The English language can rarely capture the richness of German compound nouns. Take Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s complaint last week about “scheinheiliges Papstdevotion”. Roughly translated, it means “sanctimonious and excessive devotion to the Pope”. It is, says Cardinal Müller, one of the Vatican’s besetting problems.

“Every Catholic, especially every bishop and every cardinal, has a positive and constructive relationship with the Pope,” said the recently removed head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. “But that is anything but courtly behaviour and an obsequious manner, against which Pope Francis has always spoken.”

As the cardinal says, Francis has himself objected to the cult of papal personality: when a statue of him appeared outside Buenos Aires Cathedral, he immediately asked the clergy to remove it. But the issue hasn’t gone away, partly because of doctrinal debates (on which more in a moment) and partly because of the atmosphere within the Vatican. One Roman source, who asked to remain anonymous, says there is a “definite group” who believe that “if they can be seen to be [the Pope’s] most vocal supporters on some issues close to his heart, like poverty and marginalisation, he’s more likely to give them a free hand in other areas that he isn’t closely involved in.

“On a day-to-day basis it’s not hard to tell who is trying to bank papal goodwill against the day they want the Pope to back them up on, for example, recommendations for appointments,” the source says.

This may contribute to an atmosphere in which authoritative voices say that one must “follow the Pope” without specifying what they mean. Those who defend the Church’s teaching against Communion for the remarried, for instance, are told that they are not “following Peter”, that they are “against the Pope”.

These phrases generally prompt some equally predictable responses. Didn’t St Catherine of Siena tell the Pope that if he couldn’t get his act together he should resign? Haven’t theologians often debated papal error? Didn’t Newman approvingly quote Cardinal Torquemada as saying that “were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over”?

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