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Pope Francis craze may be idolatry, says Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia

Pope Francis received an 88% approval rating from American Catholics. Elizabeth Scalia wonders if we're guilty of idolatry. - Image courtesy of Catholic Church of England and Wales (
Pope Francis received an 88% approval rating from American Catholics. Elizabeth Scalia wonders if we're guilty of idolatry. - Image courtesy of Catholic Church of England and Wales (

Pope Francis receives an 88% approval rating from American Catholics. Elizabeth Scalia wonders if we’re guilty of idolatry. – Image courtesy of Catholic Church of England and Wales (

Elizabeth Scalia claims to be a shy person, happy to hang in the background. But the popular Catholic Portal editor at Patheos, writing as “The Anchoress”, doesn’t shy away from offering opinions as strong as garlic. In her recent book, “Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life,” she has plenty to say about the dangers of modern day idolatry. But perhaps most controversial is Scalia’s recent assertion that the world may be making an idol out of Pope Francis, who recently received an 88% approval rating from American Catholics. Here, we discuss how she understands idolatry and the reasoning behind her questioning of American’s love for the popular Pope.

RNS: It’s so much easier to spot other people’s idols—in other centuries or on other continents in other religions—than to spot our own. What’s at the root of this blindness?

ES: It’s always easier to spot deficiency in others, right? Someone else’s hypocrisy or mean-spiritedness is always obvious to us, another century’s shortfalls are easy to see in hindsight, another nation’s aggressions more obvious than our own. We all want to believe we’re the good guys.

Elizabeth Scalia is author of "Strange Gods" and editor of Patheos' Catholic Portal. - Image courtesy of Patheos

Elizabeth Scalia is author of “Strange Gods” and editor of Patheos’ Catholic Portal. – Image courtesy of Patheos

The truth is, we are all good guys, and sometimes we are all bad guys, too. In terms of idolatry, we all seek to find ourselves reflected in that thing or person that has characteristics we imagine we possess, too. Why did the ancient Israelites form a golden idol–and why a calf, especially? They’d been wandering a desert; they were feeling lost, uncertain of what they were becoming, and hungry for what was familiar. A calf was well-defined, strong, life-sustaining; its purpose was known. Hew it out of gold, polish it up and voila! In the glistening surface of the calf they literally saw themselves, projected onto this vital image. [tweetable]Our idols are always about ourselves.[/tweetable]

RNS: Were the eyes of ancient folks any more attuned to recognize their idolatry than ours are today?

ES: I suspect we’re as blithely ignorant about our idolatry as humans ever were. The Israelites were content in their idolatry until Moses showed up and said, “you’ve got to be kidding me…” Our tendency to creating idols begins, as Gregory of Nyssa wrote, with an idea: “Ideas create idols.” A good example of this can be found in the political arena. We discover a candidate that seems to be just like us – or what we imagine ourselves to be – and then we give ourselves over to him or her and will brook no criticism or dissent. Think of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in 2008. In both cases, their fans saw themselves in their particular candidate, and the passionate enthrallment of idolatry had a hand in dividing the nation in new, deeper ways. We’re still reeling from it, and from the idols we have made of our ideologies.

We’ve been dealing with this since Eden, when an idea of becoming “like as gods” ourselves grew large enough to tempt us to disobedience, and for that matter, rationalization and deceit. In many ways, we’re still in Eden, still forming (or encountering) ideas, polishing them up and making them shiny enough to reflect us back to ourselves – like that apple – and then we surrender to it. But do we devour the idol that has developed of our ideas, or does it devour us?

RNS: And how do we wake up to recognize the idols that grip us?

ES: First, be willing to entertain the notion that idolatry is a real, modern possibility, and not some ancient habit we’ve moved past. Gregory of Nyssa’s full sentence was “Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” With that in mind, we can take a look at our ideas. Which do we cling to with such fervor that we’ve stopped seeing the humanity of others who hold different views, or stopped wondering that there might me more to an issue than we’ve allowed? Which have we so prostrated ourselves toward that we have lost sight of love, compassion, of our own deficiencies? That’s where to start. That’s where awareness begins. Once we start looking for idols in our lives, if we’re honest, we’ll find we’ve erected them all over the place.

Cover image courtesy of Ave Maria Press.

Cover image courtesy of Ave Maria Press.

RNS: Among the idols you address in your book, which is the one that most tempts you?

ES: Well, the idol is a “Strange God” we manage to erect before the Almighty, which creates a barrier to God’s outreach to me, and mine to God’s. That can change every day.

