Ethics & Public Policy Center

See How They Love One Another

Published in The Catholic Thing on March 28, 2019


Earlier this week, the world learned that Pope Francis is uncomfortable letting lay people kiss his papal ring. A video shows the Holy Father awkwardly and abruptly pulling his hand out from under the bowed head and approaching lips of one layperson after another. He had no such qualms about receiving the obeisance of the priests and religious he met in the same reception line. If you don’t already know, some people have very strong opinions about this.

I don’t.

Pope Francis is hardly the first prelate to be disinclined to receive this particular sign of piety and respect for his person and his office. It’s fairly common, and not only among prelates one would describe as liberal or progressive.

Yes, the symbolism of the ring, received at the pope’s installation, is important. It’s also true that honors are given, not just for the sake of the one receiving the honor, but for the sake of the one bestowing it. This is why refusing to accept an honor – an award, a medal, a kiss on the ring of office – can be taken as a slight, if not an outright insult.

The symbolism of the ring – and thus the symbolic importance of kissing it – is wonderful and beautiful and theologically profound, but it’s simply not the case that everyone understands it that way. A lot of people find it outdated, even scandalous: an example of shepherds lording it over their flocks in precisely the way Christ warned against.

There’s no reason to assume that all the people who think this have bad reasons for doing so. Still less that in so thinking they’re undermining the integrity of the office or the piety of the faithful.

As the scholastics might put it: whatever is received is received in the mode of the one who receives it. We’re not talking about particular tastes or preferences here. We’re talking about how actions and symbols convey meaning – both the intended meaning and the meaning received.

In a fractured culture and given the divisions and turmoil within the Catholic Church, different symbols are going to convey different meanings to different people. This is only exacerbated in an age when various ecclesial practices and customs are instantaneously visible through online media to both those who understand these customs and those who don’t – even to believers and non-believers alike.

If the Holy Father thinks allowing lay people to kiss his ring sends the wrong signal about the relationship between a pastor and his flock, that’s his judgment. If he wants to curtail the practice because he thinks it smacks of clericalism, that’s his prerogative. But he should say so – not least to avoid embarrassing the faithful who are surprised to find the papal hand recoiling mid-embrace, and whose surprise and embarrassment is then broadcast around the globe.

Popes don’t wear the triregnum anymore either. But there is a further lesson about clericalism to be gleaned from this episode, one that has direct bearing on how the Church finds its way forward through the current crisis.

Clericalism comes in many forms: both high-church and low-church varieties, if you will. If there is a danger in perpetuating accrued customs that have lost the luster and clarity of their intended symbolism, there is also a danger in abandoning the richness of customs and (small-t) traditions that serve as repositories of, and lessons in, authentic piety.

As the Church takes a hard look at ways to correct for widespread failures in the clergy, and especially the episcopate, she will have to take care to delineate what sorts of changes are theologically and sacramentally permissible and which are not.

Perhaps the more difficult task will be determining what stylistic and symbolic changes will be prudent and wise and which might, however well-intentioned, lead to folly. One need only think of the misadventures in ecclesial art and architecture over the last century to see how changing even things that don’t touch directly on fundamental questions of doctrine can have widespread and damaging consequences.

If radical changes can be disorienting, continued reliance on customs and symbols that no longer convey their intended meaning, or the meaning they once conveyed, is not just useless, but harmful. Knowing the difference between the two is not always as easy as we like to think it is. Tradition can be a guide, of course, but many of the traditions and symbols we rely on now were once novelties themselves.

It helps, of course, if the faithful are ecclesiastically literate. It helps if the faithful are taught to properly understand and interpret the symbolism of the Church. That’s something we’ve been very bad at in recent decades, and it’s not only priests and bishops who are to blame.

Prudence requires us to acknowledge the connection between the essential and the “merely” symbolic, to see how symbols – a word, a building, a gesture – can shape our understanding of the essential. But prudence also demands that we be careful not to mistake symbols of what is essential for the essential things themselves.

Prudence thus also recommends a degree of goodwill and patience for those (say, a pope greeting the faithful at an Italian shrine) whose symbolic gestures we would interpret from afar.

After all, the way we react to this or that bit of ecclesiastical news conveys a symbolism of its own. We would do well – for our sake and the sake of the Church we love and the God we serve – to be conscious of what meaning we convey by our own actions.

© 2019 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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