Most Christians might agree that too much of anything is likely a bad thing.
A common meme/theme of the past few years among some internet Catholics is that “popularity” is a questionable thing. A pastor never preaches on “bad” things like abortion, politics, or sex, and theoretically he’s popular among his parishioners. Especially if the money keeps flowing into the parish and school coffers. And everybody leaves the Sunday assembly with a bounce in their step and an overly loud voice in the narthex while the remnant pray within.
As with many ideological matters, I’m a skeptic on this. Sure, there are some human beings who dislike conflict, and go to great lengths to avoid it. They usually don’t last long at St Blog’s. There are also people who relish a good fight, and the pulpit-to-pew conduit is as good a place as any, as long as someone else is squirming. No doubt there are people who try to cultivate others to “like” them. I would say this is a different issue from popularity. It’s psychological. It’s a matter of a leader’s maturity. Some of the fighters have maturity issues, too. Maturity, or lack of it, seems more the root problem than popularity.
I’d say Western Culture indulges immaturity with our cult of celebrity. Musicians, athletes, actors, and invented “stars” of so-called reality tv–they are mostly all part of a machine that toasts fame. Follow this hero, we are often told. And buy the product they help us to sell to you.
We can’t evade the simple truth that people of all walks of life have heroes. These heroes are often popular. And even in the Catholic internet Age of Orthodoxy, orthodox heroes have massive followings. Occasionally, one of those heroes has a massive fall (or falling out) and then the sides line up: protectors and critics. And then “popularity” takes a hit.
I’m not sure that popularity is as much the enemy of faithfulness as adulation. Adulation is defined by Merriam-Webster as “excessive or slavish admiration or flattery.” The word is rooted in a Latin notion of dogs jumping, barking, and licking a person to annoyance. If we’re used to leaping and yelling and buying product from our Catholic heroes, perhaps the flaw is more in us than in the people we raise to pedestals.
Jesus warns against an empty popularity, but I have to wonder about the context: is this within the Christian community or outside? Does it have more to do with those who feel satisfied with their lives in contrast to those who go without in the faith community or in the world? The Beatitudes refer to those in need. Do leaders address these needs and inspire assistance? Or are they too wrapped up in their followings? That is where the Lord is leveling his criticism at those whom others praise.
One thing I think we can all mostly agree on is that popularity is not the end, nor even really the means. It is a potential byproduct among a subset of believers. Popularity may happen when someone visibly lives an authentic Christian life. Perhaps that authenticity leads others to Christ. This would be good. Perhaps that authentic and public life leads one to gather followers. As long as the situation steers clear of Corinth, where believers competed under the banners of various leaders, we should be on safe ground.
But let’s look at the criticism of popularity carefully. We can assess the maturity of the leader and followers. We can determine if popularity is the goal or merely a byproduct of a genuine leader. We can also assess when things veer into adulation–because it’s then I think the Christian community has a real problem.