Breaking the rules

Pope Francis I passes a Swiss Guard as he leaves the Paul VI hall after an audience for members of the media, at the Vatican

This little story about Pope Francis and one of his weary Swiss guards will inevitably charm everyone but the stone-hearted. As it well should. We see in Pope Francis, the Jesuit, a very Latin and Franciscan way of being Catholic.

But let’s be very careful about reading too much into gestures like this. It’s true that rules were made for man, not man for rules. And so when a man-made rule is broken for the sake of charity or necessity, it can be a laudable thing. Our Lord Himself paved the way when, for example, he healed the sick on the Sabbath (a divine law, but deformed at the time by many Jewish accretions).

However, selective rule-breaking is only laudable in the context of general rule-keeping. Let me put it another way: rule-breaking only has symbolic value in a culture where the default mentality is obedience and rule-keeping. Otherwise, breaking the rules symbolizes nothing more than just another individual doing his own thing, his own way, just as everyone else does – because he can.

When it comes to religion and all things associated with Catholicism, I submit that most Catholics don’t need a lesson in charitable rule-breaking or any other kind of rule-breaking. Some of us do, undoubtedly, and if the shoe fits let us wear it gladly. Pope Francis is who he is, and I am grateful for that. But generally speaking, the Christian world is reeling from its contempt for Catholic order and discipline, and is desperately in need of holy examples of obedience. If another pope decided, instead, to commend the Swiss guard on his fidelity and discipline rather than bringing him a chair and a sandwich, such a pope would not for this reason be any less charitable.

12 thoughts on “Breaking the rules

  1. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of following….Jesus….the Magisterium….the Commandments. As much as I am loving Pope Francis these stories bother me a bit because it sounds to me as they are told to highlight how much ‘”better” he is than “stuffy old ” Pope Benedict’. And nothing could be further from the truth. I absolutely love and admire Papa Benny for his gentle kindness and his loving manner and the depth of his teaching. And I miss him so very much.


    • Indeed, Tina! I, too, find the myriad stories about Pope Francis to be endearing. However, particularly in the mainstream media, the reason you get the sense they’re so happily (and often) told to compare and contrast His Holiness to Pope Benedict (and to Pope John Paul) is because that is PRECISELY why they’re told, make NO mistake about it. It is, at best, a back-handed compliment to the Church. They could never bring themselves to mean it benignly or heaven forbid, sincerely. And, to Jeff, thanks for this post. You are spot-on.


  2. In this case, the rules are ostensibly for the safety of the pope – the comfort of the guard is supposed to be secondary to this overriding good. So if the story is true, it may be sentimentally appealing but it is actually contrary to reason. The divorce of will from intellect…


  3. I have not seen any confirmation of this story; I am doubting that it is true. If if is the case, it still offers a lesson about Catholics and their cult of personality.


  4. Ted, I agree that such an act would ordinarily be contrary to reason, but if the story is true I’m more than willing to give the Holy Father’s personal discretion the benefit of the doubt. Too many similar stories, though, would have a negative cumulative effect. And I also have doubts about the authenticity of the story, as it seems strangely old and familiar to me.


  5. On the “cult of personality” charge, I actually find the Catholic disposition of “loyalty to persons” – what Kirk identified as genuinely conservative and opposed to ideology – to be a laudable trait in its proper measure. It’s the “rally around the father” instinct, a perfectly natural good, though it does need to be moderated by higher goods.


  6. If it were just affection, loyalty, and piety, it would be fine, but I think the psychology behind it goes beyond that – it may be a compensation for not having a strong local Church (and relationship with the bishop) and the lack of real general. It has much in common with the psychology of celebrity in general, even if this is more pious in appearance.


  7. I think that the shepherd of the local churches need to step up – that sort of reform has been acknowledged as being necessary by Benedict XVI and probably Francis, though I have not read anything by Francis explicitly addressing this yet. One of the causes of the cult of personality is a certain ecclesiological understanding of the papacy (a more top-heavy, monarchical model), which in turn is reinforced by it.

    It does seem to me that very few of the faithful in the Roman rite see their parish priests, much less their local ordinary, as being “spiritual fathers.” It is probably partially a manifestation of the “crisis of masculinity” in the Church.


  8. +
    Interesting story, but something tells me in my gut that someone made it up. I don’t think the Holy Father would countermand someone’s boss like this. I think if it really troubled Pope Francis that Swiss guards were assigned to stand guard he would speak to the person’s “Captain” about it. Christ places great importance on obedience to lawful authority.


  9. Jan, you may be right about that. There seems to be a surge of these kinds of stories around him, not all of them true. I’m starting to take almost everything I read about Pope Francis with a grain of salt.


  10. Great analysis of the unfortunate scout situation. Hopefully the strong tradition, skills , and leadership training will find their way into new organizations that are built on a foundation of faith that is strong as stone as compared to the shifting sands of politics.


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