Pope Francis is diminishing the papacy. Good.

But in some ways, the exaggerated cult of the papacy has roots in the Church itself. The doctrine of papal infallibility as defined by the First Vatican Council was clearly a reaction to the age of revolution. Romantics within the Church wanted to re-invest the papacy with an authority that no politician or political movement could claim. The definition the Council promulgated fell far short of the ultramontanist ideal, and was in fact framed as a brake against novelty. The pope should invoke his infallible authority only when teaching what the Church has always taught and believed.

But faithful Catholics also used this doctrine of infallibility as a kind of security blanket during a long period of theological and doctrinal confusion. They reconciled their conviction that the Church was “indefectible” with the reality of apostasy all around them by clinging to the papal magisterium for stability. Joseph Ratzinger, first as a kind of ghostwriter for John Paul II and then as Benedict XVI, gave that sense of unshakeable solidity to the papacy.

Francis is now something less than a symbol of religion, or the living representative of Catholic faith on earth. He’s not a sign from God for all living in this moment. Through his own loquacity, he’s reduced himself to a stereotype that has become familiar to many Catholics: He’s the old liberal, who is just appalled by the young Huns entering his religious order.