The Cult of Popularity, Or Is It?

More often I see complaints in the Catholic blogosphere along the lines of this. N values popularity of a constituency more than speaking out for the truth. One recent example:

The flock has been scattered on our watch. Vast numbers of our people have been deceived by innumerable errors and too often we have been silent, or, at best, an uncertain trumpet. Often our silence has been due to concerns with remaining popular and accepted.

I’m not sure where Msgr Charles Pope is going with this one. He’s analyzing a perceived failure of the Roman Catholic priesthood in the US in light of Ezekiel 34. But what sort of popularity do American clergy desire? Are there really so many pastors who clam up rather than say something that will rub some or all parishioners the wrong way? Are there others who fawn over their bishop and older chancery-connected priests so as to get prime assignments? Is all the missing hard news a one way street: pulpit to pew?

Does feather-ruffling reveal a truth-telling? If so, I must have a lot of resentful fans on the Catholic Right. I’ve never sought popularity online, and I’ve told it straight to any number of Catholics: lay bloggers, priests, and even the occasional bishop. My day doesn’t depend on anyone giving me that little blue thumbs-up. As for my real life, I’ll admit that I enjoy getting affection, gratitude, and love from people in my life, especially my wife and daughter. But that doesn’t mean my wife and I avoid discussing tough topics or that I don’t occasionally deliver unwanted news to a teenager’s ears. I would hope that parishioners feel free to approach me with concerns. When they come with praise, I pay attention if its specific. When they criticize, I listen.

The blogosphere itself cultivates popularity in many corners. We have only to Google “Mark Shea Father Corapi” to check the combox commentary of two well-known Catholics, each with their battling segment of fangirls and boys. Mr Shea, to his credit, rarely shies away from taking a stand that we all know will ruffle a good portion of his readership. I caught Fr Corapi once on EWTN while my wife was channel surfing. He was a tough talker, to be sure. But for some Catholics, maybe it’s more about the group they want to see ruffled, rather than an honest appreciation for honesty across the board.

Scratch the popularity complaint, and not too far under the surface, maybe there’s a bit of envy.

That said, I do think there’s a danger in any social circle of a cult of celebrity. Check the list: politics, sports, media–on the bigger world stage, leaders want to be popular because it guarantees income, endorsements, and other adrenaline rushes. Check our local communities, too. In parishes, I think some leaders cultivate a certain celebrity. Charismatic clergy and the occasional lay person are much-admired. But the key to the veracity of their ministry comes when they leave. Do the ministries continue? Or are people left adrift?

Long long ago, I followed an extremely popular and charismatic person in a parish. She was able, as I was made aware, to draw people in. “I would do anything for her,” I often heard. But when I got to know people, I found a core of ministry leadership that was very tired and burned out. A handful of key people promised they would continue for my first year in the parish. But they made it clear that I would need to find new leaders those first six to twelve months to fill in the gaps of my second year.

One, I appreciated the honesty. Two, I noted the difference between people who were attracted to a married lay woman and a single guy. And three, my pastor was alarmed at the hemorrhaging (as he saw it) in leadership. I wasn’t as popular as my forerunner. I didn’t think it was my job to cultivate a circle of loyalty. I wanted people to be involved in ministry for the right reasons, well-discerned, and for the service they could offer others. I didn’t want groupies.

I’m still convinced that is the way to go. I even go out of my way to decline the cultivation of close friendships among parishioners in my ministry areas, out of concern for other reasons intruding on the right ones.

So, are there priests out there who don’t preach on abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia because they fear unpopularity? I have no idea. I imagine the number might be in the dozens. I suspect that more don’t preach it because they know it’s a message of comfort for some conservative Catholics who, for various reasons, prefer to see other people squirm. That’s not a matter of popularity misplaced as much as it’s about turning the homily into a cheerleading session.

I don’t think that leadership is about making equal-opportunity discomfort for the factions. I think that’s misunderstanding the means and the end. The end result of good ministry is that people are holier. Every holy person undergoes metanoia, and almost all the time metanoia feels like hell. And quite often, the person delivering the message is unpopular. But it doesn’t figure that every homily is supposed to result in a voluntary and partial exodus of worshipers from the pews.

In worship, a preacher must remain closely faithful to the Scriptures and the liturgy. The thought that people must be shaken up every four to thirteen weeks or so is a false one. Certainly, a preacher needs to have a pulse on the community. And certainly, there are elements of a preached message that will elicit discomfort in some hearts. My sense is that if a leader is praying, and truly engages a community she or he knows, that the needed messages of challenge will come through at the right time and place.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to The Cult of Popularity, Or Is It?

  1. Liam says:

    The word that’s missing is egoism.

    It’s actually very easy to use “truth-telling” and “feather-ruffling” as a Potemkin village to mask an indulgence in egoism. Even more so when one anoints oneself a prophet to turn the tables in the Temple, as it were, to be the finger of God’s righteous anger. More subtly, it occurs when we do so out of a sense of duty to give other people their RDA of God’s Truth that we perceive they are in desperate need of.

    Egoism thrives in our cognitive-spiritual blindspots. People in authority have a more difficult time with this because they tend to attract (i) the like-minded (for example, over time, a pastoral council will gradually tend to attract volunteers who think like the pastor and discourage those who do not – this is one of the fundamental flaws of the typical ways pastoral councils are organized – by contrast, random choice by lot would probably be a huge improvement), and (ii) crank critics who allow the people in authority to dismiss criticisms more easily. What people in authority need is to learn the discipline of attracting those who have very different perspectives than them, and keeping them closer by than those who are like-minded. It’s not easy. It’s never been easy, and it’s never going to be easy.

  2. FrMichael says:

    “So, are there priests out there who don’t preach on abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia because they fear unpopularity?”

    I would say in excess of 90%. Moral courage is not something I have found strong in the priesthood.

    Thanks for the link: Msgr. Pope’s article was excellent.

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