Skip to main content

There's more to the Catholic Church than the pope

By Julie Byrne, Special to CNN
updated 7:31 PM EST, Sat February 16, 2013
Pope Benedict XVI waves in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican in December 2012. Benedict, 85, announced on Monday, February 11, that he will resign at the end of February "because of advanced age." The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415. Pope Benedict XVI waves in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican in December 2012. Benedict, 85, announced on Monday, February 11, that he will resign at the end of February "because of advanced age." The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julie Byrne: Pope Benedict XVI's resignation rightly drew enormous world attention
  • She says often media focus on the pope as entirety of Catholic Church
  • While pope commands attention, lay groups have become increasingly important, she says
  • Byrne: Church is split over many issues; Vatican doctrine is only part of the story

Editor's note: Julie Byrne is Hartman Chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University and author of "The Other Catholics," forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

(CNN) -- Pope Benedict XVI's resignation captured the world's attention, and rightly.

It is the first papal resignation in nearly six centuries. The pope leads a church that includes a sixth of the world's population. His gravitas reverberates outside Roman Catholicism: The pope talks and people listen.

Others are fascinated by Vatican spectacle. Benedict speaks Latin and wears gold vestments. His successor's election by conclave, with sequestering and smoke, is high drama.

Julie Byrne
Julie Byrne

But for all the excitement and ceremony, the pope is not the most important thing about Catholicism.

For all his influence, the pope makes up an infinitesimal fraction of the opinions and activities of Catholics.

The most important thing about Catholicism is the 1 billion who claim it as their faith.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the wake of updating by the Second Vatican Council, Roman bishops emphasized the role of the laity. Lay activism exploded. Many Catholic theologians stressed the whole community of Catholics working together.

Opinion: Why pope will be remembered for generations

The issue is not only what the Church should look like. We should be concerned about media and popular takes on what Catholicism does look like. News coverage of the Church is usually about the hierarchy. Ask average Americans about Catholicism and they likely will mention the pope.

This happened for several reasons.

No other big religious institution is so centralized. The media covers the pope as Catholicism because it is easy to cover the pope as Catholicism. Place a correspondent in Rome or even just use Vatican press releases. There is no highest authority of Hinduism. There is no international imam of Islam.

What some Catholics want in next pope

Also, despite the Vatican II council of the 1960s, popes kept expanding their authority. Benedict XVI endorsed that council but read tradition to support papal sovereignty. If popular opinion overwhelmingly associates Catholicism with the papacy, that's partly because effective Vatican theologizing made it so.

Roland Martin: Pope shows true leadership by resigning

Finally, the U.S. has always had an obsession with the pope.

Ironically, this obsession had roots in anti-Catholicism. Americans "used" the pope as a way to sharpen national identity. American democracy was contrasted with papal demagoguery, American piety with papal superstition, American modernity with papal obsolescence.

U.S. Roman Catholics felt pulled between nation and church. Scholars have noted that American faithful were more pope-identified than coreligionists around the world, as if overcompensating to hold the two sides together.

But obsession involves both attraction and loathing. Even ardent anti-Catholics seemed consumed with fascination for the pontiff. The infamous publisher of anti-Catholic comics, Jack Chick depicts decadent popes lofting ominous speech bubbles, precisely capitalizing on the fact that such scenes make gripping graphic art. It's as if the pope — with absolute rule, a throne, pomp and circumstance — taps into a repressed fantasy of crowns and ermine.

Perhaps pop god Prince put it best:

So U can be the President

I'd rather be the Pope

Yeah, U can be the side effect

I'd rather be the dope

Arguably Prince is right; the pope is bigger than the president.

But the pope is not the dope. At least not for purposes of best analyzing Catholicism. While the popes have attempted to maintain the status quo from the top down, three major phenomena are happening in the Church from the ground up -- and the media would be well advised to pay attention.

First, vernacular religion. This refers to religion as it is actually lived, rather than how leaders say it should be lived. A term coined by Leonard Primiano of Cabrini College, vernacular religion highlights that while clerics write creeds and command pulpits, official religion is the tip of the iceberg of religious culture.

Opinion: Why next pope must open up church and usher in Vatican III

This became visible in coverage of bishops' activism against President Obama's health care law provisions for artificial birth control. The bishops held the official position that artificial birth control was morally wrong. Most news accounts added that a majority of U.S. Catholic women used it anyway. This addition was a start, but it needs to go further. According to doctrine, women were "going against" their Church. But in terms of vernacular religion, their everyday Catholicism was simply different from the approved version.

Second, other Catholics. Last year a Religion Dispatches blog headline read, "Will the Catholic Church Split?"

As several noted in the comments, Catholicism has already split. Catholicism is actually not one structurally unified body — and hasn't been since 1054. The Orthodox churches are Catholic, the biggest headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Anglican Communion (including the U.S. Episcopal Church) identifies as both Catholic and Protestant, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Old Catholic churches of Europe formed in the late 19th century as harbor for Catholics who rejected papal infallibility; they are in communion with Anglicanism.

In the United States at least 200 separate small Catholic churches and clergy associations exist, often with their own bishops. Some are CORPUS, a corps of married priests who celebrate the sacraments; Roman Catholic Womenpriests, who like many others are ordaining women; and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which has partnered with the other two groups.

Third, flows. Some people live in several Catholic worlds. In the United States, a Catholic woman might attend a Roman parish, work for Catholic Charities, serve as an independent Catholic priest, officiate weddings for divorced Romans on weekends and do Buddhist meditation every morning, too.

What would it mean to account for vernacular Catholicism? Non-Roman Catholics? Flows between Rome and other institutions?

Understanding one of the world's most populous faiths needs to encompass all of Catholicism -- not just the Roman version.

And certainly not just the pope.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julie Byrne.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT