The latest social media “controversy” surrounding Pope Francis revolves around him not allowing people to kiss his ring. More than that, he pulled his hand away from people who tried to bow and press their lips against his finger jewelry at Loreto.
The twittersphere blew up with hot takes from radtrads incensed over Pope Francis’ unwillingness to allow people to pay him homage.
With all of the internet indignation, you might think Kiss-gate was a scandal on par with Arianism.
I know there is a long history of people kissing the ring of popes. It is a tradition dating back to at least to the middle ages designed to show fidelity to a superior. But haven’t we reached a time when ring kissing — like the papal tiara — should be retired?
Pope Benedict XVI thought so. In a book-length interview with the former pontiff, Peter Seewald noted that Benedict had abolished ring kissing but few had followed the practice.
But wait. Doesn’t kissing the pope’s ring show respect for the papal office and for God who bestowed that office onto the occupant of the office regardless of who it is?
Maybe. But not necessarily.
I think about Jesus who quoted the prophet Isaiah:
“These people draw near to me with their mouth,
And honor me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.”
(Matthew 15:8–9 and Isaiah 29:13).
If people feel truly inspired to honor the pope, they should start with doing what he has called on them to do. This is especially true following the recent meeting of bishops related to the abuse of minors. Pope Francis in conjunction with the bishops has identified clericalism as one of the main causes of abuse and its cover-up. There is nothing more clerical than requiring lay people to kiss the papal ring.
Moreover, Pope Francis himself has given the faithful an example related to kissing. During the footwashing on Holy Thursday, the Holy Father kisses the feet of those he washes. He follows the example of Jesus.
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you”
In his 2017 message to the curia, Pope Francis expanded on the importance of service, especially for church leaders. He spoke of a “diaconal attitude” and “diaconal primacy.” An attitude of service, the pope asserts, must have the first place. When church leaders fail to serve, they become self-referential. Pope Francis uses strong language to describe this deadly situation.
“This is very important for rising above that unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques that in fact represent — for all their self-justification and good intentions — a cancer leading to a self-centredness that also seeps into ecclesiastical bodies, and in particular those working in them.”
At this point in history, there is a subset of Catholics (often English-speaking with over-representation on Catholic Twitter) of people who are attached to pre-Vatican II forms and customs. Kissing the pope’s ring is one of these traditions.
The outward forms of Catholic piety and tradition are easy to fall in love with. They’re rich and beautiful. However, they should not be confused with the essence of following Christ in the church.
I wonder if his harshest critics (especially on Twitter) would kiss Pope Francis’ ring if they had the opportunity. They blast him daily online; their outrage over kissing his ring seems hollow. It seems like just another opportunity to criticize him for the changing face of Catholicism.
Would to God that people got worked up as much over poverty and racism as they do over osculation. Even so, it’s probably good to remember that Kiss-gate is little more than a social media controversy. But it indicates there is a vocal minority who will always find some reason to criticize Pope Francis.
It’s one thing to honor the pope with your lips, but it’s a different matter to follow with your heart. And after all, even Judas greeted Jesus a kiss.