Railroads are the devil’s work!
Not really, I suppose. I might have thought that earlier this summer when my commuter train was thrown off schedule for weeks by a derailed trash train at my station, itself aptly named Spuyten Duyvil, which Washington Irving claimed was a corruption of the Dutch phrase “in spite of the Devil.” But I see that train as more or less morally neutral but economically advantageous, if recently a bit smelly. Also, I can sleep on it.
Far more distinguished and presumably better-rested men than I have felt differently. Perhaps the most famous was Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46), who banned railroads in the Papal States, allegedly because their promise of increased mobility would lead to unrest among an already rebellious population. Gregory reputedly denounced the railroads as chemins d’enfer, “roads to hell,” a play on the French neologism for the railroad, chemin de fer. It was a terrible moment for those who believe in human progress but a rather delightful one for those who love a good pun.
This bit of historical trivia might seem just that, trivial, but for its surprising pertinence to our contemporary reception of papal declarations. It is worth noting that while the Papal States might have missed out on mass transit, the rest of the world politely ignored Gregory’s antipathy toward trains. It was, in the long run, little more than an occasion for a nice turn of phrase.
Maybe it also distracts us from the fact that Gregory said and believed far worse, calling the notion of freedom of conscience an “absurd and erroneous maxim” and driving the influential French thinker Lamennais from the church over that issue and others, like freedom of the press (“a hateful freedom”) and separation of church and state in his papal encyclicals “Mirari Vos” and “Singulari Nos,” the latter of which condemned Lamennais by name.
What has changed? Not the railroads so much, which in this country are running on more or less the same technology that powered the devil-coaches of Gregory’s time. Catholic belief in the primacy of conscience certainly has, with the Second Vatican Council repudiating Gregory and his successors on that question. And our own bishops in the United States have in recent years become enthusiastic cheerleaders for the separation of church and state.
There is no question, however, that our reception of papal commentary has changed dramatically. Many of the same folks who rightly feared the cult of personality that engulfed the church throughout the long reign of John Paul II are suddenly hung on every off-the-cuff word of Francis, the pope who can say no wrong. Others, who rejoiced at every utterance of Pope Benedict XVI as a harbinger of a “smaller, purer church” (you can guess how that process was imagined to work) are suddenly licking their wounds. Lost in much of this is the fact that the only declaration of Francis thus far that carries any real ecclesial weight, his recent encyclical, was quite obviously almost entirely the work of Benedict himself. What will we who have so enthusiastically welcomed Francis’ every word do when he inevitably says something we find horrifying? Or when one of his spontaneous remarks turns into Regensburg II?
Francis gives every indication of being a pope of action, particularly with his eight-man team of cardinals missioned to advise him on reform of the Roman Curia. Further positive signs can be found in his refreshing trust in the laity, as seen in his appointment of a lay board to overhaul the Vatican’s finances and administration. But our focus seems to remain forever on his commentary and his person, not on his actions. And it will be the actions of the church in the years to come that truly affect people’s lives, both spiritual and material.
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the children of men,” Psalm 146 tells us. Why not? Because men and women are, inevitably, bound to disappoint us if we focus on their words and not their deeds.
I love Pope Francis as much as the next guy on the train, and I have been inspired by his down-to-earth manner and blunt challenge to focus on orthopraxis more than orthodoxy. But I think it important to remind myself to remain leery of words alone and to wait with hope for him and the church as a whole to follow those words with deeds.