Some days, I might give primacy to memory – put old wounds and grudges up all around me and serve them, surrender to them and commune with their bitter fruit. Other days, perhaps it’s an egotistical turn around the Internet: “look at me, everyone, look at my clever turn of phrase!” The good thing about the Internet though, is that there is always someone to remind you that you’re not “all that.”  This is why awareness is so important, though. We can’t help but create idols – we do it all day long – but if we can identify them, and catch ourselves doing it, then we can ask for help in taking them apart. An examination of conscience that begins with a real look at that first commandment really helps us see where we’re blowing it with the rest of them, and help us to contrition. And then confession. The first time I confessed to idolatry the priest and I were both in new territory. He said he’d never had anyone confess it before.

RNS: Some Protestants believe the Roman Catholic relationship to Mary and the saints could be idolatrous. Your thoughts?

ES: That indicates a very limited way of thinking about many things, and perhaps a willful misunderstanding. Statues are not idols in and of themselves; what they are, really, are remembrances. Do Protestants have pictures of family around or a bust of Beethoven, or a bronzed pair of baby shoes? Sure. Do they worship those things? Of course not. Nor do Catholics worship statues or images; they are our remembrances of family – ancestors who have gone before us and are now part of the great cloud of witnesses.

Believing that Christ has conquered death and that “all things are alive in the sight of their King” we assume they are among the throng in heaven, and we therefore ask for their intercessory prayer in the same way I might ask you to pray for my intentions. Who better to ask for prayers than those who are already in the presence of God, or who better than the very Mother of the Christ, so beloved of God as to be privileged to nurture and bear the Incarnation? The Communion of Saints seems like a very efficient support system, to me, but it is not worship. Our worship is reserved for the Triune God alone.

RNS: You recently wrote an article asking, “Is the world making an idol of Pope Francis?” which caused some Catholics to squirm. Can you explain how we may be making an idol out of Pope Francis?

ES: People can make an idol of a pope — any pope — and again, it’s because his ideas seem to validate us and our ideas. The danger in this is that we can fall in love with our idea of the pope without ever really hearing a word he is saying, or internalizing the lessons and adopting the habits of prayer, service, or humility that he is exhorting us to.  The point of my piece, which by the way, annoyed a lot of people, particularly if they read the title but not the whole text, was that if we’re only hearing what we want to hear from Francis, or truncating his words so they more closely align to our thoughts, then yes, we’re in danger of making an idol of him.

Interestingly, the excellent Antonio Spadaro interview with Pope Francis was released the day after the piece was published, and we kind of got to watch my thesis play out in real time. But this was also true, in a reversed sort of way, with Pope Benedict XVI, whose pronouncements were often whittled down to narratives that served a cause or agenda, but were not completely accurate reflections of his statements. Again, it’s our nature. [tweetable]We want to see reflections of ourselves in all things.[/tweetable]

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • I as a Baptist actually agreed with her on most of her article. I agreed with her for the most part throughout the article except for this quote:

    “Who better to ask for prayers than those who are already in the presence of God, or who better than the very Mother of the Christ, ”

    I believe the only one we should be praying to is God or Jesus…not the mother of Mary. She is not God. Yes she was an important role in history…being Jesus’ mother, but she was just a woman, and we should not pray to anyone but God or Jesus.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for this article it was very interesting.

    In Christ,
    Kim Wright

  • Kim, I think when she says “who better to ask for prayers” she doesn’t mean pray TO but asking for the prayers OF Mary and the saints. If we believe they’re in heaven why not ask them to pray for us before the throne of God? Sounds like the saints in revelation.

  • Prayers TO or FOR the dead makes no difference. The dead know nothing and have no part of what happens on earth.

    Ecclesiastes 9:5 For the living know that they will die,
    but the dead know nothing;
    they have no further reward,
    and even their name is forgotten.
    6 Their love, their hate
    and their jealousy have long since vanished;
    never again will they have a part
    in anything that happens under the sun.

  • Is idolatory something new? Is the Pope a Catholic? Those two questions are as stupid as this article and suggestions are!

  • You are confusing pray with worship. Catholics don’t worship Mary. We ask her, as you would ask another Baptist, to pray for our intention. Yes, we Catholics do love Mary very much because Jesus gave her to us as our heavenly mother when he hung on the cross, and because she played an absolutely indispensable role in the salvation of the world.

  • Johanon- It is true that the dead know nothing and have no part of what happens on earth, but those with everlasting life are not dead.

  • Kim,

    Haven’t you ever lost someone close to you, like your Mom or someone, & one day thought, “I miss you.”?

    Prayer doesn’t always mean worship or honor.

    We can’t use the word “talk” to express when we are trying to communicate our thoughts/feelings with a person whose body is no longer alive because someone might think we are crazy. LOL! So we use the word “pray” because it is the ~closest~ word to express HOW we do it. (Pray to/Talk to)

    You may still say, “Pray only to God.” — But our Spiritual Family isn’t just God & the Faithful people still alive here on Earth, but it is also everyone in Heaven. Would you talk to only ONE member of your family on Earth? — Of course not! — So why do you think that God (Jesus is God. — No separation there. — Talking to Him is talking to God.) would want you to only “talk” to (or pray to as we say) Him and ignore the rest of your Spiritual Family in Heaven?

    WORSHIP only God. — Yes! — But praying to another Soul in Heaven is not always worshiping them.

    And as for praying to Mary…. I can totally get how people misunderstand those prayers and think that we worship her. — But that’s not the case.

    Let me ask you this: is your Mother “just a woman” to you? — No. — Of course she isn’t. — A mother is SO MUCH MORE! — If Mary was more than just another woman to Jesus (which she was because she was hand picked by Him to be His mother) & we are all called to follow Christ & be His Brother/Sister, than aren’t we called to love her as Jesus loved her? — As a mother? And who doesn’t talk to (& honor) their Mother!?

    If she was good enough to be Jesus’s Mom, than she is most certainly good enough to be my Spiritual Mom! 🙂

    God Bless you on your Journey! 🙂

  • Prounouncing our high esteem of Pope Francis as idolatry is premature. Idolatry requires a bit more than a media frenzy and high approval ratings. The more appropriate question, it seems to me, is whether we have reduced the Pope to the starus of a pop icon, thus enabling us to ignore his message while bathing him in glory. And the most pressing question, it seems to me, is whether we progressives are so hostile to liking or following anyone other than ourselves, that we have dismissed a genuine word from God.

  • Interesting that she now comments on a Pope craze might be idolatry. This was never more obvious than during John Paul II and Benedict’s time.

  • As a former Catholic I consider the whole Roman system corrupt and idolatrous. The New Testament is meant to be the determining factor for all faith and practice for Christians, yet Catholicism considers tradition and the teachings of Rome as the higher authority. Along with all the false teaching like Mariology, infant baptism, salvation by works, praying to supposed saints to help you with everything from selling your house to finding your car keys, transubstantiation, venerating the corpses and bones of dead people, an infallible man who can contradict scripture as it’s leader, paying money to have masses said to help get your relatives out of purgatory (a place that’s not in the Bible) to the mass itself which re-sacrifices the Savior even when the Bible said He can’t be sacrificed again and again, to repetitious prayers, to pagan superstitions through in and through out the entire system. I love Catholic people and more importantly they’re loved by Jesus, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a predominately unbiblical system. My prayer for my loved ones and for all Catholics is that they come out the false system and find freedom and peace in Christ alone.

  • @ Elizabeth. I guess you were too young to see the movie “Francis: The talking Mule”.

  • As a former Catholic, raised in a Catholic home and taught by nuns in a Catholic school, I’m properly learned in the Catholic doctrine. Having said that I would like to share in a few words what happened to me when I met Jesus.
    I found myself renewed, and redeemed. It was like I had been in a race all my life, always running away from something I didn’t know what it was and also running towards something I didn’t know what it was, until I got there, and tired and exhausted fell in the arms of Jesus.where I found peace and joy. Now I know that I was running away from all the obstacles like superstition and idolatry, Impediments that were standing between my Lord and I. I only arrived at his feet the day when everything standing between Him and I was removed and I learned that I don’t need anyone’s help to reach Him, He was always there waiting for me.. Amen!

  • Mary is dead.

    She also said while she was alive that she will see him at the resurrection at the end days.

    Mary is still dead becasue the resurrection has not happened yet.

    As for worshiping Mary, scripture says not to bow down to worship any statue, but many people do bow down to saints and Mary. It does not say worship, it explicitly says “bow down.”

  • A good example for contradiction – Catholics criticize idolatry. Statues and other images of God, Jesus, His mother and the cloud of saints are not family pictures or bronzed shoes. They are “graven” images and at least “likeness of any thing that is in heaven” (Ex. 20:4), if the originals of such remembrances are believed to be there. There is no biblical prohibition of photography or art at all but for their possible forms of worship assistants. This is not a game. If the author really accepts the church art forms as heavenly family portraits, what to say about the millions who touch, kiss, pray before, cry, carry around, mention many times more their names than these of God and His Son, and even die for them?
    However, these thoughts, and “ideas” as well, are a good start in the right direction. Let’s hope another millenium or so shall be enough for the truth to be seen entirely.

  • Marcus, the bible is clear, death is not another form of life. Everlasting life is given to believers “at the last day.”

    “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:40.

    Furthermore, the dead do not praise God. Thus, they cannot possibly be in heaven.

    Isaiah 38:18 : “For the dead cannot praise you;”
    they cannot raise their voices in praise.