The Pope Talks and the Church Falls

Mar 19, 09 | 10:05 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Popes have traditionally looked doctrinaire and absolute. That’s how they’ve gotten away with having a point of view at odds with reality and popular opinion—because they look like popes. We've excused them, in some sense because they’ve just been doing their job. But the pope exception probably ceases to work when the pope starts looking like a fool.

The Vatican, and the Catholic church, is facing a situation potentially more transformative than the death of God: a knuckle-headed pope who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Infallibility can only survive so many gaffes.

From a media perspective, it’s really stunning that the popes have, collectively, made it this far. It’s been the combination of great ritual and antiquated language and highly negotiated interactions with the press that has kept each modern pope a unique and even charismatic figure—in his own right, a star.

The point is that popes have been savvy enough, or shy enough, or befuddled enough, to keep a careful distance from the media. They intuitively understood their role. Or someone understood: Popes can’t be put in a position to actually talk, to interact, to exchange opinions, to become part of the conversation.

A pope could only maintain his position as a person apart if he was apart.

A pope had to be mascot-like. Not altogether real. And cute.

(AP Image)

But then the German came along. From the beginning, Benedict's had a certain un-pope-like swagger, suggesting that he was going to make his mark, a reformer taking the Church back to its roots. He’s a policy guy, in other words. He’s got ideas. He’s taking charge. He’s going to be out in front.

The problem, of course, is that, having spent his career inside the Vatican, a sort of magic kingdom career, he’s not exactly prepared to take on the world.

It’s one of those structural problems. You’ve got power only when you don’t use it—or use it only in the most symbolic and ritualistic ways. If you do try to use it, actually try to throw your weight around and express your point of view, you lose it. Not least of all because, having heretofore been wholly symbolic, you’re kind of, when you talk, a hoot.

It’s clear that this guy—no matter that he’s insulted Muslims, women, Holocaust survivors, and is now spewing gas about AIDS and condoms—isn’t ever going to shut up.

For many, this is great fun.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at

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