Skip to main content

There's more to the Catholic Church than the pope

By Julie Byrne, Special to CNN
February 17, 2013 -- Updated 0031 GMT (0831 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT