m sure, they could never battle the Revolution in the Church with the same effectiveness and zeal. However, that job is not, by any means, for everyone within the Church and should be undertaken in a spirit of respect, charity and prayer. To be forceful and pointed is not necessarily disrespectful. I agree with you though that it is a project that has many dangers.

John E. responds:

Thank you for your time and thoughts. Your perspective helps me to clarify my own thought on these matters. You bring up points all worthy of consideration.

I agree with you that there is an unmatched and indispensible perspective on the Pope’s office that comes from the Catholic faithful, even when that perspective at times entails criticism. I was confusing in my previous words, making it sound like there is never any place for faithful Catholics to voice criticism of the Pope.

Having read much of Ms. Horvat’s writing at Tradition in Action, I agree that she has great esteem for the idea of the Papacy, but she seems to stumble upon the fact that this office must be embodied by a real flesh-and-blood man constrained by the times in which we live. Similarly, the sickness of our day has not so much to do with our rejection of the abstract idea of fatherhood, but in our rejection of those actual, corporeal fathers given to us, ordained by God, and requiring something like docility on our part to their God-ordained authority in order for them to fulfill their offices rightly. I am dubious of those who criticize public figures who have given in to the liberal onslaught, when they don’t also put it into the context of the formers’ place in liberal society, i.e., their own inevitable blindness and incapacity due to the pervasive and unavoidable poison of modernity. We have all been exposed to the sickness to some extent, we are all in dire need of mercy, and any criticism of another that doesn’t begin with this knowledge and keep it at the forefront of thought will in the end (or sooner) go astray. These are my concerns of Ms. Horvat’s method of criticism. These concerns are not merely in the fact that she as a Catholic criticizes the Holy Father, but in that she does not seem to have begun her project, let alone continue it, with self-criticism.

In contrast to Ms. Horvat (and in case you haven’t gotten your week’s dose of monarchical thought) I appreciate the blogger Bonald’s mode of criticism as he expressed it on his old blog, Throne and Altar, which is still able to be viewed online. Examples are here, here, and here. He seems always to keep at the forefront of his criticism the humanity of the man who holds the office of the Pope. This consideration and acceptance of the Pope’s humanity has a tempering effect on his criticism, and it seems to me (whether it is actually the case or not) that he is able to put himself in the shoes of the Pope such that, even though the Pope may have done or said something worthy of correction, were he in his position, very likely he (Bonald) in his weakness would have done something much worse. A frequent theme of his is the besieged nature of the Papacy, and of the Pope himself, by the putrid deluge of modernity, and the sheer wonder that the Holy Father has not caved more than he has against such great odds. Ms. Horvat, on the other hand, seems to think of the Pope merely as something of a disembodied oracle, whose only use is to spout truth, and in the absence of performing this function, he becomes useless. She gives the impression that what the Pope ought to do in each scenario he is presented with is a perfectly simple matter, and she knows exactly what that is.

Again, I say this in light of the fact that all I have seen from Ms. Horvat has been criticism of Pope Benedict, leading me to conclude that all she can see is unworthiness in the man. Perhaps if I were to become more familiar with her thoughts, maybe by reading the book by her you mention, I would rethink my conclusions about her and judge my own thoughts above as shortsighted.

Vincent C. writes:

Your exchange with John E. suggests to me that he takes the notion of papal immunity from criticism a bit too far, and is perhaps guilty of what Roger McCaffrey once described (about JPII) as “papadolatry.” I would ask John if he thought that criticism of the papal initiative – “ecumania,” to quote Sage McLaughlin – at Assisi should be exempt from Catholic appraisal?

John E. writes:

Vincent C. may be right about my being a papadolator, but I’d like to know what it is that would distinguish me as one of those, as opposed to being merely a healthy papist, so that I know what it is I need to tone down a bit. I’m not really putting forward a hard-and-fast position; in many respects I’m trying to figure out just what my thinking ought to be in response to what seems to be un-Popelike behavior from the Vicar of Christ. I don’t think the Pope is above criticism, and in spite of how I first stated things, not above criticism even from Catholics. Again, blogger Bonald’s approach to things seems to be a good one to me (though I hope I haven’t implicated him as a papadolator – for all I know he could think I’m off my rocker), and he is by no means wearing rose goggles whenever the words and actions of the Pope are at issue.

I guess I would come down somewhere in the territory of, on the one hand, clearly denouncing the foolishness of the activity at Assisi if I was required to state my position on it, but on the other hand avoiding the method of Ms. Horvat, which is predictably critical of the Pope to the exclusion of any other commentary, and seems quite in danger of causing scandal by influencing others to turn a blind eye to good that is present in the person of the Pope, and possibly by obscuring what is the proper disposition of a faithful son or daughter of the Church to his or her spiritual father.


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